In my three-part series, The Ragnarǫk Cycle I plan having my protagonist and deuteragonist to undergo a character arc. The protagonist, Joseph Norton to put it lightly... is kind of a dick, who thinks only of himself and is an existential nihilist to boot. Throughout the trilogy, Joseph is called out on his flaws multiple times by various different characters (including his younger brother, his commanding officer, the deuteragonist herself and a major villain) and it's eventually revealed via a series of dream sequences/flashbacks that they stem from an abusive childhood, spending his early teenage years living on the streets and being betrayed by former friends.

Unlike most portrayals of nihilism in the ever-expanding realm of fiction, which basically amount to "Oh dear me, the world is so terrible, life sucks, pain, pain, pain!", Joseph's nihilistic views revolve around the belief that his life is meaningless, because he doesn't know what his purpose in life is. Both Joseph and the deuteragonist clash repeatedly due to their conflicting ideologies and differing personalities over the course of the story, but slowly become more respectful and accepting of one another.

I plan on having Joseph to grow and develop in a different way in each instalment, e.g in Surge (the first book), he becomes more selfless. In Soulbound (the second book), he learns how to open his heart to those closest to him and Infinitum (the third and final book) sees Joseph finally abandon his nihilistic worldview.

The deuteragonist is heavily implied to be Jeanne d'Arc (yes, THAT Jeanne d'Arc) and serves as Joesph's conscience by calling him out on his less-than-heroic decisions. Much like Joesph, I plan having different aspects of Jeanne's personality evolve in each book as per her character arc. In Surge, she eventually becomes respecting of Joseph and accepting of his ideals.

In Soulbound its shown that Jeanne uses her faith in God to shield herself from an overwhelming feeling of self-loathing and guilt born from the acts that she committed during the Hundred Year War. A large part of Soulbound revolves Jeanne confronting herself and coming terms with what she did. In Infinitum, it is suggested that Jeanne secretly wants to die due to the fact that she exists within an era that she's unfamiliar and all of her loved ones are dead. The only reasons why she can't commit suicide is that it greatly conflicts with her Catholic beliefs and she has her soul contained within an ancient artifact called a "Divine Tool", rending her immortal.

The only problem is that I have is that I'm unsure how to set these arcs into motion and execute them properly, as I'm afraid that it seem that Joseph and Jeanne stumble into becoming better characters in a very contrived manner. I am uncertaint on how to approach these concepts, and I will be very happy if you can help me out with it.

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  • Kinda unrelated, but Jeanne d'Arc being an inmortal lich is giving me the Madoka vibes, and I like it. – HorriblePerson Jul 6 '18 at 12:01
  • The Ragnarǫk Cycle was actually influenced by Fate/stay night and my Jeanne is an Expy of Artoria Pendragon. – user29299 Jul 6 '18 at 12:19

I'm unsure how to set these arcs into motion and execute them properly

The characters are dichotomies from the start.

Jeanne d'Arc is a warrior for God – except later we learn that her soul has been compromised.

Joseph Norton is a nihilist prick whose life is meaningless – except everyone around him (including the author) is convinced he is better than that and could make something of himself (and apparently he does).

They have character traits that are seemingly in direct conflict, but actually should be seen as two-sides of the same coin. Jeanne is compelled to pursue her faith because her soul is unable to join with god. Joseph is convinced life is meaningless because his meaningful destiny was derailed.

Their internal conflict is on-going because it cannot be easily resolved, rather than exist in a messy world of eternal contradictions they each have decided to affirm "one side of the coin", although each has gone about it differently. Jeanne buries her doubts by being hyper-proactive. She became a super god-warrior to compensate. Joseph has taken the inactive/passive route. If his destiny can be derailed by others he's not going to give them the opportunity, he'll ignore his own purpose. He won't even try.

The dichotomy will be more apparent to others than it is to themselves. Because they come down hard on one side of the coin, they need to willingly ignore evidence to the contrary. When they have self-doubts, they double-down on their world view. This will drive them to situations that are even more extreme, and this is when their coping mechanisms start to fall apart and they are confronted with the otherside of their coin. The buried aspects of their personalities will emerge, albeit uncomfortably. They don't simply "level up" with each experience, in fact when their buried traits emerge they may be the last person to accept it.

Let's look at a powerful dichotic archetype: the Sinner-Priest. He is aware that he has the potential to sin, but not in the casual way that most people commit sins. He knows better. He literally cannot sin now without betraying everything he has learned, and when he lapses he falls fast and hard, exacerbated by a special guilt and shame that an ignorant sinner would never experience. As a result he preaches even harder to his flock about the horrors of sin. He becomes passionate about sin, thinks about it constantly. The real person he is trying to convince is himself. He is pushing the pendulum to one extreme, and when he slips that pendulum will swing even further in the other direction.

A more mundane dichotic archetype is an alcoholic in recovery. They must abstain completely because one drink isn't just a slippery slope, it's a sinkhole that once opened plummets them to an extreme hell they can't easily climb out of. A normal person might go on a weekend binder and feel like crap for a day or two, but for the alcoholic it is wrapped up in their self-identity. They don't just slip, they completely lose control of who they are as a person. Remaining sober and in control becomes paramount to their identity.

There is a classic children's book that is built entirely of dichotic characters: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Not only does the wizard turn out to not be so wonderful (or even a wizard), nearly every character that is encountered is set-up with dichotic traits: a good witch, a cowardly lion, a humbug wizard, an intelligent strawman, and a literally heartless hollow man who is an extreme of passion and caring. The protagonist of course is a hapless 6yo girl from podunk Kansas who becomes their greatest hero. If you read the later books new characters continue in this theme of dichotomies, including a hungry tiger that fantasizes about eating human babies (but doesn't because he'd just want another one), an entire army of girls, a princess who was a boy, etc.

These characters are for children, so their dichotomy is not really a crisis – the obvious moral is never to judge a book by its cover. However, there's a reason these characters endure. They have an inbuilt contradiction that keeps them interesting.

You've set up your characters with these wonderful built-in dichotomies. They have strong reasons to defend their worldview – reasons they are not eager to examine. That means they have this stored-up, potentially explosive energy which they are invested in never releasing. As an author, you'll put conflicts and situations in their path that chip away at their defenses, but walls that can be toppled can also be rebuilt. They are not in therapy. They do not start on a path to becoming whole, and they are actually the last person to admit they have a problem.

You'll treat your character arcs like any other plot device: map a timeline of events, try/fail cycles, and incomplete wins. Also sometimes they lose the fight.