Character arcs are the changes that characters go through in a story. Events of the narrative and the actions that they make contribute to these changes so that by the end of the story they are often significantly different to how they are at the beginning.
This could be the protagonist’s journey to fulfil their destiny and conquer evil, after breaking away from the mould of their mundane upbringings. Or it could be a character’s slow descent into criminality as they become roped in by their family’s illegitimate business.
Why does a character need an arc?
Character arcs make a story impactful and help when writing complex characters. If the central character doesn’t change in the story, they can come across as undeveloped, two-dimensional, or – worst of all – forgettable.
Employing character arcs helps to make your character relatable so that readers actually care about what happens to them. Whatever the story and genre, whether it’s horror, romance, crime, or anything else, character arcs will help readers to stay thoroughly engaged.
Only some characters in your story need an arc. Side characters don’t require that level of development, but your main protagonist does in most cases.
Character arc definition
A character arc is the way a character changes over time, with a clear beginning and end. This can correspond with a story arc, but it can also stand alone.
Typically, character arcs are primarily applied to the main protagonist, but depending on the type of story there may be other characters that experience arcs, such as antagonists or some supporting characters.
What different types of character arcs are there?
There are multiple ways to approach the creation of character arcs. After all, not every story follows the same beats and not every character undergoes the same journey.
Here are four main types of character arcs:
Transformative character arcs
One of the most common forms of character arcs, especially in popular fiction, is when the character undergoes a major transformation over the course of the story.
This means that by the end of the book or the final scene, they are significantly different to how they were introduced at the beginning of the story.
A character arc like this is usually the result of the hero discovering what they need to do, or rather what sort of person they need to be, in order to achieve their goal, whether that’s defeating a villain or protecting the ones they love.
Examples of transformative character arcs
- Luke Skywalker – In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker follows the traditional hero’s journey where he discovers his destiny. In doing so, he leaves behind his mundane life as a moisture farmer at the start of the film, and by the end he’s become a heroic leader of the rebellion.
- Katniss Everdeen – Like Luke Skywalker, Katniss in The Hunger Games experiences a transformation from being an ordinary citizen of her district to an extraordinary symbol of defiance against a totalitarian government.
Morally ascending character arcs
Another common arc is when a character undergoes a positive change, where they may have questionable morals at the start of the story and learn the error of their ways by the end.
This type of arc may be used for a protagonist, but more often it is used to develop the antagonist or villain of the story, providing them with a form of redemption.
Examples of morally ascending character arcs
- Han Solo – Alongside Luke’s transformative arc in Star Wars, Han Solo undergoes a different type of change. When he’s first introduced, he’s a rogue who only looks out for himself and is happy to take his money and leave. But in the climactic battle he returns to save the day and contribute to the rebellion.
- Javert – In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, the police inspector Javert follows the letters of the law in his endless pursuit to detain Jean Valjean. Eventually, towards the end of the book, he recognises the mercy that Valjean has shown him and realises the mistake in his strict adherence to the law.
Moral descending character arcs
In some stories, a character can undergo a negative change. This could be part of a story that follows them becoming a criminal or villain, and this type of arc is most common in crime fiction and certain other dramas.
Examples of moral descending character arcs
- Walter White – One of the archetypical negative character arcs is that of Walter White in Breaking Bad. Despite being the protagonist of the TV show, each season charts his descent into villainy, with him taking more and more inarguably evil actions to become a criminal mastermind.
- Anakin Skywalker – in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Anakin is the hero for much of it. However, the films show his journey from an innocent boy to a mass-murdering villain, and they are very much about his slow transformation into the iconic Darth Vader.
Flat character arcs
When people discuss character arcs, they often refer to the changes that a character undergoes, whether that’s positive or negative. But it’s also possible to have flat character arcs. This is where, even despite attempts to achieve their goals, the protagonist is left in the same situation at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.
Examples of flat character arcs
- Llewyn Davis – The titular protagonist in the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis is a down-on-his-luck folk musician. The film introduces him playing a gig for tips and then being beaten up in an alleyway. We then follow him as he tries to find success in his career, but every attempt to get a record signing or earn better money is met with failure. The film ends with remarkably similar scenes to the beginning, closing with him beaten up in an alleyway and with nothing to show for his efforts.
- Sherlock Holmes – While some adaptations, especially modern ones, give character arcs to help develop the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes in many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories doesn’t undergo any sort of change. He shows up and solves a mystery, but the story doesn’t require him to experience a transformation to engage readers.
How to write a character arc
Well-thought-out character arcs can require just as much planning as an interesting plot. There’s no one way to go about creating a compelling character arc, but here are a few tips:
1. Identify their motivations
You should always know what drives your character, what is their greatest want, the biggest desire that they are always aiming to reach. Distinct character motivations are crucial to writing a good arc.
2. Decide what they need
A character’s need is what will allow them to feel fulfilled. Usually, they realise what this need is towards the end of their character arc, and by the conclusion of it, they have found the need.
3. Create conflict
Conflict can come in the form of both external and internal forces. As part of an impactful character arc, there should be a mix of both.
4. Plan how the character arc coincides with the plot
Once you’re clear on the characters’ wants, needs, and conflicts, you can decide how these work within the beats of the story.
The want or motivation should be established early on, as well as what conflict stands in the way. You then need to decide how they will overcome that conflict and realise what they need to become truly fulfilled.
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Utilising character arcs is a useful tool if you want to how to write complex characters. Readers will find your story much more memorable if there’s a character at the centre of it who’s compelling. In many stories, character development is necessary if you want to create a successful narrative.