Monday, June 7, 2021

Character Arcs


Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. Today I'd like to talk about Character Arcs. Let's start off with a few comments about what a  Character Arc is so we're all on the same page.

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.


  1. Scarlett O'Hara. Gained whole world, lost soul.
    Frodo. Discovered what capable of.
    Sam. See above.
    Moses. "Not me Lord, send Aaron." See above.
    The Apostle Peter. Sniveling coward goes out to change his world.
    Jack on "Lost." To hell and back.
    Angel in "Redeeming Love." About as transformative as it gets.
    Winnie, this is good stuff. I'm okay with the heroine in my WIP, but the guy could use some shoring up. I may use some of these.
    It is hot here and I am juggling several plates -- in the heat. May be back later.
    Kathy Bailey

    1. Oh wow Kaybee, you came up with quite a few great ones. And good luck with your hero - a romance story especially is only deepened if you can give both protagonists a recognizable arc

  2. I love the redemptive arc of Edmund in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So selfish and spoiled, he is such a perfect picture of what all of us are without Christ and his change gives us all hope. It's no wonder that CS Lewis is such a classic.

    Thanks for a succinct, informative post. They are so helpful!

    1. Yes! I love Edmund's arc, too!

    2. Hi Glynis. And yes, Edmond is a fabulous example of a dramatic positive arc. And (spoiler alert!) If you've read the whole series, Susan is a heartbreaking example of a negative arc

  3. Great post and much to think about with my writing.

    In the Great Gatsby, I think all the principal characters are static characters. Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, don't change at all. But the narrator, Nick Carraway, does go through a change I think. In the end he can see all these people for who they really are and he is able to move forward himself.

    1. Hello Sandy. I'll have to admit I've never read the Great Gatsby or seen the movie, but from all I've heard about it I'd guess you're right on the money

  4. Great post, Winnie. The character arc is so important, IMHO. At the end of the story the protagonist is a new person, and even if she goes back to her ordinary world from the beginning of the story, she's not the same...because she's changed or grown or found a new awareness of her strengths and abilities. All of which you said so well!


    I like KB's examples. Angel in REDEEMING LOVE gets my vote. Peter too! :)

    1. Thanks Debby! And you're so right about the importance of the arc. It's one of the things I like to focus on as I plot my stories

  5. Great post, Winnie! (I think I say that about all of your posts!)

    I've been studying characters arcs this year, so this post is perfect to add to what I've been learning. It's amazing to me how many varieties of arcs there are, and how many nuances are in those varieties.

    A good example is the difference between a positive arc and a transformative arc - as you pointed out, the transformative arc takes the character's development to a deeper level.

    I think the transformative arc can also be negative, as in the case of Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings. His descent into darkness is something spectacular - and not a little disturbing.

    The static arc, or the flat arc as one of my books calls it, is an interesting arc to write. That's my sleuth in the cozy mystery I'm writing. She changes very little, but her actions are the instrument of change in the villain's negative arc.

    Using character arcs as I write has changed the way I write and develop my characters. They're one of the things that makes writing a fun and challenging endeavor.

    Thanks for the inspiring post this morning!

    1. Thanks Jan. And that's a good point about transformative ars also having a negative version. I hadn't considered that. But it would apply to many of your comic book villains as well. I'll have to add that to my notes if I ever use this post again

  6. What an informative post! This would make such a great seminar or writing conference class!

    I've been experimenting with drawing out a character arc over a three book series for the first time in my career. The hero and heroine stay the same through the three books, and their romance is spun out as well as some of their challenges and issues. It's a different pace, to me sure!

    1. Thanks Erica! And that sounds like an intriguing approach to the character arc - I'll have to check it out

  7. What a great post, it was really interesting reading about characters arcs!

  8. Hi Winnie:

    My first thought is of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. While this may seem to be a stretch in fiction, it can happen when a person is almost killed in a traffic accident. "Is the rat race worth the cheese?" This can cause a 'stop and smell the roses' moment.

    I don't like the 'arc' analogy all that much. It's as if you go along a road as you are, you hit an obstacle, you jump over the obstacle or divert around it, and you are either changed for the better, changed for the worse or you're the same as you were before you faced the obstacle.

    I prefer the image of a journey where you can veer off to the left or right at any time or you can hoe a strait line. We are always changing and the 'arc' can be created from any point on the line to any other point. It's not static.

    You might say that movement to the right is positive and to the left is negative. Also, like a Mars shot, small changes at the early stages can make a big difference by journey's end. However, at the near end any changes may have to be huge and dramatic.

    This somewhat meandering analogy allows wobbling within a given general heading. I think this is more like real life.

    One of my favorite 'arc's involves two characters in "The Lawman's Second Chance".

    The hero is a widower with small children who have lost their mother to breast cancer. The heroine has breast cancer and experienced her husband abandoning her because he could not face up to her condition.

    The heroine is deeply hurt and unlikely to ever trust a man again. The hero does not want to lose a second wife to the same disease and even if he was willing, he does not want to have his children lose another mother to the same disease.

    This situation is going to require a lot of small mid-course corrections. Besides is this really an example of growth and not just an acceptance of risk in the hope of better outcomes? Is taking a risk always growth?

    Also, did the hero and heroine really change or did they just realize who they really are deep down inside? What would you say if it was recognized at the start that the heroine has a 95% chance of dying within the next year?

    When does positive growth become foolhardy? It just seems to me that there is more to this than jumping over obstacles and coming out either positive or negative. Sometimes we can't know for sure until the last page and the journey ends.

    In any event, all this is just to provide a second way of looking at the same situations.


    1. Hi Vince, thanks for sharing your perspective. I'd caution you not to get to hung up on the word arc - it's just meant to indicate a change in your character from who they were at the beginning of the story to who they are at the end - the journey is the steps they took to get them there. My feeling is that the term arc is used to mimic what has been called the narrative arc (something I'll touch on in a later post).

      It also is not intended to suggest that the character didn't undergo any changes either before the story takes place or after it ends, it just refers to their change within the confines of the story.

      Hope that helps!

    2. Vince, thank you for the shout out. I love that story, too... It's so dear to my heart.

      And Winnie you're right, the term arc is just a term... and it works for a lot of authors, the imagery of going up, climbing the mountain, crossing the Rubicon, and finding some sense of peace/happiness/wholeness.

      This is a conference class in a post. Brat. IT'S SO MUCH EASIER TO FOLLOW CONNEALY!!!! :)

      Enjoy your Tuesday!

    3. Hi Winnie:

      Yes, what you said is very helpful and I look forward to your upcoming post on the narrative arc.

  9. Winnie, this is exactly what I needed today as I struggle to figure out my hero. Yep, I'm printing this off and breaking out the highlighters. Believe me when I say this is truly an answer to prayer.

    1. Hi Mindy. So glad you found this helpful. Good luck with figuring out your hero, they can be very stubborn :)

  10. such a great post, Winnie! Lots of valuable tips here :)

  11. So well done! BRAT!

    You made it sound so clear and concise even I could follow it, Winnie!!!!

  12. This is excellent. I think I know this stuff but I don't put it into words well. Love this blog post.

  13. What came to my mind is the villain in Tried and True. He had a negative arc. He went from being a weasel and a thief to being a killer on the verge of becoming a serial killer. I enjoyed making him take each step, finding out he liked killing an animal. Then a hunger to kill a person. Negative arc. Often villains take this negative journey.

    1. Oh yes, taking them on a journey where they change by small increments makes for a more believable arc and a page turning read - something you do well!

  14. I just read Chasing Shadows by Lynn Austin and watching Ans, Minnie, and Lena grow was so amazing. Thank you for sharing. Blessings

    1. Hi Lucy. You're quite welcome. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that story but you've piqued my interest to check it out.

  15. From one Winnie to another Winnie: What a fantastic post! I learned so much about different character arcs and found it very fascinating. I'm a reader, not a writer, but I'm going to start noticing these types of arcs in my reading. Thanks so much!

    Winnie T.

  16. Hi Winnie! You're quite welcome - glad you enjoyed the post.


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