I like to think of a character arc as the evolution of a story character from the person they are at the beginning of the story to who they become by the end of the story. It involves an internal journey that forces them to face obstacles, learn, change and evolve/devolve along the way. This journey can lead to a positive change, a negative change or it can even be, under specific circumstances, a flat line indicating little to no change. And these changes have to do with the internal core of a character rather than his physical make-up.
There are several Types of Character Arcs. Here are four of them.
The Positive Arc:
As the name implies, this is an arc where the hero moves from a state of negative outlook to one where they develop a more positive worldview, where they bought into some BIG LIE based on something in their backstory to a state where they can recognize the Lie for what it is and move past it.
For example, Think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. At the beginning of the movie Dorothy is unhappy and wishes to be somewhere else. She believes that if she could find a new place to live (over the rainbow) that her problems would all go away- in other words she is looking for an external solution to an internal problem. Throughout the movie she faces a number of trials and challenges, each making her stronger by small increments and by the end of the movie she has grown to the point that she realizes the secret to happiness was inside her all the time and that she can find happiness wherever she is. And of course she also realizes “there’s no place like home”. Another classic example would be Ebenezer Scrooge who moves from being a parsimonious, uncaring grouch to a man full of good will and charitableness.
The Transformative Arc:
This is a special version of the positive Arc. It’s usually much more dramatic for one thing. Where in a normal positive arc the character grows and overcomes something that has been holding them back, they aren't completely changed – they are, in effect, a better version of themselves. On the other hand, in a transformative arc, the character starts out as an average person, or even an underdog or wallflower of some type, and ends with them as a bigger-than-life hero or savior. This type of arc can most often be found in fantasy or adventure
Examples of this would be Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and Mulan
The Negative Arc:
This is, of course, the opposite of the Positive Arc. This would be where the character’s story journey moves them from their current state into something less – morally, mentally, or in some other manner.
A classic example of this is the character of Michael Corleone from The Godfather. At the beginning of the story, Michael is an idealistic young man, an army veteran who married for love. He wants absolutely nothing to do with the “family business”. But the choices he makes over the course of his story move him slowly but surely down a dark path until by the end he is the power-hungry, bloodthirsty head of a crime family.
The Static Arc:
This is in effect no arc at all for your character. He is fundamentally the same at the end of the story as he was at the opening. This character usually has a deep sense of who he is, both strengths and flaws, and has strongly held personal values and beliefs. The actions and conflicts of the story don’t impinge on those . While he will face and need to overcome many external obstacles he won't undergo an internal change. In effect, rather than the character himself changing, he is the instrument of change to the world around him. This works in stories that are more about the plot than the character such as some classic whodunnits, and action/thrillers. Examples would be Sherlock Holmes (the original), Miss Marple and Jack Sparrow.
So now that we know what a character arc is and some of the most common types, let’s discuss some tips for creating character arcs that keep the readers engaged.
- With few exceptions a character should never change all at once. Your change should be the result of numerous small changes over the course of your story.
- These small changes shouldn’t go smoothly in one direction. Sprinkle in a few setbacks and hiccups along the way for a better sense of realism.
- Don’t tell your reader that the character is changing. It will resonate more deeply if you show the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways the character is changing in reaction to what’s happening to and around them.
- Establish clearly at the outset of your story what lie, the false belief, your character is holding tightly to. And then gradually over the course of your story challenge that lie. For example, in Romancing The Stone, Joan Wilder believes she is not as daring and desirable as the heroines she writes about. We don’t have to be told this, within the first ten minutes we see it in a dozen little ways – in the way she dresses, talks, lives and carries herself. But she immediately has to face obstacles-physical, emotional, romantic, moral - that challenge this belief, and these obstacles only escalate throughout the story. By the end of the story we fully buy that she has grown into someone who let go of that lie and emerged as a woman who can face whatever life throws at her.
- Your character shouldn’t just grow to the point where she can recognize her flaws and weaknesses. She should also be able to overcome them because of what she has learned over the course of the story. And she can only learn these kind of lessons if she played an active part in overcoming the obstacles put in her way, not because she simply realizes she has to change..
In the end, keep in mind that a person doesn’t change without a good reason. To make the character arc believable you must put your character through the wringer, make her face her biggest fears, have her bump up against meaningful, painful problems that she can’t avoid or work around. Do this and you’ll have a story that your reader will remember for a long time to come.
Tell me about a character arc that you think was particularly well done - whether it's from a book, movie or television show - and why you found it so memorable. I'm going to give at least one commenter their choice of any book from my backlist.