In simplest terms, a character arc is the change your character goes through in your story. Who they are at the beginning of your narrative versus who they are at the end. It is an internal change that occurs over the course of the story.
A sad orphan boy living under the stairs turns into a wizard prodigy who thwarts the dark lord. A plucky young Jedi with a thing for older women turns into the dark lord because… politics? Anyways, you get the point. An arc maps the evolution of a character into a new version of themselves.
When working on character development, it is important to recognize some key parts that make up a character arc.
- A desire: What is it that they want more than anything else?
- A need: What is it that they need? This can be a realization of the truth, a moral change, or simply to trust the right people. This should be different from their desire.
- A flaw: What is it that is holding them back? What do they not realize about themselves, or about others?
What is the purpose of a character arc?
A character arc makes characters relatable, interesting, and vulnerable. A fantastic character arc can bring tears to our eyes, drown us in dread, or cause us to cheer in triumph.
Why does your character need an arc?
In short, arcs make characters meaningful. If people don’t understand, relate to, or care about your characters then no amount of action, romance, or terror will keep them engaged.
Not all of your characters need to change throughout your story, but typically without some sort of character change, it is more difficult for a character to stand out.
What are the different types of character arcs?
There are four types of character arcs: moral ascending, moral descending, transformational, and flat. Different characters in your story will have different arcs and it can be highly effective to put characters with contrasting arcs in close proximity to each other.
Moral ascending character arc
Just when they think they have failed, just when they think they have no hope, they realize the key… is friendship.
As the name suggests, a moral ascending character arc pushes a hero past their flaws and weaknesses, and they become a better person. While the key may sometimes be friendship, it could also be compassion, trust, family, or sacrificing for the greater good.
When done right, a positive character arc can bring us to tears. This is often the moment that evokes cheers from the audience.
Who doesn’t love it when someone overcomes their flaws and saves the day? This positive change is something we root for because we all want to overcome our weaknesses.
Moral ascending character arc examples
Note: I’ve used examples from pop culture movies, books, and TV shows that you’ve hopefully seen. If not though, there are spoilers in these examples.
Eleanor Shellstrop – The Good Place
Eleanor is a terrible person. She is always self-centered and somehow ends up in the Good Place after she dies. As the main character, she gets a lot of screen time, which gives us many opportunities to experience just how terrible she is.
However, as the show progresses, she slowly learns to care more about other people. Eleanor slowly makes better and better decisions and this makes us root for her as she grows into a better person.
Han Solo – Star Wars
Our favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf herder. Han cares about one thing: money. He constantly reminds the other characters that his reason for being there is only for the money.
The others try to convince him that he is better than that, that he believes in something worth fighting for. He ignores them and runs off before the final battle. Then when all hope is lost, Han saves the day because of a change of heart. Classic.
Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation – Avatar the Last Airbender
The best redemption arc in history. Yep, I said it. Zuko lives his life seeking nothing but acceptance from those who should love him most. He is consumed with frustration and is often even petulant. He even betrays the only person who truly loves him in his quest for his father’s acceptance.
Zuko soon finds that what he wanted was not what he needed. He can’t find peace despite gaining everything he dreamed of. When he finally does what he thinks is right, he finds inner peace, purpose, and redemption. He is able to face his greatest rival and his future with calm steady confidence.
Moral descending character arc
Ahh yes, the delicious descent into darkness. Just like the name suggests, these arcs will take your characters down the path that rocks! The more that they give in to their desires and weaknesses, the further they let their morals and values fall by the wayside.
A negative character arc can be very fun to write and very fun to read. But be sure to give a believable reason for why the person is making the decisions that they are. Evil for evil’s sake is a bit of a trope at this point.
Moral descending character arc examples
Princess Azula of the Fire Nation – Avatar the Last Airbender
Sticking with Avatar the Last Airbender characters, Azula’s arc stands in perfect contrast to Zuko. She always had the respect of her father, was a more gifted firebender, and always seemed to have perfect control of herself. Even in moments where she seems to have the disadvantage, she finds ways to outsmart our friends on Team Avatar.
That is, until she loses control. When her closest friends and confidants turn against her, she begins a downward spiral into madness. She believed that fear was the best way to control her life. That is how her father maintained control, so she knows of no other method. Azula then begins lashing out at anyone and everyone in a desperate attempt to regain control of herself and her world through fear.
Walter White – Breaking Bad
From a dorky chemistry teacher with cancer to a ruthless drug lord. Breaking Bad is the epitome of a compelling moral descent. Best of all, the things that Walter does feel justified. He is doing it for his family. Or at least, we are led to believe that he is.
As Walter continues his journey, we realize just how cunning, calculating, and merciless he can be. By the time we see that he is raging against his mortality, we are already too invested, too hypnotized by the visceral reality he has placed himself in that we cannot look away.
Anakin Skywalker – Star Wars
Good ol’ Ani. I included this one to give a bad example. As discussed before, you need your characters to have a believable reason for the things that they are doing. Ani’s first steps to the dark side were believable because of the death of his mother.
But the change from the hero of the republic to a child-killing psychopath was jarring, to say the least. We knew he would become Darth Vader, but we didn’t expect it to happen in the blink of an eye. When you’re working on your characters, be sure to ask yourself whether their inner journey matches their outward actions and that things don’t happen too quickly. It should be a slow descent. To the point where the character might not even realize it is happening.
Transformational character arc
I believe the muses from Hercules describe this one best.
“He was a no one
A zero, zero
Now he’s a honcho
He’s a hero
Here was a kid with his act down pat
From zero to hero in no time flat
Zero to hero just like that *snap!*”
Thank you, Alan Menkin, for your lyrical genius.
However, when writing, you probably don’t want your zero to become a hero just like that *snap*. The longer it takes for a character to become a more capable version of themselves, the more satisfying it is to the reader.
The common trope you get here is the poor farm boy who becomes the overpowered chosen one. Their morals may not change significantly, but their abilities certainly do. As they gain strength, they gain the power to affect change. That strength they gain could be information, training, abilities, political leverage, and many other things.
This one can go hand in hand with other arcs for the same character. If your main character is gaining strength but losing morals, what is the end result?
Transformational character arc examples
Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games
Katniss doesn’t really have a positive or negative arc, but she certainly has a transformational one. While she is pretty much the same person throughout the series, her internal struggles deal with how she can reconcile who she is with who she is perceived to be.
She is, in the beginning, a normal girl who wants a normal life in her less-than-normal dystopian society. But she soon becomes something more. She resents being a part of the bloodsport entertainment for the upper class. She becomes a killer, then a symbol, then a rebel. Each step along the way, she figures out how to be herself and not let those new transformations change her.
Luke Skywalker – Star Wars
Our sad moisture farmer looks off into the distant dual sunset and dreams of adventure. Adventure responds by grabbing him by the collar and dragging him off to dangerous and wondrous places.
Our boy Luke becomes a Jedi, and through the Force saves the galaxy from the iron grip of the Galactic Empire. He also saves his father from the clutches of the dark side. And that’s the end of his arc! (We don’t recognize the sequel films here.)
The Pevensie Children – The Chronicles of Narnia
The Pevensie’s are just normal kids doing normal stuff when they suddenly find themselves in the most curious of places. Through a wardrobe, they find the fantastical land of Narnia.
They soon learn that they were meant to come to this new place and are, in fact, royalty. They have to gear up and be ready to defend against the evils that lurk in this land.
Flat character arc
Ignoring the self-contradicting idea of flat arcs, this actually explains the idea rather well. Instead of a positive arc or a negative arc, characters with a flat arc stay where they started.
These characters (when they find themselves being protagonists) lend themselves well to episodic serial storytelling. You’ll find plenty of them in long-running tv series, comic books, and detective stories. The Lone Ranger radio show of yesteryear didn’t include a ton of character change. Flat arc characters often end up moving on to the next grand adventure once a story is through.
Flat arcs can be used for secondary characters or tertiary characters, but be careful not to use them too often.
Flat character arc examples
Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock Holmes
The genius detective is simply a genius. He notices not only what is there, but also what is not there. Modern interpretations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work often give Sherlock an arc. But the classic Sherlock existed purely for solving the mystery and changed very little from story to story.
This allowed people to pick up any Sherlock novel and read it without missing any key information.
Diana Prince – Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is a great example of a flat arc done right in her recent film. The people and events around her change while she remains the same (except for her thoughts on Ares). Diana is kind, compassionate, and powerful. She makes every effort to improve the lives of those around her and protect the innocent.
When a character is as awesome and as selfless as Wonder Woman, it’s hard to give them any kind of positive arc. Instead, elements of mystery play a key role in this film as Diana learns about herself and the ever-powerful Ares.
Leia Organa – Star Wars
Gotta love Leia. She knows what she has to do and she knows who she is. In all honesty, Leia’s arc is flat because we needed someone awesome, selfless, and highly capable around to get stuff done.
Leia doesn’t change much because she already wants to free the galaxy, is taking steps to dismantle the empire, and cares deeply for the people around her. Leia is often spending her time trying to help the rest of our heroes to believe in themselves and become better.
How to Write Using Character Arcs
Taking all of the things we have discussed, what can you do next? As with all things in writing, there are no hard and fast rules, but here are some tips:
1. Start with Desires, Motivation, and Obstacles
Ask yourself this:
What does my character want?
Why do they want it?
What is keeping them from what they want?
2. Devise your Conflicts
Internal conflict comes from conflicting personal desires, doubts, and motivations.
External conflict comes from various characters with conflicting desires, doubts, and motivations.
Ensure that each scene has a healthy balance of characters with conflicting desires. If you are planning a moral transformation for a character, ensure that each character has believable internal conflict.
3. Write it All Down
Maybe you love to outline this stuff, or maybe you would prefer to just sit down and write. Regardless of your style, it’s important to capture your inspiration and keep it somewhere you can find it again.
Dabble’s Character tool allows you to keep notes on each of your characters so you can always find that awesome idea you had for the reason they finally lose it. You can link to outside sources, and organize your notes by character and build out templates for each of them.
4. Plan The Changes
A protagonist’s motivations, doubts, and desires will change throughout the events of your story. Consider each step of the story and how that will affect your character. How do they change during the following stages?
- Inciting Incident
- Rising Action
- Largest Obstacle
- Loss of Hope
- Falling Action
It could be helpful to start with the beginning and end and then fill in the spaces in between so things progress smoothly.
5. Consider Your Plot
With character arcs comes a story arc. What external forces are going to be eating at your heroes when they reach their breaking point? How will that affect their inner turmoil? When will they fail? When will they succeed?
Great character arcs take work, but keep at it! Your characters will grow as you follow your own arc to better writing. Through some effort and some time, you can refine your arcs and make your readers cry with joy, or cry out in rage. Your choice. Either way, I’m sure it will be great.