Character Change: The Inner Journey, Part 2 — A Master Outline

We’re looking at the Inner Journey this week (Part 1 here), and today we’re looking at the structure of the character arc over the course of a story.

In general, a story has four Parts with key Points happening between each Part (more on this next week when we get to the outer journey).  The following outline is a description of how change happens, of the kind of “inner journey stuff” that should occur in each Part and at each Point so that the character’s change feels real.  Here we go.



The underlying context of the first half of the transformational arc is Resistance.

“Resistance,” says Dara Marks, is “the building of tension in the first half of the transformational arc that leads to a breakthrough in consciousness at the midpoint of the story.”


“Character change doesn’t happen at the end of the story; it happens at the beginning,” says John Truby. “More precisely, it is made possible at the beginning by how you set it up.”

What kinds of Change elements should you set up?

1. Things Character doesn’t know about the main conflict.

For Ms. Marks, “It’s extremely important to set your character up in some condition of unconsciousness or unknowing.”  “Unknowing helps establish the arc of character because transformational change is, in fact, the act of growing into new consciousness.”

“At first the hero … has Limited Awareness of a problem, and has been getting along using strategies that no longer work very well,” says Christopher Vogler.

“Remember, a conflict is a conflict specifically because the protagonist doesn’t know how to resolve it. The moment he or she figures it out, the problem no longer exists and the story is well on its way to the ending.”

So, “there must be some aspect of the conflict that he or she doesn’t know how to solve or resolve.”  In fact, “all of the plot elements [should] have something to do with what the protagonist doesn’t know.”

2. Things Character doesn’t realize about himself, namely his Flaw, and that it’s hurting him.

“It’s important to identify the system of resistance [the Flaw] that is keeping the protagonist from getting to the goal of resolving the conflict. As always this must be related to the theme,” says Ms. Marks.

Show that Character is living fully in his Flawed identity, says Michael Hauge, with every scene informed by his longing, wound, fear, and flawed identity.  Every aspect of his being should reflect that Character is struggling with needing something that he can’t get because of his flawed approach to life (what Mr. Hauge calls “longing vs. identity”), and at this point in the story, his flawed identity strategy continues to win out.  It is reflected in his thoughts, choices, dialogue and actions.

“It’s fine to use some amount of subtlety” in showing character’s Flaw, “but don’t go too far without making sure that the internal conflict [Flaw] gets clearly spelled out [through action], or the audience may not fully understand what is really at stake,” says Ms. Marks.

One way to spell out the Flaw is to show how Character’s Flawed approach to life is already negatively impacting an important relationship.

Now, Character is generally unaware that his approach to life is Flawed, but there’s often at least one other character who does see the Flaw.  In what Ms. Marks calls a Defining Moment, there’s “Usually a piece of dialogue wherein a character very directly clarifies the exact nature of the protagonist’s fatal flaw.”

3. Character is capable of change.

“The hero must be a thinking person,” says Mr. Truby, “someone who is capable of seeing the truth and knowing right action.”

4. Character is hopeful of success.

Mr. Hauge says there’s often a moment (which he optimizes at about 10% of the story) where Character gets a glimpse of what life would be like living in, what Mr. Hauge calls, his ‘essence,’ that is, living his longing or destiny and free of his Flaw.

“With Increased Awareness the hero … begins to realize change is urgently needed but still doesn’t know what to do about it,” says Mr. Vogler.  He may seek “out a source of wisdom and inner strength, Overcoming Fear.”

5. But Character is very resistant to change.

As Brian McDonald says, “There is more than likely something about yourself that you would like to change or that you should change but it is too difficult. I don’t know why the world works this way, but the things we should do are always the most difficult. So we rarely run toward change. This is true of your characters as well.”

“Fear and Resistance to Change are the natural reactions to facing the unknown; the hero may be momentarily paralyzed or in denial. Good intentions may be undermined by doubt,” says Mr. Vogler.

For Mr. Hauge, even though Character can see what it might be like if he relinquished his fear (if his fear was unfounded, which it is) and he went after his longing, he doesn’t pursue or accept it because he’s too afraid of the pain of reliving or reopening a wound.  He just wants to remain protected by his identity.

So from here until the midpoint, Character will try every flawed-perspective idea he can think of to solve the conflict, but each idea will fail.  It is the running-out-of-old-ideas, at the midpoint, that sets up the change-or-fail-forever moment.


This is “the first glimmer of self-realization for the protagonist, but it is usually unwelcome because it reflects the fatal flaw of character,” says Ms. Marks. “Therefore, the protagonist will often react with anger, resentment, rejection, and denial toward this awakening ray of consciousness that has just been forced upon him or her.”

For Mr. Hauge, this is the moment where Character starts to pursue something that will prime him to overcome his fears, allowing him to let go of his flawed approach to life.

Mr. Vogler agrees:  “Encouraged or forced by circumstances, the hero crosses an inner Threshold by Committing to Change.”


1. Character is stubborn.

“There must be a willfulness about the protagonist at the beginning of the second act that is keeping him or her in resistance to achieving either the internal or external goals–if nothing else changes,” says Ms. Marks.  “Denial tends to reign supreme.”

As Mr. Hauge sees it, Character has one foot in essence, he’s taking some risks, moving toward his goal, but he’s also still got a foot in identity, because he’s taking his flawed approach to life with him; he’s still talking and thinking and behaving his Flaw.

Mr. Vogler puts it a bit cryptically:  “Now in a deeper place the hero learns the ropes of an Inner Special World, Experimenting with new Conditions, testing his powers and learning who are his inner Allies and Enemies.”  “Hero is inwardly Preparing for Major Change by exploring feelings more deeply and building up resolve to face something difficult and scary.”

2. Character feels like he’s in his own personal hell.

“The second act is a kind of ritual pain that changes your character,” says Mr. McDonald.  “Because change is never easy, and is resisted, it is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change. Make it as painful as you can. Bring them to the brink of physical or emotional death if you possibly can.  Your protagonist’s will be measured by the size of their struggle, so don’t pull any punches.”

3. Dealing with the Conflict by way of his Flaw pushes Character to mental exhaustion.

“Transformational change is, in fact, a process that demands exhaustion,” says Ms. Marks. “No conflict can go on forever unabated; it requires too much energy.” But “it isn’t until a [protagonist] gets so tired and worn out from holding on to or fighting for what is outmoded and unnecessary that” “the ego strength of the protagonist will begin to break down. This is part of the essential function of exhaustion:” “When the protagonist is stressed to the breaking point, a shift occurs that allows something new to enter the picture.”


“An old idea of the self dies under extreme pressure,” says Mr. Vogler.  “Illusions are shattered, but from the tumult and destruction a new concept of self is born.”

“The moment of enlightenment is the point in the story where the truth regarding the fatal flaw of character is revealed and causes a profound shift in the way the protagonist sees him- or herself and others,” says Ms. Marks. “This new self-awareness, or enlightenment, comes about because the protagonist has begun to see how his or her own behavior (fatal flaw) impacts resolving the conflict. Since the fatal flaw of character comes directly out of the writer’s thematic point of view, it is that thematic content that is specifically expressed at the midpoint. This is the truth that the protagonist begins to understand.”

“The moment of enlightenment also moves the protagonist out of resistance to transformational change and begins a process that will help guide him or her to resolving the internal and external conflict,” says Ms. Marks, “even if it’s not the original resolution [he had] in mind.”

In other words, whether Character knows it or not there’s a reward that awaits him, and there will be no turning back without the reward, says Mr. Hauge, no matter what he has to give up to get it.

For Mr. Truby, “the moment of revelation should have these qualities:

  • It should be sudden, so that it has maximum dramatic force for the hero and the audience.
  • It should create a burst of emotion for the audience as they share the realization with the hero.
  • It should be new information for the hero: he must see, for the first time, that he has been living a lie about himself and that he has hurt others.”


The underlying context of the second half of the transformational arc is Release.

“Release,” says Ms. Marks, is “the break in the tension at the midpoint of the transformational arc caused by a breakthrough to new consciousness. This release of tension in the second half of the arc propels the story toward resolution.”


1. Character is Committed.

Once the character passes the point of no return, they fully commit to living in their essence, they open up and risk change, says Mr. Hauge.

The moment of enlightenment “should trigger the hero to take new moral action immediately, proving that the revelation is real and has profoundly changed him,” says Mr. Truby.

2. Character often experiences a period of Grace.

“Once enlightenment has entered the protagonist’s consciousness at the midpoint in the form of a new idea, new understanding, or new perspective on the problems or issues of the past, he or she will be inspired and motivated to face what lies ahead with renewed vigor, strengths, and resolve,” says Ms. Marks. “The period of grace is not an exact point in a story, but a nonspecific period of time in which the protagonist tends to thrive instead of strive.”

“Hero is inwardly Accepting Consequences of New Life, perhaps enjoying a feeling of love or connectedness, or realizing the consequences of the inner change he has just made,” says Mr. Vogler.

“In a heroic story, the most important use of the grace period is to show us the protagonist’s potential of whether he or she can ever achieve the internal and external goals,” says Ms. Marks.  “But more importantly, this is the moment in the story when you want to explore what is shifting inside the protagonist that will lead him or her to transformational change.”

3. But then Character feels challenged again.

“In reality, the midpoint is only the gateway to transformation,” says Ms. Marks.  “Just recognizing the problem is not enough to” fix it.  True change “demands action–continuous, consistent action–especially when the going gets tough.”

At this point in the story, “The protagonist is pulled back into the central conflict by unresolved issues that demand attention,” says Ms. Marks.  “There are still unresolved complications that will eventually cause a great undoing. Therefore, what follows the grace period is some sort of a Fall that sets relationships, ambitions, aspirations, and achievement, into a decline or even a tailspin.”

Hero is still fully committed to his essence, to his new way of approaching life, but the fear is growing, says Mr. Hauge.

James Scott Bell suggests you have your character’s own words come back to haunt him.  “If you can repeat a motif, or have the character somehow come face to face with this ‘earlier self,’ the reader will see the pressure to change powerfully conveyed.”


“All characters of change have, at least, an emotional death that allows them to be resurrected anew,” says Mr. McDonald.

“Transformational change is, in fact, the death of an old system of survival (the fatal flaw) and the birth of a new one,” says Ms. Marks.  “Therefore, it’s extremely important that the protagonist has what I refer to as a Death Experience, one that challenges him or her to let go of what is obsolete and surrender to the part of his or her nature that is struggling to be born.”

1. Character feels his most devastating setback yet.

“As much as possible the protagonist must be forced to face the worst thing that can happen,” says Ms. Marks, “a situation that will bring about his or her undoing.”  “By worst thing, I’m not referring to the biggest external disaster imaginable… in terms of the transformational arc the worst thing must always relate directly to the internal struggle of the protagonist.”

“The hero inevitably is tested on the inner plane with a New Challenge requiring Re-Dedication,” says Mr. Vogler.  “The world may refuse to accept the hero’s new status and try to drive him back to his old condition.”

2. All is lost.

“The stronger the death experience, the more the protagonist will feel as if all is lost,” says Ms. Marks, “especially all the gifts that came with the internal shift of consciousness at the midpoint.”

“Thematically, it’s always a good thing when a hero is stripped of his attachments,” says Mr. Hauge.  “It means that all of his emotional protection is gone, and he must find the courage to live his truth in order to prevail, get what he wants and complete his arc.”


As Ms. Marks says, “Ironically, the terrible experiences of death, sacrifice, and descent are the toll that must be paid to gain entry to the land of Renewal: the place where new life begins.”

1. Character experiences descent.

The death experience “pushes him into a period of descent from which there is no guarantee of recovery,” says Ms. Marks. “It is generally a time of pain, disappointment, and unhappiness that reveals to the protagonist what life will be like if he or she refuses to change and grow.”

“This is the place in a story where the protagonist will be pushed to surrender those aspects of him- or herself that don’t work anymore,” says Ms. Marks. “But a surrender of this type seldom comes easily or without a fight. This is why the period of descent that follows the second turning point tends to reengage some of the most negative traits that the protagonist has been trying to overcome.”  In other words…

2. Character tries to reclaim his Flaw, but is unsuccessful.

Hero experiences inner temptations and backsliding into old patterns of behavior, or there may be new, unexpected challenges to the hero’s intention to change,” says Mr. Vogler.

Hero gets so frightened by this latest failure, says Mr. Hauge, that he retreats one last time back into the “safety” of his Flawed identity… but his old self isn’t really there anymore.

“The setback that protagonists experience at the second turning point will often feel like a validation of their old way of perceiving things,” says Ms. Marks, but “throughout all of the loss and devastation the protagonist encounters at the second turning point, one thing that can never be taken away is the enlightenment or new consciousness that was gained at the midpoint.”

Character’s had a taste of who he really is, without the flaw, and of what he really wants, and he has to go after who he really is and pursue his destiny, says Mr. Hauge.  Character doesn’t care what it takes.  He will do it, or die trying.  His identity is already dead; he can do this.

3. Character chooses to change.

“Transformation is always a conscious choice,” says Ms. Marks. “For the transformational arc to be complete, the protagonist must make a conscious decision to change (internally)… it is this internal moment of decision that marks the true transformation of the character.”

“The protagonist doesn’t have to end up perfect, or do everything right. In fact, the story will be richer if the protagonist is [still] not perfect,” says Stanley D. Williams. “But the protagonist does have to change either by making some progress toward the controlling virtue (in a good-feeling [story]), or slip backward toward the controlling vice (in a bad-feeling [story]).”

“We must see some action that demonstrates the change, shows that it has truly taken effect,” says Mr. Bell.

Mr. Vogler agrees:  “The physical transformation or Resurrection of the hero is the outward expression of the hero’s Lasting Commitment to Change.”

Generally, this comes in the form of Character’s “conscious decision to take action toward achieving the goal of the plot,” says Ms. Marks.

4. Character makes a sacrifice.

“There may be Last Minute Dangers waiting to turn the inner story into a tragedy,” says Mr. Vogler.

There’s often “a metaphorical sacrifice that must be made by the protagonist,” says Ms. Marks. “It indicates that transformational change is not free for the taking, but that it must be earned through great commitment and the willingness to give up or let go of the parts of ourselves that no longer serve the internal quest for wholeness.”

5. Character is now capable of resolving the Conflict.

“The hero usually overcomes the physical problems and makes progress on the emotional ones,” says Mr. Vogler.

“Only by learning to live by whatever principles or morality your theme espouses does your hero earn the right to achieve his outer motivation,” says Mr. Hauge. “The outer motivation becomes his reward for finding the courage to overcome his inner conflict, to change and grow, and to do what is right.”

6. Finally, Character’s life is looking up.

The “warring opposite sides of [Hero’s] personality are brought into harmony and balance,” says Mr. Vogler.

For Mr. Hauge, this is where we get a glimpse of the new life Character will live having fully realized who he really is.


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Well, that’s it for me. What about you?  What are your favorite ways to develop the inner journey?  Tell us in the comments!

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We’ll look at the inner journey of the main character in Lisa Unger’s Crazy Love You.  See you then!

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