How to Write a Compelling Character Arc

A character arc is the change or growth that a character experiences throughout a story. It can be small or large, but it should always be there. A good character arc makes for a compelling story.

In this article, we will discuss what makes a good character arc and explore the different types of arcs that are used in storytelling. We'll also give some character arc examples in literature and film.

What defines a character arc?

The main tenets of a character arc are change and growth. A character starts off in one place and by the end of the story, they are in a different place. This can be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual change. The important thing is that the character has undergone some sort of transformation.

What makes a good character arc?

There are a few key elements that make a character arc effective.

First, the character must have a goal or problem to resolve. Without this, there is no reason for the character to change.

Second, the character must be proactive in trying to achieve their goal. A story where the character just sits around and waits for things to happen is not very interesting. The best stories are ones where the characters are actively pursuing their goals and facing obstacles along the way.

Third, the character should grow and change as a result of their experiences. This growth can be small or large, but it should be believable and satisfying for readers.

Finally, a strong character arc will usually have some sort of emotional catharsis. This is the moment where the character finally resolves their problem and comes to terms with whatever they’ve been through. The catharsis should be earned and it should feel like a natural resolution to the story.

Different types of character arcs

Choosing an arc type for your character is one of the first things you should do before writing anything about that specific character in a story. Their character arc will help define every decision they make.

Here are three different character arc types:

Positive character arc

A positive change arc is when your character grows and changes for the better over the course of the story. This is often seen in coming-of-age stories or hero's journeys, where the main character starts off as an inexperienced person who must learn and grow in order to save the day.  

Example of a positive character arc: In the Harry Potter series, Harry starts off as a young boy who is unaware of the magical world around him. He grows and learns over the course of the seven books and becomes a brave and powerful wizard. He learns powerful coming-of-age lessons about himself, his loved ones, and the world around and his arc takes him from boyhood to adulthood.

Flat character arcs

A flat arc in a story is one where the character does not go on either a positive or negative change. Instead, they stay the same but affect change in the characters around them. Flat arcs are often seen in ensemble stories or in cases where the character is a symbol or ideal.

Example of a flat character arc: Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger movie goes through a flat arc. From the beginning of the film, Steve is already a morally just and heroic individual, and even going through a body transformation as well as going to fight in World War II, he still keeps the same ideals. But he instills change in the other characters through his bravery and heroism causing each of them to strive for their better nature and follow Steve's example.

Negative character arc

A negative change arc, or "tragic" arc, is when your character gets worse over time. This can be due to outside forces beyond their control, such as a villain's machinations, or it can be self-destructive behavior on the character's part. This type of arc is often seen in stories where the character is struggling with an addiction or mental illness.

Example of a negative character arc: Arthur Fleck in the film Joker (2019) goes on a negative character arc as he succumbs to madness and in the end becomes a villain.  From a struggling stand-up comedian who just wants to make people laugh, Arthur slowly breaks down mentally and physically as the film progresses until he finally snaps and becomes the Joker.

Character arc vs. character development

It’s important to understand the difference between character arc and character development. Character development is the process of fleshing out who your character is, including their backstory, personality, and motivations. Character arc is the journey that your character goes on over the course of the story.

One way to think of it is this: character development is what makes your character interesting, and character arc is what makes your story interesting.

Learn how to develop a character.

Character arc vs. story arc

Now that you understand character arcs, it's important to know the difference between character arcs and story arcs.

A character arc is the journey that a specific character takes over the course of a story. A story arc (or a narrative arc) is the overall plot of the story itself, which may follow a traditional three-act structure.

While all stories need both characters and plot, some stories focus more on one than the other. For example, character-driven stories are often about someone going through a major life event or change, such as in To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. These types of stories focus more on how the main character changes and grows as a result of what they go through.

On the other hand, plot-driven stories are more focused on the events of the story and how they unfold, rather than on the inner journey of the characters. These types of stories often have a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, such as in Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games.

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland has written a fantastic book about building character arcs that I think everyone should read.  

In her book, Weiland walks you through the process of creating a character arc for your story, including how to choose the right type of arc for your story and how to ensure that your character’s arc is properly integrated into your plot. It gives a detailed breakdown of the essential points that need to be developed in each arc to make them as effective as possible.

Check out her book: Creating Character Arcs.

Conclusion

A character arc is essential to a good story. It is the journey that your character takes from start to finish, and it is what allows your readers to connect with them on a deeper level.

When creating a character arc, it is important to consider what type of arc is right for your story, and to ensure that your character’s development is properly integrated into your plot. By following these tips, you can create a compelling character arc that will keep your readers hooked until the very end.

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