When I first wrote this guide to character arcs in 2014, I got one important thing right: character arcs are not ethereal unicorns; they follow the same principles as other plot arcs. However, at the time I didn’t know that much about plotting. Plus, great advice not only explains storytelling theory, but also helps writers avoid common pitfalls and address practical concerns. So I’ve returned to give this important topic the coverage it deserves. You can still read the 2014 version via PDF.
What’s a Character Arc?
Let’s start by making sure we’re on the same page, since many writing terms are defined differently. As mentioned above, character arcs have a problem, turning point, and resolution like other arcs do. What’s different is that this arc is personal and specific to a single character, and both the problem and resolution are defined by their thoughts, feelings, or personality.
For instance, if a character is bored living in the country but would be perfectly happy after moving to a big city, that’s not a character arc because it can be solved just by an external change in their surroundings. If they’re bored in the country, but they feel obligated to stay there to make their family happy, that’s a character arc. To solve that problem, their priorities or outlook needs to change. A character arc is fought and won inside the character’s mind, which is why I often refer to arcs like these as internal arcs.
After a character arc resolves, their thoughts, feelings, or personality will have changed. A character that overcomes their inner challenges grows as a person, whereas a character that succumbs to their demons will end up in a worse state than before.
While all character arcs fit this general template, many people are familiar with several more specific terms.
- Redemption arcs are a broad category of arcs used for characters transitioning from evil to good. However, they could be at any point along that transition, making their arcs look entirely different. Maybe they need to learn that they shouldn’t be evil, or maybe evil is long behind them and they’re trying to make up for past deeds.
- Downward arcs refer to characters who fail and become worse people through the course of the story. This is probably the most difficult arc to do well and is most useful for side characters who become villains.
- Flat arcs refer to arcs where the problem is created during the story, and the resolution returns the character to a state that’s somewhat similar to how they were before the problem appeared. I don’t recommend returning them to the exact state in which they started; that can make the whole arc feel pointless. However, overcoming challenges can further strengthen their resolve or give them something else to take away.
Because redemption and downward arcs can be challenging, I recommend reading advice specifically on those if you are doing them. However, for flat arcs or any other type of arc, these directions should cover you.
Why Stories Need Character Arcs
Character arcs serve two important functions in most stories:
- Emotional depth. They supply stories with an emotional side, provide a focal point for character emotions, and give emotions purpose.
- Meaning. They give the audience something to take away. This is because the struggle within a character is usually more relevant to our real lives than the external conflicts they’re dealing with.
Meaning isn’t exclusive to character arcs; there are other ways of adding that. However, when writers try to add emotional depth without thinking through their character arcs, they end up with what I call “emotional spaghetti.” Instead of telling a coherent story about what a character is going through, they spew strands of possible arcs all over the place. For an example of what this looks like, see my critique of Eldest.
That means if you’re writing something as big as a novel and you don’t want it to come off as shallow, you should choose an arc for your protagonist. For narrated stories especially, readers will expect to see emotions inside your protagonist’s head, and the protagonist’s arc will give you direction. If you’re discovery writing, keep track of any emotional or behavioral problems you describe that readers are likely to notice. Choose the most compelling to focus on.
Side characters also benefit from character arcs; however, they have to fit into less page space. Plus, if the character doesn’t have their own viewpoint (recommended in most cases), it won’t be as easy to communicate what the arc is to your audience. For this reason, arcs for side characters are usually simpler. However, as long as your story has room for a few more things, they’ll make it richer.
Similarly, you can give important characters multiple arcs, but in most cases, those arcs should be closely related. For instance, a character who was betrayed could have both trust issues and a low self-worth as a result of that one event. Closely related arcs will make it easier for you to cover them both without spreading yourself too thin.
Next, let’s go into what types of problems you can use in your arcs.
Selecting a Problem for Your Character Arc
The problem that opens a character arc can take countless forms. I’ve listed common choices below to help you start thinking about what type of problem you want.
- Discontent. The character might be unhappy with their current life for a variety of reasons, such as feeling pressure to conform, not being sure about who they are or what they want, or making too many sacrifices for the sake of others.
- Turmoil over past events. The character might be experiencing anger, grief, doubt, or bitterness originating from something in their backstory (or in the current story).
- Hostility. The character has a distaste for something they should like, whether it’s a group they should be allied with, the land they just settled in, or an important aspect of themself.
- Misplaced loyalty. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the character might be loyal to someone or something they should break away from.
- Insecurity. The character might lack confidence, feel worthless, or have trouble believing that anyone likes them.
- Immorality. The character may prioritize their own welfare over others, become overly punitive after being wronged, or show preferential treatment toward family, friends, or allies when it isn’t appropriate.
- Poor judgment. The character is making choices that aren’t in their own best interest because they are impulsive, angry, or scared.
As long as the audience believes inner change is desirable, then it’s a problem that will work for a character arc. This means that depending on how you depict your character and their traits, you can change whether those traits look like problems. This is useful not only for starting character arcs, but also for avoiding them.
For instance, a character who doesn’t believe in anything may not be perceived as having a problem. However, if you make the character bitter and disillusioned about not believing, then an arc has started. Similarly, you may want a paranoid character without feeling obligated to give them an arc that reduces or removes the trait. If you make their paranoia not only push friends away but also help catch bad guys, it’s no longer a problem, just a quirk with downsides and upsides.
Whatever problem you choose must be clearly communicated to your audience. While your character may act in a variety of strange ways in response to their problem, seeing a character act out isn’t usually enough to clarify what the problem is. Use thoughts, dialogue, or a little exposition to help the audience understand your character.
In many cases, you will want to provide an explanation for why your character has the problem they do. If they have an inherent personality flaw such as impulsiveness, it may not be necessary. However, if they’re bitter or hateful, you’ll want to explain how they got that way. If they are making bad choices, describing how this behavior is a response to hardship will increase sympathy. Go ahead and use exposition to fill in how they got the way they are; just don’t make it longer than necessary.
Remember that a protagonist needs strengths as well as flaws. A common mistake is focusing so hard on giving protagonists room for growth that the audience doesn’t have enough to like about them. We have more information on cultivating likability elsewhere, so below, let’s just review a few character flaws with a high risk of destroying it.
- Selfishness. This is anything that involves a protagonist causing harm to people who don’t deserve it, particularly if it’s for the character’s own benefit. Generally, audiences do not like selfish characters. If you’re already set on using selfishness, I have an article on how to make it work. Otherwise, you’d be better off choosing another problem.
- Arrogance. A big ego tells the audience that a character has coasted through life, easily dismantling the obstacles they encountered. This kills sympathy, an important ingredient for likability. If you merely want your protagonist to act arrogant, they could fake it to cover their insecurity. However, you’ll have an easier time if you choose something else.
- Bigotry. It’s okay for your protagonist to dislike another group of people who are on equal footing with them. However, if they are oppressing vulnerable people, particularly people who are clearly stand-ins for real-world groups, that will hit close to home for many audience members. It’s understandable that some storytellers want to teach a lesson about how bigotry is bad, but it’s a huge trap.
You may have some idea of what character arc you want, but don’t get too attached to it yet. First, you need to ensure that your arc will work with the rest of your story.
Fitting a Character Arc Into the Plot
Unless you’re writing micro or flash fiction, your story probably has higher stakes than how one person feels. That doesn’t mean the story is full of knife fights and car chases. It might have moderate stakes such as whether a character loses their job or has to give up a prized possession. Alternately, your story might be a romance or a tale of family reconciliation, in which the biggest stakes are the success or failure of a relationship.
For our purposes, the parts of your plot that provide the highest stakes and the most tension are your external arcs. The presence of an external arc is very freeing for a character arc. Character arcs don’t have to maintain the story’s tension, set the pace, or create structure, because the external arc will do that.
However, this also means it’s essential for characters to make progress on their personal arc while dealing with the external problems. It’s the external arc that keeps readers interested in the story; you can’t ditch it to depict the character arc. You have to multitask, and that means making sure your internal and external arcs work together well.
If you already have an external arc for your story, look through it for opportunities for emotion and growth. What emotional hang-ups might your character have when working through the problems you’ve created? On the other hand, if you’re most passionate about your character arc, you can craft an external arc to match. What perfect storm could force your character to confront their problems and grow as a person?
- If one of the lovebirds in your romance has troubling trusting the other, give them deeper trust issues resulting from a time their trust was broken.
- If your character is timid and bereft of confidence, force them to assume a leadership role and issue commands.
- If your character will learn that a parental figure was deceiving them, make them feel like they need that person’s approval to be worth something.
In all of the above examples, growing as a person will allow the character to be more successful when tackling external problems. That’s ideal, but as long as your character has the opportunity to work through their personal problems while exciting things happen, you can make it work.
Let’s go over the two most common problems when matching external and internal arcs like these.
1. They Have Nothing to Do With Each Other
Let’s say your character arc is about your protagonist’s discomfort with children, and in your external plot, they go on secret spy missions where they fight assassins. After you write a chapter with an assassin fight, you spend several scenes where they deal with the children next door.
That’s not good. If you feel the need to alternate between your arcs like that, stop and rework them so you can multitask. In this case, the simplest answer would be to give the character a spy mission that requires them to deal with children. Maybe the minister’s child has been kidnapped. After rescuing the child, the hero must hole up with them and keep them from crying.
Your story will still have exciting scenes where the protagonist fights enemies and quieter scenes where they bond with the child, but these scenes are relevant to both arcs. Your protagonist has to protect the child to get over their discomfort with children, and successfully handling the child is essential to their spy mission.
2. The Character Digs in Their Heels
Less commonly, a character that’s being pressured to face their problems and grow may simply refuse to do anything. For instance, because that spy mission involves children, and the protagonist doesn’t like children, they just won’t go on the mission.
It’s up to you to find ways to motivate your protagonist to take those first few steps. Then remember that character arcs aren’t all or nothing. Maybe your protagonist accepts the mission rescuing the child but figures they will also bring along a nanny to deal with the child for them. It works at first, but then the nanny betrays them. Now they have to get by without the nanny as a buffer.
Look for some baby steps. As long as the protagonist grudgingly accepts their new situation, they can learn to be less grudging about it later.
Forcing a character to confront problems that they’d rather ignore isn’t the only option for pairing external and internal arcs. Another option is for a character with flawed judgment or immoral leanings to create the external problem through their poor choices. Because it’s easy to damage likability this way, this method is most often used for sympathetic villains. However, if done very carefully, it can work for protagonists. The Nightmare Before Christmas is an example.
Keeping a Character Arc Going
You’ve selected a character problem that jives with your external plot. Now you just need to work in the character arc throughout the story. Here’s what to think about.
Keep the Character Arc Present
If a third of the story goes by and a character’s arc hasn’t made some difference to their words, thoughts, or mannerisms, it will feel like their problem doesn’t exist anymore. Then if you mention it later, it will feel like it popped back into existence. That is, unless events in the story explain why the arc took a back seat. Maybe your character forgot their problem while they were on a magical drug, only to feel it come roaring back as soon as they sobered up.
A character arc should be a steady presence throughout a character’s depiction. It doesn’t have to be equally emphasized in all chapters, but if readers spend an entire chapter with a character, they should probably see some sign of it.
Avoid Becoming Repetitive
If your character angsts about how much they hate their job in chapter 1, and does it again in chapter 2, and then once more in chapter 3, the audience will get tired of listening to them complain. The problem is that you’re spending lots of words on it in chapter 3 even though nothing has changed from chapter 1. It’s repetitive.
This can be fixed in two ways:
- Cut down the number of words devoted to their angst. That doesn’t mean they aren’t angsting anymore, only that you shouldn’t go into great detail about their thoughts and feelings. Instead, you might briefly describe how they sigh and grumble like usual or allude back to their previous rant.
- Give the character arc some movement by changing the situation. Maybe they’ve decided that they’ve had it with this job, and they’re looking for a way out. Maybe a new hire makes them see the job in a better light. Or maybe they discover everything is much worse than they thought.
Don’t get in a contest of “feelings one-upmanship” with yourself. If a character has strong feelings in one chapter, giving them the same feelings but stronger in the next chapter will probably be tiresome and melodramatic. If you need to do that, leave room to grow by treading lighter in the early chapters. Look for ways to change the nature of the character’s feelings, not just the intensity.
Design Learning Experiences
Because character arcs cover such a wide variety of problems, the moments that push characters to change are also varied. However, many arcs benefit from one or more of the following types of learning experiences.
- Being forced to face something they’d rather avoid. Since most people would rather not deal with things they hate, are afraid of, or that make them uncomfortable, forcing them to do that is a good way to catalyze change. Facing down problems can give characters new insights or bolster their confidence the next time they deal with it.
- Having an unexpected positive or negative experience. A character that dislikes something could find themselves enjoying or admiring it for a brief moment before shaking the feeling off. A character with misplaced loyalty might have a bad experience that makes them wonder if the other side has a point.
- Receiving new information that changes their outlook. A character influenced by something in their past may learn something about that history that helps them find closure. Otherwise, new information can change their mind about the value of things around them or the effects of their own actions.
- Hearing advice from someone they trust. Particularly for characters without a viewpoint, dialogue with another character can be an important way of showing how they are feeling and gently pushing them to change. However, I don’t recommend using it more than a couple times per arc. It’s likely to get repetitive, and character change that only happens because of pressure from other characters may not feel genuine. Speaking of which, this should be gentle advice, not controlling demands. “Tough love” will feel toxic to many audience members.
- Making a bad decision and learning from the consequences. When a character fails to get past their problem and makes a poor decision, it will feel like a setback. However, it’s often the opposite. It allows the character to see the harm they caused and realize they should have made a different choice. Remorse can be a powerful motivator.
A full understanding of why your character has the problem they do can be helpful here, because it allows you to target the root cause. Let’s say your protagonist hates wizards, and they get over that hate by having good experiences with wizards. If you establish the protagonist started to hate wizards after listening to propaganda from a rival faction of sorcerers, then they can also learn that those sorcerers were not trustworthy. This is often a powerful way to help a character grow.
Regardless of the learning method, proactively communicate to your audience about your character’s state during these events. Audiences need to witness that the character has made progress and have a clear explanation for what caused it. That doesn’t mean you have to state it outright. A character that wavers over something they used to feel sure about has clearly changed, even if that change is small.
Similarly, if a friend turns against the character, the audience will expect that to have an impact. Just make sure the way it influences the character is intuitive or clearly explained. If a friend leaving makes them feel more sure about themself than before, why is that?
Creating a Turning Point
Like other arcs, character arcs benefit from a decisive turning point. Even if it’s not needed to maintain the overall tension of the story, it gives the audience a nice dose of satisfaction. After the turning point, the character’s transformation is complete.
Turning points, even for external arcs, are inherently about what’s happening within a character. To earn their victory, a character has to prove their inner worth in a tough situation. For a character arc, the turning point will be a moment where the character either makes a final commitment to change or has a realization that allows them to finish their transformation. This could look different depending on how central the arc is in the story and whether the timing lines up with the external arc.
Using a Combined Internal-External Turning Point
As I mentioned, external turning points are still about what’s inside the character. That means the character arc and external arc can share a turning point at the story’s climax. All you need is a reason why committing to change allows the protagonist to solve their external problem.
That brings us back to having an ideal pairing between the internal and external arcs. Below are my three examples of character arcs that affect the success of an external arc, with a possible turning point for both arcs added.
- The protagonist in your romance is having trouble connecting because of their trust issues. Heading into the climax, circumstances conspire to make the love interest look suspicious. The protagonist has to choose to trust them anyway or turn against them.
- The timid protagonist has been trying to lead a scrappy band of rebels against a more powerful force. In the past, the protagonist mostly nudged each rebel behind the scenes. As the group faces down their enemies during the climax, the rebels panic and fall to pieces. To turn the situation around, the protagonist must take charge and radiate confidence.
- Despite yearning for their approval, the protagonist has broken away from their deceiving parent figure. Now the two must face each other in a final showdown. To convince the protagonist to switch sides again, the antagonist provides a somewhat plausible story of their own innocence and says they are proud of the protagonist despite the conflict. The protagonist must reject this offer of approval.
The turning point for the external arc always happens at the climax of the whole story, so it needs to be riveting. This means it’s critical that the protagonist’s choice feels difficult but believable. If they’ve already made a lot of progress on their character arc, you’ll need to raise the difficulty level. Arrange events to make reverting to their previous self especially tempting.
You can also add a cost to making the right choice. For redemption arcs in particular, a former villain must make a personal sacrifice to prove beyond a doubt that they have changed. In my example of a protagonist who wants the approval of a parental figure, the protagonist must give up what they’ve yearned for even though it’s been handed to them on a silver platter.
Using a Separate Turning Point
While lining up your internal and external turning points creates a powerful climax, it isn’t the only option. While a central character arc should still be resolved near the end of a story, it can come before or after the main climax. Generally, this means it’s not as difficult or tense.
Putting it ahead is most useful when you need to restore hope. Many stories have a dramatic reversal where all seems lost right before the climax. When that happens, the audience needs to feel like there’s still a chance of success, or the story may become too gloomy and lose tension. There’s where the character arc comes in.
Because of the emphasis on hope, these turning points aren’t usually as difficult for the character. The character earns success by recognizing their past mistakes or translating new information into an insightful conclusion. With the resolution of their character arc, their new inner clarity allows them to recover emotionally, come up with a plan if that’s needed, and face the climactic challenge.
When the turning point for the character arc comes after the story’s climax, that means the character arc is concluding in epilogue, after the high tension arc has resolved. This makes for a lower tension, feel-good moment. In some cases, the character may be gifted with important insight as a reward for resolving the external arc. They can also have their own realization or make an important choice, but it doesn’t need to feel difficult. At that point in the story, everything is being tied up.
As you conclude your character arc, make sure your audience can see a noticeable difference in the character. The beginning and end of the story should provide a nice before and after shot, demonstrating how events have forever changed your character.
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