Character arcs can be tricky to work into a story. If the story is focused on external problems, we may struggle to squeeze our character arcs in. If the story is more internally focused, we have to make character arcs bigger and more elaborate so we won’t run out of content. On top of that, our feelings are often amorphous, making it more difficult to organize them on the page. Inevitably, that results in flawed character arcs. Let’s look at five of the most common character-arc blunders and how to fix them.
Spoiler Notice: The Sandman and Encanto
1. Critical Information Is Hidden
To pull off a character arc, you need to give your audience a clear understanding of the character’s problem and, often, the root cause behind it. For one thing, this helps build sympathy with the character. Sympathy bolsters a character’s likability, especially when a flaw causes them to do questionable things. For another, without a clear problem, there is no clear solution. It’s not as satisfying to watch a character change when you don’t understand how that’s happening.
Audience understanding of character problems can be sabotaged in many ways, and one of them is when storytellers hold back critical information on purpose. Perhaps the narrative only hints at an important incident in the character’s backstory that shaped who they are, or the character exhibits strange behavior, but readers are left to guess why they act that way.
If this is happening for a central protagonist or viewpoint character, it’s what we call a meta mystery. Meta mysteries are popular, because storytellers love the idea of flashy reveals and don’t understand the importance of information in building attachment to their characters. Unfortunately, these mysteries matter much less than the attachment does, and they wreak havoc on character arcs.
In Carnival Row, protagonist Philo is supposed to be undergoing a character arc that involves embracing his fairy heritage. But for the first three episodes, viewers don’t even know he’s half fairy. It’s unclear why he’s rejecting a committed relationship with his human lover. Without knowing his background, the signs that he yearns to be more connected with other fairies are easily missed.
In The Way of Kings, Dalinar has trouble acting on his feelings for Navani because of something that happened to his dead wife. At first, readers have no idea what happened, giving them no clue about Dalinar’s hang-up. Then, they find out a supernatural being erased Dalinar’s memories of his wife, but they don’t find out why. Dalinar might have even chosen to have his memories erased. Without knowing what Dalinar feels so guilty about, readers can’t understand him, empathize with him fully, or anticipate how he might make progress.
If you’re doing something similar, give up the flashy reveal – it won’t mean that much to readers anyway – and instead build understanding. Once you don’t have to hide the character’s issue anymore, you’ll not only be able to clarify their arc for your audience, but you’ll also be able to explore their feelings in more depth. Tiptoeing around your character’s problem inevitably means neglecting their emotional journey.
2. The Problem Lacks Focus
A good problem is specific. If you define your character’s problem too broadly or give them multiple issues that blur together, their arc loses clarity. At that point, the audience will only see a confusing assortment of bad behavior. It might look like the character is a general asshole rather than having a specific flaw to overcome. This can damage not just their character arc but likability as well.
A great example is Morpheus in The Sandman TV show. He exhibits three different negative patterns of behavior. All three of these issues are needed to explain the way Morpheus behaves, and each can exist without the others.
- He’s prideful. He leaves his kingdom to fall apart instead of negotiating with his captors.
- He clings to tradition rather than adapting. A nightmare he created rebels because she wants to be a dream instead, and he won’t let her change.
- He’s callous to the suffering of others. Because of the damage to his likability, the writers weren’t consistent with this trait. However, when Morpheus enacts cruel policies, he usually disregards the feelings of those affected.
Having three separate problems puts the burden on the writers to show viewers three different turning points to get Morpheus past all of this. That’s a real challenge, and we’re left with various learning moments that don’t seem to correspond with his personal growth.
For instance, in episode nine, Morpheus callously tells a new mother that he’s going to show up someday and steal her child. Then, in episode ten, Morpheus feels he has no choice but to kill the innocent Rose Walker, but he speaks to her in a soothing voice and promises she’ll continue to exist in his kingdom. What made him compassionate between episodes? It can’t be the lesson in compassion he received from his sister Death, because that happened in episode six.
To avoid these issues, first look at what your character’s problem is, and think about how many different behaviors could result. Flaws like selfishness and immaturity are both very broad and can manifest in a variety of different ways. You want a character problem that’s more specific than that. Instead of selfishness, consider a character that only looks out for themself. Instead of immaturity, consider a character that’s impulsive or avoids hard work.
Then, take a close look at how many problems your character has. When writing emotions, it’s easy to insert moments of poor judgement or internal turmoil that could look like a character arc. Every problem you have for your character puts more burden on you to address it at some point. If you’re writing a series, you may want problems to resolve in future books, but keeping up with additional problems still reduces the time you have for more important arcs.
Generally, it’s hard for even a main character to deal with more than two problems in one book. Excess problems should be removed or reframed so they no longer look like problems. Turn a flaw into a quirk by showing how it benefits the character sometimes.
Then, whenever possible, make one problem the cause of the other problem. That way, they can be resolved at once, so you don’t have to juggle so many turning points. For example, perhaps Morpheus refuses to change because he’s too prideful about the way he’s always done things. If you communicate this clearly to your audience, then once his pride is addressed, the refusal to change can go away too.
3. Growth Areas Define the Character
Based on much of the writing advice we have today, you’d think that a flawed character is synonymous with a multifaceted one. Character flaws are beautiful, lovable, and fascinating. Sophisticated works for serious writers focus on character flaws, whereas trashy escapist works don’t. Given all this messaging, it’s no surprise that many writers allow their main character to be defined by an all-consuming flaw.
Take the titular Gemma Doyle, who exhibits nothing but petty racism in the opening chapters. She says terrible things about India, a place her people are actively occupying and oppressing, and is mean to her relatively kind and reasonable mother. This is because her mother is about to be murdered, and Gemma will be sent to England to have an even worse time. But setting up future guilt and regret is not the only thing we need to do with our characters. Gemma has nothing else.
Similarly, Eddie from the 2018 Venom is just a bundle of ego. He’s supposed to be a hard-hitting journalist who helps people, but he disregards the welfare of others to serve his pride. Again, this is to set up for his downfall. Because he recklessly steals information and reveals it without doing substantive investigative work, he gets fired and his fiancée leaves him. His arc is clear, but it didn’t require him to be completely detestable to start with. He could have been genuinely fighting for the downtrodden while also harboring a destructive ego.
A character with nothing but a big flaw is a flat character. You also don’t need to shout your character’s problem to the heavens. As long as your audience notices that your character is unhappy or has a couple instances of similar, troublesome behavior, it’ll come across.
A character’s arc also isn’t the only thing you need to consider for important protagonists. What’s your strategy for making them likable? What strengths does your character have? After all, every character needs a little candy. How does your character contribute to solving problems?
As a positive model, consider Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Dr. Horrible from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. All three characters have large flaws that ultimately bring trouble to the good people around them. However, they still care about others, try to protect their own, and usually avoid doing unnecessary harm. They also each have some admirable skills.
When you introduce a protagonist, you need to communicate their flaws and their strengths. Give a broad audience a good reason to root for your character’s success.
4. The Issue Gets Repetitive
If the character arc is important, it will probably last through most of the story. Central protagonists generally overcome their personal problems in the last quarter. But what do you do with all the space leading up to that? When the problem is external and exciting, writers are more likely to have some idea of what to do. Your chosen-one hero has to get their enchanted sword, fight some minions, sneak into the evil lands of the big bad, and then they can battle the big bad at the climax.
Because internal problems are more subtle in most stories, we can struggle to come up with ideas for how to break the problem down into smaller obstacles. Without that, the protagonist spends most of the story bemoaning their unhappy state or being obnoxious until they make a sudden 180 at the end. Inevitably, this feels frustrating and repetitive to audiences. A character ranting about their bitterness for the third time is too many times.
Take Youko from the anime The Twelve Kingdoms. She’s a chosen one who’s slated to rule the fantasy kingdom of Kei. However, she doesn’t feel qualified to rule, so she isn’t sure she’ll accept.* Over several episodes, multiple members of Team Good give Youko big speeches about how she would be a great ruler. The emphasis on these speeches is enough to make them feel like turning points that will allow her to accept the throne. But in the next episode, Youko says exactly the same thing she did before, making the speeches feel pointless. Her lack of progress is especially frustrating because it holds up the external plot. She can’t claim her kingdom from an imposter until she decides she wants it.
To avoid this kind of repetition, you need to give your character arc movement. The audience should see your character getting closer to the end of their arc. As long as their internal state has changed from the last time you emphasized their arc, it won’t feel repetitive.
Thankfully, if you have an external arc to create tension, you don’t need to worry about escalating their struggle. They can slowly and steadily improve. However, you’ll need clear signs to communicate that they’ve made progress but they’re not all the way there yet. In The Twelve Kingdoms, Youko does make some progress, because, initially, she denies being the chosen one at all. Acknowledgement is her first step in accepting her new role, and it’s easy to show, because she no longer makes denials.
However, breaking a character’s progress into steps looks different for every arc. Sometimes it helps to make the character’s problem a little worse so you have more ground to cover. Besides initial denial, your character could start by opening up about issues they previously wouldn’t discuss, or they might grudgingly put up with a situation because they think it’s only temporary. If they appear to master one situation, you can raise the difficulty for the next one, taking them farther and farther from their comfort zone.
As an example, a character that doesn’t trust anyone could:
- Start as a loner.
- Begin coordinating with one person occasionally just to survive.
- Grudgingly agree to a temporary alliance with Team Good to defeat a specific enemy but refuse to make friends.
- Inadvertently get to know and like the people on Team Good but still insist they’re better alone.
- Finally agree to stay with the team permanently.
If you’re not able to make progress on a character arc for a while, don’t focus on it too much. You don’t want it to disappear, but big speeches or drama will get old. Instead, the character can make small choices or short statements that reflect their current state, such as asking not to be called “friend” or “Your Majesty,” going off without alerting others, or closing up when a sensitive issue is mentioned.
5. The Turnaround Is Inexplicable
All of the work you put into your character arc should pay off when the character finally learns their lesson and turns around – or, in the case of a downward arc, when they fall from grace. However, this payoff won’t happen unless the audience not only gets to watch the transformation but believes it.
Unfortunately, the final turning point of a character arc is often neglected, because it’s a matter of time investment. In particular, the writers of big-budget stories are always trying to stuff as many cool things as possible into a small space. But realistic character change takes time. If the character transformation is too big and the time allotted for it is too small, the conclusion to their arc is likely to be unsatisfying.
While arcs for main characters have been botched this way, it’s most common with side characters. Side characters are often more flawed to create conflict for the hero, and they don’t get as much screen time to figure themselves out or make amends.
For instance, in Disney’s Encanto, Abuela acts as an antagonist to Mirabel. She says insensitive things that make Mirabel feel inadequate, and she blames Mirabel for the weakening state of the family powers. However, Abuela is causing this problem herself by making the family unhappy. At the movie’s climax, the two finally get into a heated confrontation. Abuela yells that it’s Mirabel’s fault, and Mirabel yells that it’s Abuela’s. As a result of their fight, the magical family home is completely destroyed.
Mirabel runs off, and Abuela comes to find her. Somehow, offscreen, Abuela has completely turned around. She now understands the problem is her fault and that she’s been cruel to Mirabel. But how did she get that way? While it’s possible that Mirabel yelling at her had an effect, most people would get defensive and double down in that situation. More importantly, we see no sign that she takes Mirabel’s words to heart during the fight.
If you want your character to make a dramatic turnaround at a climactic moment, you first need something powerful enough to turn them around. In this case, it was powerful enough for Abuela to learn she was the cause of the problem she was so worried about. Then, the character transformation has to happen onscreen in a realistic manner.
Most people get defensive when they learn that they have caused problems. Giving the character enough time to put up a defense and then letting that defense crumble will aid believability. After Mirabel told Abuela that she was responsible, Abuela could deny it, and then the rest of the family could put their support behind Mirabel. Since Mirabel helped her sisters uncover their problems earlier, this might be their way of giving back to her. Then, after facing the whole family, Abuela might finally accept that her behavior was a problem.
If you don’t have much time to devote to bringing a character around, make their issue as mild as you can get away with. It’s much easier for a character who has said a few careless words to learn a lesson than it is for a character that’s been abusive for years.
Character arcs are a great opportunity to add more emotional depth to your story. To stay on the right track, be ready to explore your character’s psyche and communicate clearly about it to your audience.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?