This article was created for NaNoPlotMo, a writers group on DeviantArt, aimed at helping writers prep for NaNoWriMo.
The character arc is like the bridge that spans the river of your plot. The wider the river, the longer the bridge. And likewise, the longer the river, the more bridges there will likely be.
But what is a character arc?
Character Arc, also referred to as Character Development, Character Progression, or the Hero’s Journey, is the way in which a character grows or changes over the course of the story. This is often tied to the theme of your story, for example, a coming-of-age story would most likely have the main character learning to be more mature, and to take responsibility for their actions (like Simba in The Lion King).
Your protagonist isn’t the only character who should have a character arc. Secondary and minor characters can have these too, although it isn’t always necessary. In Harry Potter we see Neville Longbottom go from being a quiet, uncertain underachiever, to a strong, assertive badass over the course of his years at Hogwarts.
Another popular character arc for secondary characters is the “foe to friend” arc, such as in Avatar: The Last Airbender where Zuko begins as an enemy to the main characters, but develops and grows until he is eventually an ally.
Character arcs don’t always have to be positive. You can just as easily have a good character go bad. In fact, these are often some of the most interesting and most memorable transformations. Here’s an example that needs no introduction.
So, why do I need one?
Character arcs are what make your characters feel real. They validate the events your characters have been through, and make their journeys seem genuine. If your character goes through the entire plot of your novel and comes out the other side unchanged, your readers will be left feeling unsatisfied and as though the entire journey was pointless. Just as the plot progresses, the characters need to progress with it. This growth should feel organic and like it was directly brought about by the events that took place. It’s important to also note that not all growth has to be transformative. The examples above all show characters that changed into quite different people, but you can also have a character arc that involves a character’s resolve being strengthened, or simply coming to find a better understanding of themselves or their environment.
When your character reaches their crisis point they will be forced to question whether they are on the right path, or the wrong path. Characters who realise they are wrong will fundamentally change. Characters who realise they are right will have their resolve strengthened. Both these instances involve a character arc as this realisation (and how they act on it) is an example of their growth.
When character arcs go wrong
- Failing to complete.
Remember the bridge analogy? It doesn’t matter how good your foundations are, if you forget to place that last stone, the whole thing will fall down. A character arc that fails to complete is one where the character goes through a journey, learning and developing as they do, but then makes the same foolish mistake they did at the beginning, or just returns to their regular way of life. Even if your character’s goal is to return to their old way of life chances are that after the events of your novel they never will. At least not entirely.
- Lack of believability.
Having your characters make sudden transformative leaps for no reason is just as bad as having no growth at all. Whatever change occurs to your characters has to make sense and follow on from their adventures. E.g. a character who suffers heartbreak at the hands of a loved one is likely going to become more jaded and guard their emotions from others. They will not suddenly develop a deeper appreciation of the classical arts.
- The arc bears no relevance to the plot.
Just as it’s important for the character arc to be believable, it should also feel intrinsic to the story being told. If your story is about overcoming adversity and working together, but your arc is about learning to not be materialistic, readers will be left confused as to what the story is actually about.
How do I do it?
Your character’s development doesn’t have to be as drastic as Darth Vader’s. Just consider the events your characters are going through, and how that would affect them. Would it make them stronger and more resilient? Spiteful and vindictive? Guarded and aggressive? Kinder and more considerate? There are an endless number of possible character arcs, you just need to find the right one for you.