Creating a Character Arc

A photo of a typewriter which has written, "time for a change" for a post on Creating a Character Arc

Remember when we talked about the most common character types in fiction? Well today we’re going to focus on dynamic characters, the characters that change over the course of a story. That change is called a character arc.

Many of the best works in fiction have dynamic characters that change throughout the course of their story. Nearly everyone has heard of, read, or seen a movie based off of the book, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. In it the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound change after meeting three ghosts. Each meeting is an intense expirience that brings to light some troubling truths about his life, motivating him to become more giving with both his affections and his wealth.

But not all change is for the better. Take a look at poor Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars series. He begins the series as a talented youth who is eager to help others and ends up as Darth Vader, a ruthless villain obsessed with power.

In each case, a major change has occurred in both the characters’ actions and the way in which they view the world. Not all change is this dramatic. In fact, there is some discussion over the difference between change and growth. Change occurs when the character is nearly unrecognizable at the end of the story compared to what he/she was at the beginning. While growth could indicate that a character has acquired new knowledge, a new point of view, or a new role in his/her life. This growth does not necessary mean that the character is better or worse then they were before, or that they will change how they live their life, but it does mean that they now might have a better understanding of the life that they live.

Why do we need a character arc in a story? Well, we don’t always. There are some static characters that are incredibly popular in fiction. Take Sherlock Holmes for instance. Throughout his many original adventures, he remains essentially the same. However, all characters can’t be a Sherlock Holmes. A good character arc can add depth and layers of meaning to a narrative. It can build the tension of the story and help it move forward. And it can give your audience someone to root for; someone with real personal failings that still manages to overcome their obstacles, both internal and external.

So if you decide to create a character arc, then remember that the change must be meaningful and it must be realistic. Take a look at these three basic steps that can help you get started.

  • Determine how your characters are going to change. Even if you’re not big on plotting your story in advance, you can still get a general idea about the change that your character is going to undergo. Some people begin at the beginning and outline their character, their character’s flaws, and how those flaws negatively impact that character’s life. Other writers prefer to start at the end of their story. Do you know if the ending is going to be happy or sad? Do you know what genre you are going to be writing in? Perhaps you’re writing an action/adventure story with a happy ending. This means that your character not only has to overcome obstacles in order to reach their goals but that they also need to start out the story as a person who is unsatisfied with their life in some way. Remember you are trying to build contrast to show how your character was and how they end up. If they are timid, then at the end of the story they should be bold. If they are emotionally closed off to others, then at the end of the story they should be open to new relationships. This can also go in reverse if you are going for a more tragic ending.
  • Once you have determined what change your character undergoes, you then need to show how that change is made. Change is hard and often painful. Maybe your protagonist is fighting this change to the bitter end. They will deny that there is a problem. They will attempt to stick with their false world views. Change can be frightening. It forces you to reevaluate the way you live your life or your belief systems. It can mean that you have to give up something that you once valued. It can require a lot of hard work and a little bit of humility. Maybe it also means that they will have to face some guilt for the way they had led their lives in the past. Whatever the story’s focus, the change should not be treated as sudden and lighthearted. This is where your rising action in your plot can be so important. You need to introduce a series of obstacles or events to your character that provokes them to really evaluate their worldview. It can be a string of failures caused by their own internal demons, such as alcohol addiction, crippling insecurities or the inability to take on responsibility. But, once your character is forced to see themselves fail time and time again, they can began to come to terms with the fact that what they’re doing just isn’t working.
  • Climax/decision time. Once your character identifies the problem, they’ll need to make a decision on how they should proceed. This will often correspond to the climax of your novel. Usually, the choice should reflect the contrasting values that your protagonist has been struggling with throughout the novel. On one side, the protagonist could choose to do what they would have normally done at the start of the novel or they could choose to take a new path based on the experiences they’ve had and the lessons that they’ve learned. If you have them choose the new path, you’ve created a character arc.

[author title=”About the Author”]