Creating strong and believable characters is key to the craft of storytelling. Character development encompasses many things, including giving the character(s) personality and depth. Characters need motivations that will propel them through the narrative. And behind those motivations are a set of beliefs and goals that influence character decisions. All of this sums up the inner journey your character will take through the book, or in literary terms, the character arc. As its name suggests, character arcs have highs and lows, challenges and victories, all of which force the character to grow, evolve or even fully transform as the story unfolds.
While no two characters are exactly alike, there are familiar arcs readers can expect to see in novels. Many of these tie into book tropes and work well for particular genres. Let’s take a look at three popular archetypes:
In a change arc, the character will dramatically shift from the beginning to the end of the story. Changes could be their belief system, personality, or goals. Within this archetype are two contrasting extremes: a positive change arc and a negative change arc.
In a positive change arc, the character will become a better person. Their worldview may take a more positive note, or they will feel a wholeness in their life and situation. The character may come to terms with something significant or resign themselves to their place in life. It’s also called a growth arc since the character overcomes something within themselves by the story’s end. Transforming for the positive often centers on a deep-rooted lie or emotional wound, which the character will overcome. The positive change arc is the most popular of the change arcs and can be found wildly in fiction across genres.
Examples of a positive change arc include:
- Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
- Han Solo in Star Wars
- Tramp in Lady and the Tramp
- Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
On the flip side, a negative change arc sees a character that takes a darker turn into a worse person. They start as a wholesome individual but make wrong/unethical choices based on the book’s plot. It’s also called a fall arc, where the character descends into doom. Typically there is an opportunity for the character to return to the moral path. But because the character chooses wants over needs, they do not find atonement.
Examples of a negative change arc include:
- Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
- Nick Calloway in The Great Gatsby
- Voldemort in Harry Potter
- Walter White in Breaking Bad
Flat Character Arc
Not all characters will experience a dramatic transformation—and that’s okay! While the primary protagonists of a story should have a clear character arc, additional characters may stay relatively the same. It is called a flat character arc or steadfast arc. Instead of changing, these characters grow more into themselves. Sometimes characters with a flat arc help define the growth/change of the main character arc. As with transformation arcs, flat arcs also encompass both positive and negative. The key is that the character keeps the same belief system throughout the whole story.
Examples of a flat character arc include:
- Sherlock Holmes
- Jack Reacher
- Diana in Wonder Woman
- Gandalf in Lord of the Rings
Why Are Character Arcs So Important?
When developing your character, it’s easy to focus on outward descriptions like hair and eye color or hobbies and background. But what’s more important to the story is the inner workings of their mind—what makes them who they are. Why? Because the choices they make are directly tied to the plot, and the plot is what keeps the reader turning pages. That’s why knowing your characters inside and out is crucial to compelling storytelling. Plus, it will make the book easier to write if you know who the characters are and where they’re going.
Readers want to see change over time. But, let’s face it—there’s nothing more boring than a book where nothing happens. A good story is one where characters fail and succeed, face the consequences and reap the rewards.
Character Arc vs. Narrative Arc
A key thing to remember is that the character arc differs from the overall narrative arc. Whereas the character arc refers to the inner journey, the narrative arc is another word for the plot—essentially, the storyline from beginning to end. So don’t get these two confused!
How to Write Using Character Arcs
1. Lay out your character’s desires and motivations
All characters come with a set of beliefs as well as goals. Figure out what your character wants and why.
2. Create conflicts
These will be the obstacles that stand in your character’s way. They should be both internal (conflicting struggles within the character’s mind) and external (outside forces).
3. Plan reactions to the conflicts
Look at your story from a narrative arc perspective, including the common beats. How will your character react and change at critical moments such as the inciting incident, rising action, climax, etc.?
Character development can make or break a story, so thoughtfully planning it out is worthwhile. A strong character arc—whether positive or negative—can make readers root for characters, cry tears of joy, or simmer in rage (in a good way!). Whichever one you choose, take your readers on a journey they won’t soon forget!