To tell a compelling story, we need a character to see the story through. It doesn’t matter who the character is–the character could even be an animal or an inanimate object–but to get an inside view of a narrative and care about it, we have to have a perspective into the story.
The character the story follows should change by the end of it. This is the character arc.
The degree to which the character changes will vary from genre to genre. For example, romance and literary genres tend to lean very heavily on characters, which usually leads to a more extreme or noticeable change in characters. Whereas adventure stories you might find in sci-fi genres are more plot and world-based, so their character arcs might be less extreme.
No matter your genre, having a compelling character is the easiest way to plug your reader into the story and keep them invested in how it ends, so developing a strong character arc is an important step to writing a strong book.
Let’s take a look at:
- What is a character arc?
- What’s the difference between a character arc and a plot arc?
- The types of character arcs
- How to write a compelling character arc
- A character arc writing exercise
What is a Character Arc?
Like I mentioned, your character should go through some type of change by the end of the story. That journey from how they started to where they ended up is referred to as their arc.
What’s the difference between a character arc and a plot arc?
The arc of your plot is the entire story–the different plot beats from beginning to end. This can include things your character does, so the two arcs will likely intersect. They should, actually!
A character arc is specifically what happens with your character and how that changes them.
For example, the plot arc of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen includes everything that happens with the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy, the Bingley siblings–it begins with a family’s goal to marry off their daughters and ends with (some of) those daughters married. We see proposals, fights, ballroom dances, sickness, travel, etc., and those elements build the story arc, even when they involve characters beyond our hero.
The arc of the main character, Lizzie Bennet, is her journey from thinking she knows everything to having her mind opened to her own prejudices.
Those two arcs interact with each other, but they’re separate arcs on their own as well.
Lizzie’s character arc is an example of the Growth Arc. Let’s look at the different kinds of character arcs.
What are the different types of character arcs?
We can break arcs down into three basic categories: change, growth, and fall.
The change (or transformation arc) is the one you’ll see the most often. It’s very common in the hero’s journey plot structure. This change usually begins with an ordinary or underdog character who ends up saving the world (or their part of the world).
Some classic examples of this arc include Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars.
A growth arc is similar to the change arc, but less drastic. Typically the character has a particular struggle that they’ve overcome by the end of the story. While they are mostly the same person as they were at the beginning, they have grown in a certain area or overcame a specific problem.
Examples of the growth arc include Lizzie Bennet, as I mentioned above, and Michael from The Good Place.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “turned to the Dark Side” used in casual conversations that have nothing to do with Star Wars–that’s because Star Wars has one of the most iconic fall arcs in cinema.
Anakin begins his story young and ambitious. His ambition turns into a lust for power, and when he knows Padme will die in childbirth, he confides in the Dark Side. What begins as an innocent attempt to save his wife snowballed into him slipping to the Dark.
Anakin’s transition to Darth Vader is a classic example of the “Fall Arc,” where a character begins in a place of happiness, success, or hope, then ends with either their death or their transformation into something they once opposed.
How to Write a Compelling Character Arc
Now that we know the different types of character arcs and seen examples, let’s talk about how to write our own. Here are four questions you can ask yourself to begin crafting your character’s arc.
#1 – Who Are They?
Character arcs are all about the journey from Point A to Point B–so where’s our Point A?
To understand and appreciate the way a character changes, the reader should have a pretty good idea of who they are right at the start of your story. We also need to understand the context for your character, their outlook, and why they are the way that they are within the world of your story. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel and the world, society, and circumstances are wildly different from real life, a character’s traits that would make sense on present-day Earth could mean wildly different things for a character in a made-up universe. So we should have a strong idea of that character within the story.
We want our characters to be memorable and distinct, especially from other characters in the story. We want an idea of their motivation, background, and goals, but we definitely want a strong sense of their personality right at the beginning.
So make sure to set us up for a compelling character arc by giving your readers a solid picture of the “Before” image.
#2 – What Do They Need (or Want)?
If a character doesn’t want or need something, they won’t be encouraged to act. Of course, you could have them act regardless, but that will give us a flat character with no believable motivation. What starts the character on this journey? How are they dissatisfied with their current situation? Or are they forced into action by circumstances?
This need or desire is what will drive your character to act, thus propelling the plot arc and the character arc. So develop a strong motivation that makes sense for your character.
#3 – What are the Obstacles?
Once you have a character with a goal, you need to give them obstacles. These obstacles will give you your plot. You should have different types of obstacles for your character to overcome, such as external forces and personal weaknesses.
A child accidentally throws her frisbee over the neighbor’s fence. Her goal is to retrieve the frisbee. An external force working against her is the fence that is too tall for her to climb. A personal weakness is that she’s very shy and is too scared to knock on the neighbor’s door to ask for it back.
Consider the challenges your character will face due to their environment and their own weaknesses. If you have a full fleshed character, you should be able to think up any scenario and imagine what they would do to fix (or fail to fix) the situation.
#4 How Will They Change?
Knowing who our character is, what they want, and what they’re up against should give us a clear idea of how they need to change to accomplish their goals. What weaknesses do they overcome, and how does that change them?
Elizabeth Bennet went from stubborn and prejudiced to open and understanding. Anakin Skywalker joined the Dark Side. Katniss Everdeen became the face of a revolution.
When you’re mapping out that character change, think about what your story is really about. How does their character arc reflect the morals and themes of your story? How does it complement the story arc?
The way your main character changes is one of the most important elements of a compelling and memorable story. Sometimes the character arc is the plot arc, but they should always be at least somewhat entwined.
Understanding who your character is, what they need or want, and what obstacles are in the way of them accomplishing that goal should give you a clear idea of how that character will change by the time the story is done.
Character Arc Writing Exercise
I’ve got one tip for you before we go–put your character in imaginary scenarios. Of course, most scenarios in a novel are imaginary, but I mean that you can take what you know of your character and drop that person into multiple situations. How do they react? What trips them up?
It’s especially fun to take a fantasy or sci-fi character and put them in a contemporary situation. I have a violent, ticking-time-bomb heiress character in my fantasy novel. How would she react to being cut in line at the grocery store? What would she do if someone catcalled her on the street? How would she cope if she snooped on a partner’s phone and learned they were cheating?
Putting characters in scenarios outside of your book’s world is a fun way to learn things about them that you can apply to your story and fictional universe.
Here are a few suggestions for scenes to drop your characters into:
- The character is getting a drink after work when a fight starts behind them
- Their partner dumps them over text
- They’re nervous about a job interview they’re about to walk into because they know they lied on their resume
- They’re in the hospital receiving a harrowing prognosis
- Someone just knocked on their apartment door–it’s a relative they’ve been avoiding for years, and they have…news
- Write a scene where your character is scared
- Imagine a scene where your character has to make a decision
- Write a scene where your character has to break news to someone
- Think through a scene where your character wakes up in a different body
- Write a scene where your character apologizes to someone and it goes poorly
This is a great exercise for learning more about your character, spotting their strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out what they really want. You might get some story ideas out of it too!
If you try this exercise, let me know how it went in a comment!