Inspiration For Your Story Arc

How many writers have sat at their keyboard, or at a desk with a pad of paper, pen in hand, trying to figure out the story arc for their protagonist? For some of us it’s an easy task, for others it’s a brain cramping event.

Yet, we need look no further than our own lives for inspiration. With a little creativity and imagination, you can turn your own life’s journey, or even that of friends and relatives, into your characters’ journeys. When you find yourself struggling to write, turn to real life and real stories to get your character on course. The most engaging fantasy can be based on reality.

I have friends whose parents, at great personal risk, helped people escape the Holocaust. They did this because they value human life. This type of courage and selflessness in the face of great evil is true heroism.

My own uncle spent three and half years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WW2. No one knew if he was alive or dead. When he returned home, he simply picked up his old life and went out to find a job. He rarely spoke of his experience in the camp…until shortly before his death. What he shared was horrifying. Yet, his life was a testament to the will of a man to survive and thrive.

I have had friends who have run away from arranged marriages – or left their country of origin, where they suffered religious persecution – with only the clothes on their backs. Often we must adjust to life’s unfortunate situations. Choice becomes the deciding factor in how our destiny unfolds.

My own parents’ journey was less fraught with danger. They left Scotland for Canada at age 22 and 23 respectively, with a child and $32 dollars in their pocket, landing in Francophone Quebec. They spoke no French. My father was a cabinet maker/joiner by trade, who had been a drummer in pipe bands. He eventually discovered Jazz and became a highly respected jazz drummer and one of the most sought-after teachers in the world. Here, simply having the courage to leave everything you know for the promise of a better life in another country is a gentler, but no less exciting adventure.

Everyone has a story that can be told. Begin with the merest outline of a life – maybe yours, maybe another’s quick, narrative sketch of a life lived. For example:

You’re born helpless and, hopefully, loved. You’re fed and cleaned. You grow, learn to walk, eat, read and take care of yourself. You go to school and face students and teachers who may or may not like you. Maybe you’re shy, introverted. You draw all day, maybe write music or stories. Perhaps you’re loud to overcompensate for your fears. Perhaps you do poorly in grade school because you’re bored and always daydream. Maybe you excel at physical activity and find friendship in team sports. Maybe you get into fights? Maybe your greatest fear is asking a girl out and having her say no.

You fail at things. You succeed at things. You lose people to cancer and old age. You break bones in a skiing accident. You get a scar on your leg by climbing a fence and scraping your calf on the top of the fence’s twisted wire. You get a tooth knocked out tobogganing. You’re the football star at school. Your father beats you. Your mother coddles you. Your siblings hate you. Everyone makes fun of you.

You finish school and go on to college or university. You stumble, change courses, slowly learn about yourself. You fall in love, you fall out of love; you have your heart broken. You travel; learn about new cultures and religions. You learn to speak more than one language. You move to a foreign country – you think it’s a fresh start. You fall in love, and out of love and find yourself repeating your mistakes over and over again. You make lots of money…or you’re unable to make any money. You marry, have kids; buy a house and change your professional course to support your family. You discover peace and happiness…or you live in turmoil. Your parents die. You feel alone.

You look in the mirror and now you have become your parents. Youth is behind you. Every day becomes precious and more allusive. You realize your greatest adventure is simply living each day as it comes. You charge forward…

Any of the life moments above, with just a little imagination, could be crafted into a character’s journey. As a story teller, you borrow elements and adjust them to fit your account, your fictional narrative. (The very fact that you can follow an “arc” means those events are no longer random and disorganized but have already been organized into a “story” of sorts). Real life story arcs can easily become inspiration for your character and its journey. Tolkien was well aware of this and used his life experiences from childhood, World War 1 and so forth, to craft his characters, arcs, and the world in which they roam.


Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel now on sale: