What’s a Character Arc?

In much the same way that story arcs work, as discussed in last week’s article, character arcs encompass how a character grows and develops throughout the story, from beginning to end. But what are they exactly?
When writers refer to character arcs, they’re referring to the continuing development path of a particular character, which begins at the very start of the story, when he or she is usually at his or her most vulnerable or weakest, and follows this development right to the end of the story, when the character is at his or her strongest. It’s that change the character undergoes that is captured in a character arc.
Again, like story arcs, when we talk of a character arc, it’s a figurative thing, rather than a physical one. It is a representation of the chronological journey your main characters take through the entire story and the transformation that occurs because of this - his or her motivations, main goal, expectations, conflicts, important events, revelations and turning points, and how such events are overcome or dealt with. It incorporates how a character grows and changes and emerges at the end of the story a changed person because of what has happened to them.
Often the crux of characterisation is the fundamental changes the character goes through – which can be physical, emotional or psychological. Not only that, but the character has to have learned something about the world or themselves by the conclusion of the story, otherwise the reader will not be satisfied with the resolution you offer. In real life, every major life experience changes us in some way, (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse), and so fiction is no different.
Essentially, there is only one real character arc for your character and not the half a dozen or so ‘types’ to be found on the internet, such as the ‘character growth arc’, the ‘change arc’ or the ‘hero/villain arc’ and so on. These are superfluous and unnecessary. That’s because every type is already found within the character arc – it encompasses the character’s growth, their emotional and physical ups and downs, their ability to adapt and their change of a character etc. There is only one type.
So who gets to have a character arc?
Generally speaking it’s usually only the main characters that have character arcs, rather than secondary characters, since they are the ones that undergo change and growth – whether that change is self awareness, a change of character or outlook or the ability to adapt to the significant changes that have occurred within their life.
The character arc also runs parallel to the story arc, in that the character progresses with the story, with the events and incidents and with the key turning points etc. Like the story arc, it must chronologically track the beginning, middle and the end of the character’s journey.
While a character arc may only be a figurative thing, some writers like to plot their character’s paths with an actual arc to help them characterise and visualise the character’s journey through the story. This is actually a good way of bonding the character to the story so that they run parallel and a practical way of ‘seeing’ the way.
When considering a character arc, allow for the following aspects:-
  • The moment the character is introduced, when his or her journey starts. The object of the story (the goal) is established.
  • The emergence of character motives (which will be part of the plot – the reason the character does what he does), which affect behaviour and actions and their development.
  • The emergence of conflict and emotion within the unfolding story and the need for the main character to overcome the obstacles and major events that might prevent him/her from reaching that goal.
  • The conclusion of the story, usually in the form of peak action and emotion.
  • The resolution, which shows the reader how and why the main character’s life has changed because of his or her experience.
As you can see, character arcs aren’t that much different to story arc; they follow the same structure and path and development. They can be figurative or they can be real, plotted arcs, but nevertheless they can help the writer visualise their protagonist’s journey within the heart of the story.
Next week: Starting points – where should the story actually start?


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