A great character arc can be the difference between readers devouring your book and buying it in every format, or them throwing it out of the window because they’re so pissed off at it.
Not every story needs a character arc, but for character-driven genres like romance, women’s fiction, literary fiction, they play a significant role.
They can also add more depth to plot-driven genres such as thriller, crime, and fantasy. Since not all characters in these genres,
What is a character arc?
A character arc is the journey a character goes on during the course of a book, series, or film.
There are several types of character arcs, and the popularity of them is genre and medium-dependent. For instance, it’s rare to get negative or flat arcs in films as they leave audiences feeling incomplete or unsatisfied.
Types of character arcs
A positive character arc is where they get their happily ever after, or at the very least, happy for now. This is the most common type of character arc, particularly in romance novels and in Hollywood films.
A negative character arc is where the character doesn’t get what they want at the end. Instead, they may well lose everything they were trying to achieve.
A circular arc is when a character goes on an emotional journey, but at the end, nothing has changed. They haven’t learnt a thing. Their situation is the same as it was at the start of the story. This can be frustrating to read, but can be very effective if used well. Gone Girl is my favourite example of aa circular arc.
Be warned with this, though: not everyone will understand what message you’re trying to get across. Some people simply don’t relate to this kind of arc and find it frustrating to read.
A flat character arc is when a character doesn’t overcome their flaw or belief, but they get the outcome they want anyway. This is more common in plot-driven genres where the characters are interesting, but the plot is driven by their reactions to external stimuli, as opposed to them inciting the actions.
Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and most James Bond films are all examples of flat arcs.
Can characters arc in plot-driven stories?
Of course! There’s no rule about what kind of story a character should arc in. What matters is if it works for the story. If your story is better off with a flat character arc, use it, but bring your character to life in other ways.
Or, if you’re planning a series, have them arc slowly, using each book for them to slowly discover something about themselves and grow. This could be so subtle that the reader doesn’t even notice until they reflect back on it, which can also be the beauty of longer series.
How to write character arcs
There are lots of complicated ways you can build a character arc. But you don’t have to overcomplicate things. A character arc really boils down to five things:
- Get to know your character
- Work out their goal
- Work out their fear/flaw
- Put their fear/flaw in front of them
- Repeat, increasing the stakes every time
Let’s take a look at each in more depth:
Get to know your character
You can’t do anything else until you know who they are. What was their upbringing like? How has that affected them? What do they care about the most? Or the least?
Stuck on any of these things? Check out my Character Creation Crash Course—we’ll cover everything you need to know to write interesting, well-rounded people.
Knowing these things will help you with the next step…
Work out their goal
What do they want? Either in your book, your series, or in life in general?
You don’t need to know at this stage if they’re going to get it, merely what it is.
Work out their fear or flaw
This is where you need to think about psychology. What one trait can you give them that’s in direct opposition to the thing they want the most?
A wannabe politician with stage freight, for example.
Someone who wants a family but either can’t get pregnant or is afraid to.
Commitment issues in a relationship.
Your character doesn’t need to be aware of their fear or flaw. Depending on the angle of your story, it might be better if they don’t.
Most romance novels wouldn’t work if the character was self-aware enough to tell when they’re in love with someone and the only thing keeping them apart was commitment issues.
Put their fear or flaw in front of them
How does their fear or flaw manifest?
Is it volunteering to do a public speaking event and clamming up in front of thousands of people?
Is it visiting a doctor and being told they can’t have children?
Is it having a really good guy standing in front of them and slamming the door in his face, because they don’t believe that kind of person exists?
Think of different ways that you can put your character’s fear or flaw in their way. Then…
Repeat, increasing the stakes every time
This part is really important. As your character’s journey goes on, they must be forced to face their fear or flaw with greater intensity.
It must get scarier for them.
They must have more to lose.
The more they have to lose, the greater the pay off is for them when they get what they want.
Or the more it’ll hurt when they don’t.
There you have it! Five simple steps to helping you write more compelling character arcs.
Character arcs are just one way you can bring your characters to life for your readers. They don’t fit every story type, but they can work for most. They only work if your character is believable and three-dimensional, though. Your readers must understand their motivations or your character arc will (unintentionally) fall flat.
If you’d like more tips on writing character arcs and bringing your characters to life, check out my Character Creation Crash Course.