A character’s arc involves adversity and challenges, as well as some changes to the character, and ultimately leads to resolution. Character arcs generally progress in tandem with traditional three-act story structure. Most protagonist character arcs start with the inciting incident that sets up the stakes and central conflict facing this character. The way the arc progresses from there depends on what sort of story you are telling and how the character functions.
What is Character Arc?
Character arc refers to the transformation and development of a character throughout a story. It represents the emotional and psychological journey a character undergoes as they encounter challenges, learn from their experiences, and evolve as a person.
Most character arcs are change arcs. In change arcs, we watch a character change over the course of a story in either a positive or negative direction. Flat arcs are a less common form of arc in which a character remains static throughout a story.
Positive Transformational Arc: In a positive transformational arc, a character undergoes personal growth and positive change. At the beginning of the story, the character may have flaws, weaknesses, or limiting beliefs that hinder their progress. As the story unfolds, they encounter challenges and learn important lessons, which lead to personal development and a positive change in their life.
Example: In Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is a cold-hearted and selfish man. Through the intervention of three spirits, he undergoes a positive transformation and becomes compassionate and generous, embracing the spirit of Christmas and mending his ways.
Negative Transformational Arc: In a negative transformational arc, a character undergoes a deterioration or regression in their values, morals, or mental state. They may start the story as a positive or virtuous character but are gradually influenced by negative circumstances or choices, leading them down a path of darkness or corruption.
Example: In William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth,” the titular character starts as a noble and loyal general. However, his ambition and the influence of the witches lead him to commit heinous acts, causing a negative transformation into a power-hungry and ruthless tyrant.
Related: Fictional Characters
Flat or Static character arc
A Flat or Static character is a type of character development where the character remains largely unchanged throughout the story. Unlike transformational arcs, where characters experience significant growth or deterioration, flat characters have consistent personality traits and beliefs from the beginning to the end of the narrative.
Flat characters are often used as supporting or minor characters in a story, and their primary purpose is to provide contrast, highlight the development of other characters, or serve as a point of stability in the narrative. That being there is a tendency of action-adventure stories is the creation of flat protagonists who maintain a calm and cool persona under pressure.
Characteristics of Flat or Static Character Arcs:
- Consistency: Flat characters maintain the same personality traits, values, and beliefs from the beginning to the end of the story.
- Limited Development: They do not undergo significant changes or personal growth throughout the narrative.
- Supporting Role: Flat characters often exist to support the main characters and advance the plot, rather than being the central focus of the story.
- Easily Recognizable: Flat characters are typically defined by one or two dominant traits, making them easily recognizable and memorable.
Examples of Flat or Static Character Arcs:
Main characters can be static characters too. This is often the case in stories where the protagonist embodies some central value that never changes. For example, Wonder Woman is a symbol of justice, peace, and equality.
- Indiana Jones and Lara Croft remain emotionally stoic, highly capable adventurers regardless of the danger in which they find themselves.
- Sherlock Holmes. The famous detective from Arthur Conan Doyle stories—Holmes continuously regards the world with the same witty, confident attitude, even after encountering serious conflicts. Many readers might argue that they would never want Holmes to change anyway.
- Hercule Poirot also comes to mind, as well as pretty much every action hero out there from Liam Nelson to John Wick.
- Captain America. While there are a lot of different versions of the Captain America story with varying levels of staticism, overall the character remains the same: he begins and ends the story as a moral person who wants to help others and serve his country. Even though he undergoes significant external changes, his internal traits remain the same.
Examples of Flat or Static Character Arcs For Minor Characters:
- Miss Maudie in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a wise and kind neighbor throughout the novel, providing guidance and support to the protagonist, Scout.
- In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, characters like Professor Snape and Filch maintain their negative and antagonistic roles from the first book to the last, without significant changes.
- In Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Collins is depicted as a pompous and obsequious character throughout the novel, never altering his behavior.
Flat or Static character arcs can serve various narrative purposes and contribute to the overall storytelling. While they may not undergo significant growth, they add depth and realism to the fictional world, complementing the dynamics of the more complex and evolving characters in the story.
A well-developed character arc typically includes the following stages:
The Beginning: At the start of the story, the character is introduced with their initial traits, flaws, and circumstances. They may have goals, desires, or conflicts that drive the narrative.
Inciting Incident: The character encounters a pivotal event or situation that disrupts their ordinary life and sets them on a new path. This event often leads to the central conflict of the story.
Rising Action: As the story progresses, the character faces obstacles and challenges that force them to confront their flaws and weaknesses. They may struggle, make mistakes, or experience setbacks along the way.
At a critical moment in the story, the character experiences a profound change in perspective or attitude. This turning point often occurs as a result of a significant revelation, epiphany, or confrontation.
The character undergoes a fundamental change in their beliefs, values, or behavior. They begin to overcome their flaws and grow as a person, leading to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Climax: The character faces the central conflict head-on and undergoes a final test of their growth and development. This is the moment of greatest tension and decision for the character.
Resolution: The character’s arc reaches its conclusion, and they emerge as a transformed individual. They have learned from their experiences, and their actions and decisions reflect their growth.
Character arcs add depth and complexity to a story, allowing readers or viewers to emotionally invest in the journey of the characters. They provide opportunities for themes and messages to be explored and contribute to the overall impact and satisfaction of the narrative.
Here are some elements to help create compelling and meaningful character transformations:
Know Your Character’s Starting Point: Understand your character’s background, beliefs, flaws, and desires at the beginning of the story. This will provide a foundation for their arc and help you track their growth.
Set Clear Goals and Motivations: Give your character specific and achievable goals that align with the central conflict of the story. Understanding their motivations will drive their actions and decisions throughout the narrative.
Create Conflict and Obstacles: Introduce challenges and obstacles that force your character to confront their flaws and limitations. The struggles they face will shape their development and reveal their true nature.
Establish Internal and External Struggles: Develop both internal and external conflicts for your character. Internal struggles involve emotional and psychological challenges, while external conflicts involve tangible obstacles.
Use Turning Points and Epiphanies: Design pivotal moments in the story where the character experiences significant revelations or epiphanies. These turning points should be transformative and lead to meaningful change.
Show Incremental Growth:
Portray your character’s growth gradually throughout the story. Small changes and decisions can accumulate, leading to more substantial transformation later on. Measurable, palpable goals are always a crowdpleaser.
Use Foils and Relationships: Introduce supporting characters or foils who can highlight different aspects of your protagonist’s personality. Relationships can impact their choices and offer opportunities for growth.
Emphasize Emotional Resonance: Focus on the emotional impact of your character’s experiences. Readers should empathize with their struggles and connect emotionally with their journey.
Reflect on the Theme: Consider how your character’s arc aligns with the overall theme of the story. The character’s growth should contribute to the exploration of the central theme.
Allow for Self-Discovery: Let your character discover their strengths, values, and inner truths through their experiences. Authentic self-discovery enhances the depth of their arc.
Be Mindful of Consistency: Ensure that your character’s development remains consistent with their established traits and experiences. A believable character arc should feel organic and true to the character’s nature.
Provide Resolution and Closure: Give your character a satisfying resolution that reflects the lessons they’ve learned and the growth they’ve achieved. The arc should feel complete, with a sense of closure.
By employing these techniques, you can create dynamic and compelling character arcs that resonate with readers and enhance the overall impact of your story.
Writing Techniques For Character Arc
The first technique involves a series of questions:
Does your main character get better or worse? As their morals and their beliefs are tested throughout the novel how do they change? If they change for the better it’s an inspirational story, but that doesn’t defy whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Did get better because they became more confident in themselves after surviving adversity or did they become the bully?
Did they become something? A champion or a doctor? A millionaire? Maybe they became a survivor or a murderer or perhaps both.
Did they change their marital status? Did get divorce or did they get married? Perhaps their spouse passed away.
If the movie ends with them getting married it’s a romance but if it ends in a divorce or is about grief then it’s drama. Whereas if the investigation of the death then it’s a mystery.