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Character Arcs (A Complete Guide)

Keeping character arc in mind is one of the most important things you can do in writing and filmmaking because it’s directly related to creating a satisfying resolution for your reader or viewer. The process of change in the main character, especially a protagonist – embodied in the character arc – is a crucial part of resolving the central problem the hero faces at the beginning.

Therefore, as you construct the plot for your work or film, you must concurrently figure out the character arcs within it. This is true whether you plot or “panster” the work (i.e., make up the plot as you go along).

It’s the only way to ensure that you will end with believable characters in your story. Your character arc needs to be tightly bound to your overall story structure and the emotional state of your characters as you progress through the story.

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Let’s dive in and find out how character arcs work, why they’re important, and how you can use them in your writing and storytelling.

What Is a Character Arc?

First, we need to define what exactly a character arc is.

In short, a character arc is the process of change a character goes through over the course of a story. You’ll sometimes see it referred to as a ‘change arc.’ Although it usually applies to principal characters, sometimes a minor character will have an internal arc also.

It’s a thematic journey toward understanding a particular truth about himself and the world – one that ultimately allows him to solve his central problem. Importantly, it’s something that happens over time. It’s an inner journey involving the internal conflict of a character.

It differs from a narrative arc, which is the sweep of the whole story.

You can think of it this way:

A character arc is a transformation a character undergoes from their initial state (their entry into the story world) to their final state (their exit from the story world).

This change must be significant (though it may be subtle) and expressed through your writing style in a way that allows the reader to grasp it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re narrating the character in the third person or closely intertwined with the character’s reality, as may be the case in first-person narration.

A character arc doesn’t have to be limited to your protagonist (hero), either. In fact, you’ll almost certainly need one for your antagonist (antagonist) as well, and sometimes for secondary characters.

The change that takes place in a character is primarily internal. However, it’s influenced by and expressed in the external plot.

Change Can Be Good or Bad

It’s important to note that your hero doesn’t necessarily have to change for the better. It’s entirely possible – and even desirable – for the protagonist to slip into cowardice, evil, or other negative behavior.

Hollywood endings don’t always make for the most satisfying closings to a book or movie. Especially since these days, in the age of Netflix binge-watching and self-published fiction series, people expect something new to happen to their favorite characters in the next episode of the series.

For example, a great structure for your story can be that the person we thought was the hero turns out to be the traitor, while the one we thought was the evil influence actually turns out to be the one who defeats the demons within and saves the day…

Because that would be a real surprise.

That’s the power of character arcs.

And it’s also why thinking about character arcs can help you keep your writing fresh and interesting.

Examples of the Types of Changes You Can Make in Character Arcs

Some changes you might see in a character arc are:

  • A change in a character’s personality.
  • A change that occurs in a character’s behavior.
  • A change in circumstances that causes a character to grow.
  • A change from good to evil.
  • A change in goal from one extreme to another (e.g., a character no longer wants to be a doctor, but a thief).
  • A change from ignorance to wisdom.
  • The protagonist learns something about himself during the story.
  • A change in identity from an anonymous nobody to a famous somebody.
  • A change from being weak to being strong.
  • A change in lifestyle from one extreme to another.
  • A change in relationship to another character or characters.
  • A change in values and beliefs.
  • A revelation about a part of himself that his character had repressed.
  • A betrayal of a friend or loved one.
  • A change from one role to another (e.g., from worker to rebel).

And many more!

Character Arc vs. Character Development

At this point, you may be wondering how a Character Arc differs from “character development.”

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, for my money a character arc describes the complete process of changing a character. Character development, on the other hand, can be isolated to a specific point in a story.

Character development also addresses the details of a character’s change, while the arc represents the totality of the change. When looking at the character arc, you step back to get the big picture; whereas with character development, you get into the gritty details!

The character arc is about why a character changed overall over the course of the story, while character development is about how the character changes over the course of the story and what changes in the process.

You can examine where a character “stands” emotionally/psychologically in the middle of your book or movie (which, by the way, movies and books often fail at) in terms of character development – but the arc, the character’s overall journey, hasn’t yet manifested.

So Why Call It an Arc at All?

An arc implies a curve and an overall change, not just specific moments here and there.

To be honest, I’ve struggled to find an answer as to who first coined the term and what the exact etymology is.

However, we can learn from the individual etymologies of the terms. The ancient Greeks spoke of “character” to mean a defining quality or individual trait. In the 1640s (shortly after Shakespeare), the English thought of character as “the sum of the qualities that define one person or thing and distinguish it from another” (personally, I think this is a great way to think about character definition and development).

‘Arc’ on the other hand is related to the sun or an arc. The word seems to have ancient roots. The Latin arcus means bow or arc. The main idea is that of a curve, not a straight line. Which again I find useful: it suggests continuous, non-linear change – something I think is very true in human experience.

The idea of “trajectory” applies here, too. If you think about the way an airplane takes off and rises into the sky, or a ball falls a long distance to the earth, it’s usually not a straight line. In these cases, gravity is causing the change and consuming the energy.

The question for you is – which ‘gravity’ is working on your character(s)?!

Different Types of Character Arcs

The different types of character arcs can be divided into three main types:

Positive Change Arc

As you might expect, a positive character arc sees the character grow for the better. In wisdom, strength, resourcefulness, etc.

A classic structure on which such character arcs are built is the hero’s journey: A sometimes reluctant individual is called to action and must go through a series of trials before finally triumphing against all odds and returning home a victor – with a character made much stronger by all the trials he’s endured.

It’s the nature of the Hero’s Journey structure that ensures a strong character arc emerges, almost organically. After all, the story would be boring if only the external world was involved.

The hero may be reasonably happy at the beginning, but something is missing internally. It’s the inner growth that counts. That is why a positive arc is sometimes called a ‘growth arc.’

Flat Arc

You might think that a flat story arc involves no change. Nothing could be further from the truth. A flat character arc is one where the character has to venture outside of his comfort zone to defeat the enemy. The character is stretched back and forth throughout the story.

Negative Change Arc

A negative character arc marks a drop in the character’s internal value. They move to the dark side, with negative traits and qualities growing and becoming more apparent. Sometimes it’s the triumph and the fall for your character; a reason why a negative arc is sometimes termed a ‘fall arc.’

How Do You Structure and Write a Compelling Character Arc?

One of the most important decisions is where your character should start in your story. What’s the “starting point?” What’s the setup?

Consider the following:

  • The protagonist is a woman who’s been in prison for a long time and is now being released into the world.
  • The protagonist is an ex-convict who wants to get out of his life of crime.
  • The protagonist has a daughter who’s being raised by her mother.
  • The protagonist’s father was killed when he was young, and he now faces the situation of having to kill someone else.
  • The protagonist was abused as a child and embarks on a journey of revenge.
  • The protagonist had a difficult childhood and decides to deal with it by helping others in the same situation.

Then consider what the fundamental change in the character will be as a result of the experience, i.e., the story you put him through. This will give you the starting and ending point of your story arc.

The next important point to think about is the “Aha Moment” in your story – the point at which the character faces the most important challenge and either succeeds or fails, but changes internally as a result, either sooner or later.

The third most important story point to consider viz your protagonist’s character arc is the inciting incident: the thing that happens to summon your hero on his journey.

Hitchcock and Character Arcs

The famous film director Alfred Hitchcock used to put an innocent character in an extreme or bizarre situation that fundamentally challenged them.

The experiences the character(s) go through inexorably change them, for better or worse.

The struggle the characters go through reveals their character. It also reveals what’s changing inside the character!

Character Flaw Relates to the Character Arc

A very powerful storytelling technique is to look at the character’s “flaw.” This isn’t a physical defect (although it could be that too), but rather a significant misconception that affects their ability to solve an important challenge your story throws their way.

Only when the character confronts and overcomes the mistaken belief can they move forward.

Therefore, the flaw and the state after the flaw can be the beginning and endpoints of your character arc.

Sometimes the flaw serves as a point of attraction for the challenge the character must face! In this sense, the challenge is the inevitable result of the flaw and is almost designed to help the character overcome it.

The plot serves as a vehicle, a means to change the character.

Maslow and Character Arcs

Something to think about as well: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the famous pyramid in which basic physiological needs are at the bottom and the highest level of self-actualization is at the top, can serve as a very useful reference point for the character arc.

A positive arc could move the character up the pyramid, a negative arc could move them down.

What Makes a Good Character Arc?

A good character arc is one that draws the reader into the story. We care about the character because we identify with them in some way. Even if it’s an antagonist.

The stakes have to be set well enough at the beginning of your story to make us care about the journey your character is about to go on. That journey is external and internal.

A good character arc shows the change – the arc – not tells it. We don’t have to let the character think about how they’ve changed; we observe it through the character’s actions and thoughts.

Examples of Memorable Character Arcs

Some great examples of character arcs are

The King’s Speech

A great character arc saw Bertie rise from an introverted, shy, stammering man to crowned king.

Robert De Niro’s role as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980).

It’s a really interesting case because the very thing that ensures his success in boxing – his temper and his violence – simultaneously ensures his downfall in the world outside the boxing ring.

Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

For my money, he’s basically a flat character arc. Although he becomes more edgy and unpredictable at various points in the series, his basic character doesn’t change.

Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)

A positive arc. Life on the road allows Sal to grow into a happy and stable future with Laura. More importantly, he makes great progress in understanding his place in the world. It’s a lovely example of character growth, all the more amazing for the fact that Kerouac wrote the novel so quickly.

Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1958)

A negative arc. Humbert Humbert is a pedophile who goes from bad to worse. At the end of the novel, he murderously flees justice and kills Quilty. His beloved Lolita is dead, and he knows it’s his fault. A dark character arc.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

This is a great example of a character journey. She starts out as a smart, fairly confident woman who seems to have lost her soul a bit; by the end, she’s a person who’s given herself completely to a greater cause.

Darth Vader in Star Wars

He begins as a virtuous warrior (good guy) in search of a better life. He becomes twisted by his ego and his desire for revenge. He knows he’s failed and could return to the good side, but decides not to do so.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather

A classic example of a great character arc that spans a series of films. Initially, Michael wants nothing to do with the “business” of the family. So much so that he’s never really accepted by them. Eventually, he’s drawn in and succeeds. However, his own brother is killed (and so is his son) and because of his involvement, his marriage to his wife breaks up. In the end, Michael is a hollowed-out man, but one who got what he wanted, paid for with the blood of others. We see his growing guilt as he slowly dons the mantle of ‘Don’.

Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play

Another classic character arc. Macbeth brings about his own downfall as his ambition grows alongside pessimism and guilt consumes his wife and fellow murderer, Lady Macbeth. It’s interesting that Macbeth is timid at the beginning of the play, even though he’s on the verge of victory.

FAQ

What’s the best example of a great character arc?

The best example of a great character arc is probably Rick Blaine in Casablanca.

The events of the film – World War II, a chance encounter, Rick’s love for a woman who eventually leaves him – affect him from the beginning to the end of the film. Rick – normally neurotic, selfish, and anti-social – has a moral awakening and sacrifices his own deal with the Nazis. He helps Ilsa, the woman he loves and who loves him, escape along with her husband – in the mistaken belief that she’ll stay with him. At the end of the film, Rick joins the resistance, in a total reversal of his character at the beginning of the film.

What’s the most underrated character arc of all time?

Perhaps the most underrated character arc of all time is the character arc of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.

We’ve been with Sam from the beginning. He’s the hardworking and sometimes comical sidekick, and his journey begins in the Shire with his master, Frodo Baggins. The end of the character arc is the end of the Lord of the Rings series – Samwise has become the mayor of the Shire.

This is a source of great food for thought because we’re not led to believe that Samwise is material for a leadership role. In fact, we quite like the idea of Sam as a simple gardener. In a sense, I think Sam is the real hero of the trilogy.

What’s the best character redemption arc in all of fiction?

Perhaps the best character change in fiction is the arc for the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Scrooge begins as a miser who despises the poor. He doesn’t care for his employees Bob Cratchit and is dismissive of Christmas. He’s a series of nightmarish visions that change his thoughts and actions. By the end of the story, Scrooge is a changed man.

Which character had the best story arc in Harry Potter?

Perhaps the best story arc in Harry Potter is that of Severus Snape.

It’s clear from the beginning of the series that Severus Snape is an ambiguous secondary character. It’s not what he does that makes him ambiguous. He’s clearly an antagonist to the main protagonist, Harry Potter. However, what he does at the end of the series is clearly heroic. He knowingly sacrifices himself.

How do you design a character arc in a short story?

The challenge with a short story is that, unlike an entire novel, there’s often less time to develop a character arc. Therefore, writers should make sure that enough has happened in a short story for the reader to see that the character has really changed.

You can also experiment with writing an outline of your story that starts with the story goal – located towards the end of the story – and moves to the beginning. Sometimes it’s easier to see the structure of the story if you look at the story outline “backward.”