Character arcs come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they fade seamlessly into the plot, but other times the characters go through major changes and become different people by the end. Both types of arc are valid, but it’s the second category we’re looking at today. When done correctly, these transformation arcs keep a character in the audience’s mind long after the story ends. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples out there.
Spoiler Notice: Small Gods, Unavowed, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Long-time readers of Mythcreants can tell you that I am required by law to mention Discworld at least once a week. For this article, we’re specifically looking for strong arcs. To that end, we’re skipping over the giants like Vimes and Granny Weatherwax to a character we only see once: Om, from Small Gods.
At first glance, Om may seem like an odd choice, since he’s not a human at all, but rather the supposedly all-powerful god of a major religion on the Disc. But Om has a problem: it turns out that all the Omnians have stopped believing in him personally, and now the entire religion is maintained on momentum and fear of persecution.* That means Om starts the book trapped in the body of a tortoise, without any of his powers and only able to communicate with one acolyte.
Despite these humble circumstances, Om is an arrogant jerk who only cares about getting his powers back. He’s a god after all, so the troubles of mere mortals are beneath him. From a bird’s-eye view, the rest of the book is a straightforward growth arc, eventually culminating in Om being redeemed when he sacrifices himself to save his only faithful follower. But thanks to a few key details, this arc is one of the strongest in Discworld, and of any spec fic book for that matter.
The first detail is Om’s divine origin. If a human character acted the way Om does, they’d probably be too insufferable for readers to care about their arc. But because Om is a god, we extend him some credit. He actually is supposed to be above the troubles of us mere mortals, so a little bit of attitude is understandable. Om also starts off the book by being seriously humbled, stuck as a powerless tortoise and all, which makes him sympathetic.
From there, Om slowly learns to be a better person by watching the benevolent actions of his only faithful follower. This reversal of the normal divine theming is super novel, and it convincingly guides Om to a point where it’s totally believable that he’d sacrifice himself to save a human. But it also makes us like Om a lot, so when he is flooded with renewed belief instead of dying like expected, we cheer. This is the type of brilliant execution that makes Pratchett worth reading.
For this second entry, we’re stepping outside the box and looking not at a novel, TV show, or comic, but at a video game. Unavowed is a point-and-click adventure game of urban fantasy in New York City. The game has mediocre mechanics but an enthralling story that handily earns it a place on this list.
Unavowed’s protagonist can be named whatever the player wishes, but I call her Mel because that was her name in my playthrough.* After a short prologue, Mel is possessed by a supernatural entity of some sort and loses consciousness. Cut to a year later, and Mel is exorcised only to find out that the demon has been using her body to commit dozens of murders and other heinous crimes. Her only hope to avoid prosecution is to join the titular Unavowed, a secret society that protects people from the supernatural.
The first part of Mel’s arc is dealing with her guilt over the crimes committed with her body, even as she’s learning where she fits among the tightly knit Unavowed. The main story brings Mel’s guilt into sharp focus when it turns out that the demon who possessed her is still on the loose, and in order to stop it, Mel must come face to face with victims of the demon’s crimes.
You can influence some of the details in how Mel reacts via dialogue choices, but the general arc remains the same: Mel must accept that she is not responsible for what the demon did while in her body. This is accomplished primarily through compelling dialogue with other members of the Unavowed, and it’s externally illustrated by Mel’s increasing skill at dealing with the supernatural. The game also drops plenty of subtle foreshadowing about how this demon is normally associated with knowledge, not murder and death – how strange.
Then there’s the big twist: it’s revealed that Mel actually is the demon, a knowledge demon summoned by an evil human who forced her to help perform terrible magic. The exorcism accidentally pushed the human’s soul out, leaving Mel in control, where she unconsciously assumed a human identity as a defense against her trauma.
Not only is this a super cool plot development, but it opens an entirely new arc for Mel: learning to accept her identity. She doesn’t remember being a demon, and her human memories are a lie, so who is she? What is she? This arc doesn’t get quite the same amount of space to develop as the first, but it’s still handled really well through dialogue and character interactions. Unavowed essentially gives you two character arcs for the price of one.*
Speaking of two-for-one deals, I’ve grouped these Cardassian boys together because their arcs naturally merge until they’re almost one. First we have Gul Dukat, who begins life as a major villain on Deep Space Nine. He oversaw the Cardassian occupation of Bajor in the backstory, and in the present he intends to reclaim that lost territory by any means necessary.
But then he begins to change. Over the first three seasons, he steadily becomes more sympathetic, first by working with Sisko to defuse tensions in a dangerous border territory, then by accepting his half-Bajoran daughter even though it means the end of his political career. He’s not a nice person, but he’s someone the good guys can work with. He becomes even more sympathetic when he launches a guerrilla war against the Klingons who’ve invaded Cardassian territory.
Dukat seems firmly on the path to being a good guy when he pulls another 180 and allies with the expansionist Dominion in exchange for more power. It turns out none of that progress was enough to overcome his inherent need to dominate others. Fortunately, he gets defeated a little while later, and that’s where Damar’s arc begins.*
We first meet Damar when he’s Dukat’s lieutenant, and for a few seasons, he’s little more than a background minion. But when Dukat is defeated and captured, the Dominion choose Damar as the next leader of Cardassia. At first, he tries to follow in Dukat’s footsteps, but he quickly becomes disillusioned with the Dominion, both from the way they treat Cardassia like occupied territory and from how they treat him personally.
Damar then makes the transition that Dukat couldn’t: he joins team good by rebelling against the Dominion. This is where he comes into his own, turning into the charismatic and capable leader he never was before. Making his arc even more poignant, he’s humble enough to ask the Federation for help. That help comes in the form of former Bajoran resistance fighter, someone who learned her skills fighting against the Cardassian occupation of her world. Damar is only able to accept her assistance because of the progress he’s made.
These two arcs represent the Cardassian species as a whole and their role in Deep Space Nine. They are given the sort of complex development rarely scene in Star Trek, going from enemies to allies, back to enemies, and then finally allies again. We see every element of their society, from the evils of their authoritarian military rule to the people fighting against that rule. Dukat and Damar are a microcosm of their people, and they do that job with style.
In the first two seasons of her show, Korra is actually characterized by her frustrating lack of an arc. She’s arrogant and quick to use violence for every problem, even when the circumstances warrant a lighter touch. Despite this being a clear character flaw, the plot always twists itself into knots to justify her actions, so she never faces any consequences, thus giving her no grounds to start an arc.
This all changes near the end of season three, when Korra is captured by the villains and nearly executed in part of a plot to destroy the Avatar forever. While she is finally able to escape with the help of her friends, the experience is deeply traumatic and shows that her strategy of punching first and asking questions later won’t always work.
Most of season four is then spent on a recovery arc, where Korra processes what happened to her and tries to find her place in a world that seems to have moved on without her. First, we see Korra unable to defeat this season’s villain because she isn’t psychologically capable of using her full powers. Then, we see her wonder if she should be defeating the villain at all. Can’t someone else do it, she asks? Does the world even need her anymore?
It turns out the world does still need Korra, and her arc toward realizing that is beautiful. She gets heartfelt support from her friends, including a blossoming romance with Asami, and the occasional kick in her complacency by a gruff new mentor.*
At the end of this arc, we see a new side to Korra. She’s still confident in her abilities, but she’s developed a more cautious, wiser attitude. When she finally defeats the big villain, she also saves that villain from dying in the spirit world. The old Korra probably wouldn’t have bothered. This change is immensely gratifying, and the only downside is that it took so long to get there.
You didn’t think we were going to get through an article on strong character arcs without mentioning Zuko, now did you? This banished Fire Nation prince practically wrote the book on character arcs, and his fame is well deserved.
Zuko starts off as a powerful villain that the heroes can only flee from. Even with Aang’s airbending, they can’t hope to defeat Zuko in a direct confrontation. This threatening status fades as the good guys get stronger, but it’s replaced by something just as useful to the story: sympathy. We learn about how Zuko was banished because he spoke out against an unjust order from his father, and we see him struggle to relate to the soldiers under his command.*
These are the first steps in Zuko’s transformation. Over the first two seasons, we get to know him, and we see someone who generally wants to do the right and honorable thing, even if what that means has been twisted by his devotion to a conquest-driven Fire Nation. By the end of season two, he’s even split from the Fire Nation and seems ready to join team good.
But it turns out he isn’t yet. On the eve of becoming a full good guy, Zuko is offered everything he ever wanted back in the Fire Nation, and it’s too much for him to resist. He turns on the heroes and helps his villainous sister, Azula, win a devastating victory. That could have been the tragic end of his arc, but oh no, we’re not done with Zuko yet.
In season three, Zuko is back in the Fire Nation and he has everything he’s ever wanted. His father respects him, he’s a hero to his people, and he’s even starting a weird romance arc.* But it’s all hollow. He’s changed too much over the previous two seasons, and this isn’t really what he wants anymore, even if it took his conscious mind a long time to realize it. So after a lot of soul-searching, Zuko makes the choice to defect again, this time joining team good for real.
A less talented team might have ended Zuko’s arc here. He’s turned on the Fire Nation and is even teaching the Avatar firebending, so what’s left to do? But Zuko still has to resolve all that bad karma from early in the story. He might be on the right team now, but he still hurt people, and he has to make amends for that. So that’s just what he spends most of season three doing! Not only does he unconditionally apologize, but he goes on a special side quest with most of the other characters to help them resolve their own arcs.*
Zuko’s arc finally climaxes in his battle with Azula, but he doesn’t defeat her. Instead, he gives up his chance at glory to protect another character, leaving her to finish the fight. This is how we know Zuko’s arc is complete: his own glory is no longer his top priority. It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, and it’s probably the best part of Avatar’s finale.
While each of these arcs is different in specifics, they have a few basic things in common. Each story shows how the character is hindered by their flaw, creating audience expectation that the flaw will be addressed. Then the stories take their characters on careful journeys where they struggle with their flaws and eventually learn to be better. There’s just no substitute for the satisfaction such arcs bring, and we hope to see more of them in the future.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?