“Character arcs” are important. You hear about them often. But… what’s a character arc?
A character arc is the change that a character undergoes over the course of a story.
For example, a character might start off a novel naive and weak and gain strength and courage. Or they might start off confident and successful and descend into madness and despair.
Here are the elements of a story that underly a character arc:
- A character wants something
- The character goes on a journey (external or internal)
- The character encounters obstacles that force them to evolve
- There’s a climax and the character emerges changed
A character wants something
A character arc opens when you establish something that character wants. The reader naturally wonders: are they going to get that thing?
Readers are pulled through the story waiting to see if the character is going to get that big thing they want. These desires can be external (saving a kingdom, finding a talisman) or internal (redemption, ) or both.
A character’s motivation is the engine of the story.
The character goes on a journey
When the character wants that big thing they need to go after it.
This sends them on a journey, whether that’s a literal journey through a world or realm, or an internal journey such as battling mental illness or making a key decision.
Along the way…
The character encounters obstacles
It should not be easy for the character to get what they want. They should encounter obstacles along the way in ascending intensity.
The obstacles come in the form of other characters with competing desires (especially villains) and forces outside of the character’s control within the setting.
As the character encounters these obstacles, here is the crux of the character arc: they are forced to change and evolve.
Sometimes this means learning new skills, talents, and powers, and sometimes this can mean that the character is overwhelmed and begins to unravel.
There’s a climax and the character emerges changed
A character arc closes when they either do or don’t get what they want. This is usually a definitive resolution in a climactic moment, but you’ll also see it resolved a bit more ambiguously.
Whatever happens: the character emerges irrevocably changed. Not just in terms of their life circumstances and the rewards/penalties, but, more importantly, they’ve changed as a person. They’ve developed new skills and talents or they’ve regressed.
Any thoughts on character arcs? See anything I missed? Take to the comments!
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Art: Landschaft auf Rügen mit Regenbogen by Caspar David Friedrich
Marilynn Byerly says
A story arc isn’t just for the main character. In a novel that’s complex and long enough, every important character should have a story arc. It’s not on the page as much as the main character’s, but the reader can see the changes. Those character arcs either reflect the world or the other characters. For example, as a foil to a main character.
Nathan Bransford says
Yes definitely, agree 100%!
Thanks for defining the character arch so succinctly, Nathan. Of course you’re right that we want to see how the character is going to achieve their objective. The photo was a great choice.
I’d love to see a reality explored that defied what we think we know and the usual way of expressing it. What if we stepped away from the current perception and styles and techniques to show something that perhaps has haunted the edges of our thinking but we can’t articulate or grasp the meaning of while we’re focused on what other people believe and experience as reality. Often when we have a new idea, it seems more concrete and authentic if someone else expresses a similar opinion. But if we could build on that initial inspiration, brick by brick, then we could end up with something amazing that might inspire others to consider other realms of thoughts and beliefs. And with different results then we’d experience by repeating familiar patterns and attitudes.