“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.
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