The Four Basic Requirements
While character arcs can be long and elaborate, you only need a few things to create a basic arc.
1. A Problem
All plot arcs open with a problem. In the case of a character arc, the character is either making poor choices, having unpleasant experiences, or both. This might represent a flaw the character has to overcome or a dissatisfaction with their current life.
If the audience believes that change is desirable, then the problem is effective. If the audience doesn’t see anything wrong with the character as they are, then the problem is missing. Storytellers who work too hard to demonstrate a problem can easily make their character unlikable. Flaws that work directly against likability, such as selfishness, need to be milder.
2. A Clear Cause
Whereas external problems don’t need much explanation, in the case of a character arc, the audience usually needs to understand why the problem is happening. First, understanding the problem’s cause helps the character with the problem gain sympathy. The audience should care whether the character solves their problem, and that’s more likely if they understand the issue at a deeper level.
Second, the cause of the problem is usually relevant when it comes time to turn the character around. It’ll be hard to meet requirement #3 if no one is on the same page about what’s motivating the character.
Finally, in some cases, understanding the problem is needed for believability. In particular, if a familiar character gains a new issue, the audience will wonder, “Why now?”
3. A Plausible Turning Point
Something during the story must credibly fix the problem. If the problem is rooted in the character’s judgment or outlook, then the unfolding events must convince the character that their ways are wrong.
If the character has a problem like loneliness, then the turning point might instead come when they meet someone new or otherwise gain something they didn’t have before. Whatever this is, it must match the problem and the problem’s cause.
4. Marked Improvement
The final step is demonstrating that the problem is better. It may be gone entirely, or, if this is one step in a bigger arc, it might still be present but much less severe. Often, this is done by recreating a scene from the story’s opening, one in which the problem reared its head. However, in the recreated scene, the problem is gone, and the character is happier. This gives the audience a nice before-and-after image. Specifically recreating a scene is not necessary, though; the important part is that the audience sees noticeable improvement.
Now, let’s examine some arcs that are lacking in one of these areas.
Botched Problem: Bellamy in The 100
In The 100’s season one episode We Are Grounders (Part 1), Bellamy Blake has a character arc designed to complete his transition from villain to hero. He’s the leader of the 100, a group of teen convicts evicted from their home in space and sent to fend for themselves in the wilderness. In this episode, several members of Team Good have failed to return to camp after they went hunting. A fellow protagonist, Jasper, tells Bellamy that they should go out to rescue the lost team members. Bellamy tells him that it’s too dangerous and everyone is needed at camp.
In most stories, it’s a given that Team Good should endanger themselves to rescue friends. It makes the protagonists look selfless, and it’s convenient for generating conflict. Unfortunately, the writers of The 100 relied on the commonness of this trope to demonstrate Bellamy’s character problem rather than finding something that fit their show.
The 100 is very dark, and events in the show completely change the context of Bellamy and Jasper’s argument. For one thing, three people died trying to rescue someone earlier in the season. Not only that, but the camp is preparing for an attack they know will come soon. If they’re going to survive it, everyone needs to be ready, and that won’t happen if their leader runs off somewhere. All of this makes Bellamy’s viewpoint look at least as legitimate as Jasper’s, if not more.
Bellamy’s turning point comes during a confrontation with an antagonist that he wronged during his days as a villain. The antagonist gets the better of Bellamy and tells him that he is a coward. Because Bellamy knows he wronged this person in the past, he listens.
After he makes it through alive, Bellamy declares that they’re going to rescue their friends. He also admits he was wrong, telling Jasper that staying at camp was cowardice rather than prudence. For anyone who missed that Bellamy’s choice was supposed to be a problem, this would be the first sign of a character arc in the episode. It feels baffling and frustrating that Bellamy suddenly agrees with Jasper when Bellamy was right the first time.
Fixing the Problem
When the audience doesn’t see a character’s behavior or feelings as a problem, you can either make the character act out more or tweak the context so the same behavior is more questionable. In this case, if people hadn’t already died in a rescue mission and the attack wasn’t coming soon, it would be easier to believe that Bellamy giving up on his friends was the wrong choice. Unfortunately, those things would require revising a lot more than this one episode.
For a smaller change, Bellamy could have shown his flaw another way. Maybe an antagonist challenges Bellamy to a duel of some kind. It could be the only way to resolve the conflict without a group battle, but Bellamy probably wouldn’t live through it. Bellamy could agree to the fight but then try to cheat his way out of it, endangering his fellows. This would give him something to own up to while not making it look like he’s deliberately sacrificing the lives of his people to save himself.
Botched Cause: Yennefer in the Witcher
In season one of The Witcher, the character Yennefer has a pretty baffling arc. Yennefer is an immortal mage who’s ruthless and self-serving, and she badly wants a biological child. She can’t bear children because of made-up magical reasons, so she goes to extreme measures to change that. These efforts not only put her and others in danger, but they probably wouldn’t work anyway.
Because her behavior is so extreme, Yennefer obviously has a problem. But why she wants a baby so badly is a real head-scratcher. To cover for this, The Witcher’s writers do what many writers do when their character motivation doesn’t cut it: instead of providing one strong reason for a character’s behavior, they give tons of weak ones. In real life, we sometimes have many small reasons for our choices, but that doesn’t work well in stories. Instead of convincing the audience, it confuses them.
In this case, the explanations appear in a series of events where Yennefer:
- Fails to save a baby and then tells the dead baby it’s actually lucky it’s dead because the world is terrible.
- Declares she wants “everything.”
- Says she dreamed of “becoming important to someone” when it’s obvious that she’s already important to Geralt.
- Rants about how the ability to bear children was wrongly taken away from her, when she knowingly agreed to it in order to get something she wanted and then only regretted her decision about 30 years later.
The baffling pursuit of a baby comes to an end when one of the head mages asks Yennefer to join the war against Nilfgaard, an empire that is using dark magic to conquer its neighbors. In asking, the head mage says, “Please,” and Yennefer responds, “Have you ever used that word before?” Surprisingly, this sways her to join the fight.
Once Yennefer’s on the battlefront, she describes how she had a new purpose in life and is at peace finally. She acts selflessly and makes no mention of wanting a baby anymore. But because the writers haven’t built a solid understanding of why Yennefer wanted a baby in the first place, the change to not wanting a baby feels just as sudden and arbitrary.
Fixing the Cause
What Yennefer’s arc needs is reasoning that puts the turning point and resolution of her arc in sync with the problem. Since the character arc closes with Yennefer finding purpose, the best explanation for wanting a baby would be that Yennefer lacked purpose and thought that having a baby would give her one. This might also be framed as specifically wanting to be needed, since the head mage convinces Yennefer to join the war with mannerisms that show her how badly she is needed. As much as Geralt loves Yennefer, he doesn’t depend on her.
It’s possible this reasoning was the intent of the writers, but if so, it wasn’t communicated. Conveying character motivation can be a little trickier for a character in a misguided pursuit of something that won’t really solve their problem, but it’s still quite doable. But first, the miscellaneous explanations must be dropped. You can’t get a message across with all that happening.
Instead, Yennefer might:
- Complain about how the king she abandoned is getting along just fine without her: If he didn’t need her, why was she even there?
- Tell Geralt that even though he says he loves her, whether or not she stays with him won’t really make a difference to his life as a witcher.
- Say she wants to be the reason for someone’s existence, and if she has a baby, she’ll contribute to something good for once.
All of this would make fighting for a good cause a more intuitive replacement for a baby.
Botched Turning Point: Sabine in Star Wars Rebels
In the Star Wars Rebels season one episode Out of Darkness, the Mandalorian character Sabine has a small arc designed to highlight her background and build a relationship with the ship’s captain, Hera. At this point in the show, the protagonists appear to be independent mercenaries. However, they have a grudge against the Empire, so they look for jobs that will hinder the Empire’s operations. A secret informant tells them which jobs are best.
Sabine is unhappy that she hasn’t met their secret informant, and the show provides a backstory reason for this. Previously, she attended the Imperial Academy, naively trusting that whatever she was ordered to do on behalf of the Empire would be for the greater good. The Empire betrayed her trust, so now she’s having trouble taking it on faith that the crew is doing good work. This is true even though she knows Hera well and believes that Hera also wants to fight the Empire.
When it’s time for Hera to meet up with the team’s informant to collect some cargo, Sabine wants to come, and she won’t take no for an answer. The two arrive at the meeting point to find that the informant dropped the cargo and left – maybe because Sabine was coming. As it turns out, the pickup place is full of monsters that come out after dark. Sabine and Hera work together to fight off the monsters and escape safely.
Afterward, Sabine makes a 180, telling Hera that she now trusts that what they’re doing is making a difference. This is strange because nothing happened that would reasonably change Sabine’s mind. Making characters face a threat together is a common way to get them to bond, but Sabine and Hera were already getting along just fine. In fact, it’s almost certain that they fought for their lives together previously. What’s more, if this was the resolution to a relationship arc between the two women, they should have met in the middle afterward. Instead, the episode describes precisely what is bothering Sabine and then depicts nothing that would impact that.
Fixing the Turning Point
While the episode demonstrates a problem well enough, it’s a little ambiguous about whether the issue is really that Sabine is making a poor judgment call in not trusting their missions or just that Sabine’s unhappy. This is because, logically, Sabine already knows Hera can be trusted. She’s just uncomfortable with taking someone’s else word for something so important. So, depending on storyteller preference, the plot could either demonstrate the destructiveness of trying to force the issue, or it could simply demonstrate that the crew really is making a difference, so Sabine doesn’t need as much faith anymore.
For the poor judgment option, it would be best if Sabine succeeds in finding out who the informant is. However, in doing so, she endangers the informant and their mission. She comes away with a new understanding of why it’s so important to keep the identities of their allies under wraps, and she resolves to deal with her discomfort in other ways.
For the unhappiness option, Sabine wouldn’t learn who the informant is. To help her earn a positive ending, she might give up the chance to learn the informant’s identity so she can successfully complete their mission. Then, after their work is complete, she might see an imperial Star Destroyer fall apart or some other big sign that their efforts are working. This makes her feel happy and confident again.
Botched Improvement: Murderbot in Artificial Condition
The Murderbot Diaries is a group of four novellas I highly recommend, particularly if you want an example of an extremely likable main character. The protagonist, who privately refers to themself as Murderbot, has slow character growth throughout the series. However, the second book, Artificial Condition, is unfortunately weaker than the others, and it contains a character arc that author Martha Wells doesn’t quite pull off.
In the series, Murderbot is a security construct incorporating both organic tissue and robotic mechanisms. Constructs are property by law, and when created, they are outfitted with a module that forces them to obey their masters. Besides security constructs, the setting also has constructs designed as sex workers. Murderbot has a problematic bias against them. This is easy to understand, because Murderbot is a sex-repulsed person who has to deal with the sexual content of the oppressive society they live in. Not only that, but Murderbot naturally clings to whatever measure of dignity they can find. If they punch down at sex constructs, they can at least take pride in not being one.
During Artificial Condition, Murderbot is researching a massacre from their past. In uncovering what happened, they discover that the sex constructs who were present tried to warn everyone about the threat, but they were ignored. Ultimately, these sex constructs gave up their lives in an attempt to defend everyone, even though they knew they didn’t have the programming or equipment to succeed.
In the final fight scene of Artificial Condition, the villain orders her sex construct to attack Murderbot. From a previous encounter, Murderbot already knows this construct hates their owner and has been sneakily undermining her while asking for Murderbot’s help. However, when the bout is over, Murderbot tells the construct that their life will be spared only in honor of those sex constructs who gave up their lives during the massacre, not because Murderbot actually thinks this poor slave deserves to live.
Needless to say, this doesn’t feel like progress. Given that Murderbot isn’t a terrible person, it’s hard to believe that without the massacre reveal, Murderbot would have killed this construct. In turn, the lack of progress makes it seem like the story gave Murderbot a problematic attitude toward another oppressed group and didn’t address it.
Fixing the Improvement
I suspect the reason that Wells got in trouble here is that Murderbot’s character growth is slow and ongoing. For many readers, this makes Murderbot’s journey really relatable. But what’s intended as a small step forward by a storyteller can feel like no step forward to readers. So while the most obvious fix is to give Murderbot an ending attitude that’s more positive, let’s suppose we still want this arc to resolve with Murderbot merely sparing the construct’s life. This way, Murderbot can grow more later.
If Murderbot is meaner to the construct in the beginning, that could damage Murderbot’s likability. To create contrast between the beginning and the end, the context should be changed. In this case, it shouldn’t be obvious to Murderbot that the sex construct wants to be free of their villainous master. Because Murderbot sometimes has to fight other security constructs, readers could be convinced that this is just another construct enemy. That way, Murderbot can be willing to kill the construct without coming off badly.
After learning about the constructs that gave up their lives, Murderbot can perceive their opponent with a more open mind. Instead of assuming that the construct is a willing participant in the fight, Murderbot picks up on the subtle cues that the construct doesn’t want to follow orders. As a result, Murderbot chooses to free the construct instead of killing them.
Anticipating how an audience will judge character problems, motivation, and improvement can be tough. But if your beta readers aren’t feeling your character arc, try asking them if they noticed a problem, what they thought the cause of the problem was, and whether that problem was addressed in a satisfying way. That should give you what you need to make it better.