Character arcs are the hugely important process of character change in a story.
For most of us, this is why we read a book, or go to a movie theater. We want to know what happens to the characters, and how the events of the plot will change them.
But how do we create those characters? How do we make our readers ravenous to learn what happens to them?
That is the subject for this piece.
- What a character arc is
- Why they are important
- The different types of character arcs
- How to create each type
Table of contents
- What is a Character Arc?
- Why Are Character Arcs Important?
- Types of Character Arcs
- How to Write an Amazing Character Arc
- How to Write a Positive Change Character Arc
- How to Write a Negative Change Character Arc
- How to Write a Flat Character Arc
What is a Character Arc?
A character arc is the process of change for the character. If your protagonist has had an arc, they will be different by the end of the story, than they were at the beginning.
This change can represent anything. It can be:
- Physical: such as learning Kung Fu
- Mental: such as learning that the Matrix is all a lie
- Emotional: such as gaining empathy for someone
- Social: such as gaining new friends or a new social status
A character arc is achieved by facing obstacles, events or people in the way of becoming who the character will be at the end of the arc.
The better the obstacles the greater the change.
And while most character arcs lead to some kind of positive change, that isn’t always the case, which we’ll get to below.
Why Are Character Arcs Important?
Character arcs are important because they relate to us in real life.
Most of us go through change throughout our lives. We grow up, we learn, we overcome imperfections (or gain new ones), and for the most part we all strive to be better.
Character arcs allow us to see ourselves in a story, and that is critical to gaining our sympathy and our investment.
We love to see characters grow, because we strive for the same things. This is why most stories have some kind of character arc where the protagonist improves in some way.
And while less common, sometimes we love to see tragedies even more, stories where people change for the worse. Why? Because these stories serve as a warning, often a morality tale on what not to do.
It’s not surprising that most of the stories we consume, especially in recent decades, all have some kind of character arc.
Therefore, it’s important that authors take this seriously. If you don’t have a character arc, it will be less likely that readers will emotionally invest in a story.
There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general rule.
Types of Character Arcs
In general, there are three types of character arcs:
- Positive change arc
- Negative change arc
- Flat character arcs
Let’s break these down.
A positive change character arc is where the hero improves by the end of the story.
This is by far the most common type of character arc, and generally accepted as the most sought after among audiences.
A character will usually start out with some kind of flaw, and over the course of the plot, will confront and overcome that flaw.
Examples of positive character arcs include:
- Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol
- Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
- Woody in Toy Story
- Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
- Jamie Lannister in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.
- Elle Woods from Legally Blonde.
A negative change character arc is where the character falls or otherwise gets worse by the end of the story.
Usually a character will start out with some redeemable qualities, things that give them great potential for an expected positive character arc.
However, over the course of the story, that character will begin to fall, rather than rise, and the obstacles put in their path will eventually lead to a downward path instead of building them up.
These arcs are great when done well, because they act as a sort of morality tale, warning us of the paths we should not take.
They also happen to be truly engaging for a lot of people, but not if they’re expecting a happy ending. Should that be the case, you might want to consider making it clear from the beginning that your story has a negative character arc.
Examples of negative character arcs include:
- Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby
- Walter White in Breaking Bad
- Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
- Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
- Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
- Michael Corleone in The Godfather
A flat character is one that does not change over the course of the story, but very often affects change in others.
Some authors will tell you that you should never have flat characters, because all too often, most well-written stories do not have them.
For these authors, having a flat character means you did not put in all the work needed to build up the character arcs, making it a sign of lazy writing.
However, that is not always the case, and you can absolutely have intentionally flat characters.
A good flat character will instigate change in others, either by building them up, tearing them down, inspiring, or driving to action.
So while a flat character won’t have an arc per se, you can still use the term “flat arc” because it refers to the influence that character has on other people.
Examples of effective flat characters include:
- Beowulf in Beowulf
- Sherlock Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
- James Bond in the Bond series
- Pollyanna in Pollyanna
- William Wallace in Braveheart
- Indiana Jones in the Indiana Jones series
Side note: do you notice that most of these flat characters have series named after them?
How to Write an Amazing Character Arc
Alright then, so how do you actually write a great character arc. Because, let’s face it, a lot of authors don’t.
There’s a reason why flat character arcs are usually considered lazy writing, because 99% of them are.
So my first tip, before we actually get into the step-by-step process, is to actually spend the time to build a character arc for each character (unless you’re intentionally going flat).
Eventually, as you have more and more practice building character arcs, it will come more naturally, and you won’t have to spend as much time on it.
With that said, let’s look at how you can build each story arc.
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How to Write a Positive Change Character Arc
In a positive change arc, the protagonist should start with a flaw, something that prevents them from accomplishing their goals throughout the story, and which will create obstacles, or stop the protagonist from overcoming obstacles.
It is in the confrontation of this flaw that change is made.
Now, a good positive arc is usually made up of a few key components.
- The Goal: This is the driving force behind the action, the thing that makes your character go from his/her place of safety and go into the unknown. The hero’s journey is a good example of a basic plot that provides a goal for the hero.
- The Lie: This is part of that flaw, something that the hero tells themself, or is a deeply rooted part of themself, which keeps them from reaching their full potential.
- The Truth: This is that thing that the character must embrace in order to excel and become a good character. It drives the character’s growth. When the character confronts the lie and embraces the truth, their internal arc is reached.
Progression of a positive character arc:
- The character believes the Lie
- They set out to achieve the Lie
- The journey forces them to confront the Truth
- They choose to believe the Truth and triumph
Let’s take a look at this structure in action in two case studies.
Case Study: Elle Woods in Legally Blonde
In Legally Blonde the main character, Elle Woods, has each of these steps to a good character arc.
- The Goal: Elle starts out with the goal to get into Harvard so she can prove herself to the man she loves.
- The Lie: Elle tells herself that if she can just be with Warner, she will be happy. She views happiness as something that is conditional on how others view her.
- The Truth: As the story progresses, Elle has to confront the truth that conforming to the woman Warner wants won’t bring her happiness, but that confidence, her own achievements, and her self-worth are what she actually needs. By the end, she embraces the truth by embracing her truest self.
If you’re ever looking for a great masterclass in character development, Legally Blonde is a good one.
Case Study: Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a master example of so. Many. Good. Character arcs.
But shining above the rest is Prince Zuko, the exiled Fire Nation royalty who acts as an antagonist to the hero for much of the series. Here is how the writers created the arc for Zuko.
- The Goal: Zuko wants to capture the Avatar in order to redeem himself in his father’s eyes.
- The Lie: Zuko believes that capturing the Avatar will restore his honor and make his father proud of him again.
- The Truth: As the story progresses, Zuko realizes that there is no honor in serving a tyrant, that his father is not worthy of his devotion, and that his loyalties are better served in helping the Avatar.
If you have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, you should look it up. It truly is a masterpiece of storytelling.
How to Write a Negative Change Character Arc
In a negative arc, the character usually falls to some state that is worse than they were in before. This can be an inner struggle for the protagonist, but it can also be simply that the world is worse off than before.
Sometimes a negative change arc can be a prelude to a positive one, though usually this doesn’t happen in the same story, but in a sequel or even sequel series.
For example, Anakin Skywalker has a negative arc, even though he is eventually redeemed in the original Star Wars trilogy.
So, let’s talk about how to make people go bad…
The narrative arc follows the same structure as a positive one:
- The Goal: Just as with the positive arc, the protagonist has a goal, in this case, the goal is driven by the Lie.
- The Lie: This is the crux of a negative change arc. The hero embraces the lie, uses it to fuel their journey, and it is the primary reason why they are bound to fall. Because they won’t listen to the truth.
- The Truth: At some point the protagonist will be confronted with the Truth, the message that the Lie they’ve believed will not help them. However, rather than embrace this truth, the hero disregards it, leading to the negative change arc.
Progression of a negative character arc:
- The character believes the Lie
- They set out to achieve the Lie and the world reinforces it
- The journey forces them to confront the Truth
- They choose not to believe the Truth, or are disillusioned by it, and they fall
Let’s look at two examples:
Case Study: Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
While perhaps not the best-written story and dialogue, the Star Wars prequels do give us a solid example of a negative character arc.
Anakin goes from being an innocent boy with so much hero potential, to becoming a Dark Lord of the Sith, in the span of three movies, and mostly in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Here’s the general progression:
- The Goal: Anakin wants to save the ones he loves from death
- The Lie: He believes that if he learns all he can about the Force, he can do it. He also believes that the Jedi are holding him back from achieving his goal.
- The Truth: In seeking for the goal, Anakin is actually creating the problem he seeks to stop. There are consequences to his actions.
In the end, Anakin ends up drawn down a lonely path, without any loved ones. Because he rejected the Truth and continued to pursue the Lie anyway, which led to his downfall.
Case Study: Walter White in Breaking Bad
One of the best examples of a negative arc in recent years is Breaking Bad. In it, Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, discovers he has cancer and chooses to make crystal meth as a way of financing the treatments.
His negative story arc follows the same process:
- The Goal: Walter wants to sell enough meth to pay for cancer treatment and secure his family’s future.
- The Lie: Walter is prideful. He believes that his situation entitles him to break the law. He believes he can do so with no consequences.
- The Truth: Walter doesn’t realize that his actions will have consequences, that he cannot protect his family from them, and that his actions will make things worse.
In the end, Walter ends up without a family, without a job, and in mortal danger because of what he did, and because he did not recognize the Truth and turn from the Lie in time.
How to Write a Flat Character Arc
A flat character already knows the Truth before the story starts, or at least within Act 1. They do not need it for their own change.
Instead, the people around flat characters are affected and go through the process of learning and growing.
The steps for those people are the same:
- The Goal: A flat character will likely have a goal, but will help bring others along with them in the pursuit of that goal
- The Lie: The other characters will see the flat character and get the wrong idea, thinking they are all pursuing the goal for the wrong reason
- The Truth: The flat character will help reveal the Truth to the supporting characters, helping them see the true goal.
Flat characters aren’t necessarily good or bad. They can be either, or they can be gray. But they do usually serve as bouncing boards for other characters in their own journey.
Case Study: William Wallace in Braveheart
William Wallace is the perfect example of a flat character. William’s goals and ideals never change throughout the course of Braveheart. He remains the same.
However, as the story progresses he manages to inspire others, bringing them to his side, and convincing them of the need for Scottish freedom.
This is especially true of Robert the Bruce, who goes through a positive change arc that looks something like this:
- The Goal: William convinces Robert to join with him in achieving Scottish independence.
- The Lie: Robert believes that full-scale war is the wrong action, that more can be accomplished through peaceful negotiations, or by working with the English king.
- The Truth: Robert eventually learns through William’s conviction that he was wrong, that Scottish independence is worth fighting for.
In the end, others have character arcs in this film, but not William. He is the instigator of those arcs.
Alright, so we’ve talked about what character arcs are, why they’re important, and how to create them.
All that said, remember that the most important thing you can do to create a character arc (or do anything as a writer, really) is to take the time to deliberately practice.
The more you practice, the more you will get good at building characters, and the more you will improve as an author.