What is a Character Arc?

Is a character arc a giant boat for characters that Noah built? Or perhaps it’s a lovely arched rainbow for our characters to walk through?

Nope, it’s none of those. A character arc refers to how a character changes through a story. Your characters, especially the main characters, should experience some sort of change throughout the course of your story.

If you’re writing fiction or narrative nonficiton, the character arc happens to the main character. In memoir, it happens to the writer. In nonfiction, it happens to the reader and the change they’re experiencing.

Sometimes it’s change that’s related to their overall story goal and other times it happens as a result of their journey. In either case, it’s a crucial part of a story.

An “official” Definition of Character Arc

Larry Brooks, in his book Story Engineering describes the character arc as follows:

“When it [your story] results in your character having grown or changed—not always the same thing—as a result of or in order to meet the challenges you’ve put before him, you’ve just infused character arc into your story….it begins with the introduction of inner demons, and it concludes with showing how those inner demons have been conquered” (99-100).

Is this the “official” definition? Well, I don’t know about that, but it’s a pretty good one.

Your characters probably don’t even know they need to change, and that’s okay too. Most of us don’t recognize it until after the disastrous events in our lives.

We don’t wake up one day, and say, “Wow, I really ought to start relying on people more,” or “Hmmm, today is the day I’m going to fall in love and decide that life is worth living after all.”

It’s the events in our own lives and in our stories that get our characters to make these realizations and conquer those “inner demons.”

Examples of Character Arcs

Some of the more obvious examples of character arcs come from Disney movies.

Think about Toy Story. Woody begins the movie as Andy’s favorite toy and his goal is to stay Andy’s favorite toy. By the end of the film, Woody has changed. He’s learned that Andy can have more than one favorite toy, and he’s also discovered that having a best friend is pretty great too.

Buzz Lightyear also changes. He begins the movie thinking he’s an actual space guy, but by the end of the film, Buzz realizes he’s a toy, and he accepts that being a mere toy is actually pretty awesome.

In the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger begins as a somewhat arrogant girl who strives to compete and prove herself through her intellect. She struggles with this throughout the entire series, but by the end, she has matured and learned that while her intellectual brilliance is important, it’s nothing when compared to real relationships.

None of these characters start out wanting to change. At the beginning of Toy Story, Woody would never have said, “Ya know, I think I’d like to share the role of favorite toy and have a best friend. That would be fun!” Instead he’s miserable with the disastrous arrival of Buzz and that’s what pulls us into the story.

It’s the story’s events that force this change upon Woody. As he strives to get rid of Buzz and faces disaster after disaster in which he must rely on Buzz’s space ranger skills, he learns that Buzz isn’t so bad after all.

Do all characters change?

Nope, they don’t. Some characters, like Glenda the Good Witch or Voldemort, don’t change at all, but they are true archetypal characters. Glenda is a perfect witch who serves as a guardian/mentor to Dorothy while Voldermort is a completely evil antagonist to Harry’s protagonist.

There are also some characters that appear in series who never change, but we don’t expect them to change. They are who they are, and that’s actually why people love them.

Some examples are Jack Reacher in the series by Lee Child. He’s the same guy in every story. He drifts around solving crimes and especially difficult cases. Nancy Drew is another never changing sleuth. She’s the same character in each book.

In the above examples, never changing characters work well, because that’s what readers expect. One reason (I think) why teen readers didn’t like Allegiant nearly as much as they liked Divergent was because of the lack of a character arc in Tris.

I loved the first story, liked the second, but by the third, I was super frustrated, and I didn’t like Tris anymore…at all.

Why? Because she had the exact same internal conflict in Divergent that she had in Allegiant. When she first meets Four, she wonders if she can trust him. Can she really tell him what she’s doing and what she’s feeling? She has no family anymore and doesn’t feel she fits in. Will he accept her as she really is?

Guess what she’s wondering toward the end of Allegiant? The SAME thing!! She sits on her cot and wonders if she can trust him with the knowledge of her final plan.

Her conclusion? Nope, and she sneaks off without telling him what’s happening…again. Ugh, annoying.

At this point, I wanted to throw the book across the room because she’s learned nothing about Four, about trust, or about relationships even though that was her initial conflict in the first book.

Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, or a series, readers expect your characters to change. Do they? To check, complete the following exercise.

Put it in Action

1)  Write down how your character feels about life or their situation at the beginning of your story. This is probably in relation to their story goal, but it might not be, and remember that they might not even be aware of their existing beliefs and how they need to change.

2) List one specific action your character takes that SHOWS that belief.

3) Write down how your character’s beliefs about the world, their life, themselves, their relationships have changed by the end of the story. This will for sure be after all of the disasters and the climax.

4) List one specific action your character takes that SHOWS that new belief.

In the comments below, I’d love for you to share your thoughts on character arcs.

Who are your favorite characters and how did they change?

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