A Whole Bunch of Character Arc Ideas for Your Story
So you want to write some great characters, huh?
Good, because you need them to write a great book. But in order to write such fantastic, memorable characters, you need to come up with some equally awesome character arcs.
But that’s not as easy as it sounds, right?
Coming up with unique character arc ideas can be just as difficult as coming up with as a unique plot idea. Some would say it’s impossible. Others would say that every character arc idea has been done before, but putting your spin on it is what makes it unique. That’s sort of the idea behind story structures.
That’s what we’re going for with these ideas. In this article, you’ll be introduced to fifteen character arc ideas ranging from uplifting positive arcs to dastardly negative ones (and some of the flat variety just for good measure).
Don’t read through this just to take an idea and copy it right into your character notes. Instead, use these as the spark to mold your own character arcs.
Positive Arc Ideas
Positive arcs are stories where the character progresses through an uplifting journey or ends up in a morally stronger place than where they started. They become better versions of themselves.
Check out these positive arc ideas.
The reluctant hero
This one is a classic: someone is called upon to be a hero but either doesn’t think they have it in them or is actively opposed to the idea of being such a hero.
Through this arc, the ideas and mindset stopping this character from saving the day are dispelled through their own actions and the needs of those around them.
Their reluctance could be caused by a past trauma, a negative outlook, feeling weak in the face of danger, or any number of different options. If you go with this arc, you’re going to want to come up with a pretty good backstory that stops them from embracing their heroic side.
The villain’s redemption
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a good villain redemption arc. There’s something that just makes you want to root for them to cast off their villainous shackles and fight for the good side.
But you need a couple things for a villain’s redemption arc.
First, you need a strong antagonist. This doesn’t mean a bad guy who constantly has regrets about being bad. No, a good redemption arc starts with a villain who is perfectly content being the monster they are.
Over the course of your story, this character starts to see the impact of their evil ways or understands the Lie they’ve believed this whole time is wrong.
Consider this: your character had the chance to do something great or life-saving in the past, but they messed it up. Maybe they made the wrong choice or their inaction had consequences.
No matter what happened, the repercussions of the past continue to haunt them.
So, when the opportunity to be the hero comes up again, they’re either terrified of repeating their previous mistakes or so full of self-doubt that they’re resistant to being that hero.
Then, of course, events in the story and those they’ve surrounded themselves with show our hero how their past doesn’t define them.
Finding love again
If a character was left at the altar, betrayed by a cheater, or had their partner brutally murdered by a serial killer, their arc starts with this loss of love that was so devastating they never want to open themselves up to that prospect again.
And who can blame them? No one wants to get hurt, especially in the serial killer example.
But, over the course of the story, our character comes to understand that they can open themselves up to others again and that they’re worthy of loving and being loved.
Proving someone wrong
People love a good underdog story, and that’s exactly what this type of arc is about. Rather than someone who doesn’t believe in themselves or is a reluctant hero (though these characters could fall into those camps), it’s the people around this character who don’t believe in them.
And you know what? This character is determined to prove them all wrong.
Cue the epic training montage, quest for a magical sword, or entrance into a tournament under a fun disguise.
However they go about it, your character will overcome obstacles to grow and prove everyone—even themselves, sometimes—wrong.
Overcoming your fear
While this tends to be more common in genres like horror, it’s perfectly at home in basically any story. As the name suggests, this arc sees a character working to overcome a crippling fear.
This isn’t like, “Oh no, I don’t like spiders.” It’s more like, “Going outside will give me a panic attack so strong that I might have a heart attack.” or “Abuse in my past means that I can’t step foot in a body of water.”
But news, though: the character needs to go outside or on a boat.
This arc is not only relatable—we all have fears, after all—but it is an excellent opportunity to show realistic growth.
Sacrificing for the greater good
Last up in our positive character arc ideas is sacrificing for the greater good. However, unlike most examples we’ve used, this journey doesn’t necessarily end in a better place for the character—physically, at least.
To really make a big impact out of a character willingly sacrificing themselves, first show how much they don’t want to. Heck, maybe they didn’t even want to be involved in the story at all.
Along the way, the obstacles you throw at them force the character to see the world in a different light. So much so that they’re willing to give up everything to help their new friends or save the day.
Negative Arc Ideas
On the other end of the arc spectrum are negative arcs. This is when your character ends up in a morally worse place than where they started (at least according to the reader).
Corrupted by power
Let’s pretend your character started out in a good place. Or, at the bare minimum, a neutral one. Then they get a taste of power, but it comes at a slightly questionable cost.
But the benefit far outweighs the cost. So they do it again.
Over time, the costs get worse and worse, but they justify it for the increasing benefits… no matter who gets hurt.
Sacrificing the greater good
Unlike the positive arc of sacrificing for the greater good, a negative arc might show us a character who decides the good isn’t that much greater.
This usually comes from some sort of trauma or wrongdoing. Think about what it would take for a normal person to get to this point, though. Maybe a parent who would sacrifice others to save their child or a military leader who will offer up their own troops for personal gain.
To get a truly powerful arc out of this, don’t make the actions outlandishly villainous. There should be inner conflict here.
Lesser of two evils
If we tone down the last idea a little bit, we get the lesser of two evils. This is where a character—again, after a series of unfair or difficult events you throw at them—decides that a bad action is okay because it isn’t that bad.
And like many “corrupted by power stories,” you can use this as part of a larger idea to create a slippery slope. Maybe the formerly good sorcerer was forced to use death magic to save his town, even if it meant his friend had to die.
When I say sin, I mean anything that goes against institutionalized norms. And “sin” sounds cooler than “crime,” and I’m all about being cool.
In this situation, our character doesn’t see what they’re doing as wrong. Sure, they’re scamming people out of their savings. But those people lived in a rich neighborhood. Or they’re a serial killer who kills other serial killers to control dark urges while helping the world.
These actions are not the “right” thing to do, but our character’s journey justifies those sins.
Righting a wrong
Then there’s your classic vengeance arcs.
Think of a parent who goes all Liam Neeson on kidnappers or a preacher who makes it their holy mission to “clean up” crime in the neighborhood.
In many of these stories, the character starts as an upstanding or unassuming person before a single event flips a switch and sets them on a dangerous path.
Flat and Transformational Arc Ideas
To wrap things up, I’ve included a couple of flat and transformational arcs. Flat arcs are just as they sound: no growth or descent in terms of morals. Characters largely stay the same.
Transformational arcs are journeys that end in a character changing in ways that don’t involve morals.
Here are a few ideas for you.
Playing the hero (flat)
In a lot of action-adventure stories, the main character is as heroic as they are stoic. They puff out their chests, face the danger, and end up just like they were before: ready to puff out their chests and face the danger again.
Think of Indiana Jones or Jack Reacher. We aren’t there for an emotional time, we’re there for a butt-kicking time.
Rising to the occasion (transformational)
Unlike a reluctant hero, some characters just find it in themselves to become a leader.
This doesn’t mean they start as villains or that they’re inept. Quite the contrary. These characters really just need training or resources to reach their full potential.
Think of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. She was already an opinionated, bow-wielding force of nature. Then she became an opinionated, bow-wielding force of nature who led a rebellion.
Sharing your knowledge (flat)
This isn’t a main character arc, but it does suit a Sage character very well. It’s a character who knows a lot of stuff and has to pass that knowledge (usually cryptically) to the main character as a way to help them on their journey.
Think about characters like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings or Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender. They support other characters with little to no change of their own.
Embracing a revelation or experience (transformational)
Finally, a character who embraces the change offered by new information or experiences will change, just not morally.
This is like someone who gets a new job but stays the same, or a college kid who gets some life experience abroad, maybe learns about love or something, but doesn’t become a better or worse person.
This is popular in many serial stories where characters might have some superficial changes from tale to tale but little substantive changes.
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