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What is a Character Arc?
A character arc is a method to map the transformation of a character’s personality across a story. It is a writing terminology used to signify the changes in the protagonist’s journey from the very beginning to the end, symbolically an arc.
Character arc deals with internal and personal changes in a character’s personality and mindset. As the story proceeds, a character finds his/her strengths and weaknesses and work on the same. As a result, when the story comes to an end, there’s a totally different person.
Here, we are going to analyze the basic writing requirements that you must adhere to write a compelling character arc.
In the end, the change in character can be either positive or negative. Let’s look at both the possibilities and how to cover them up in the story.
Character Arc with Positive Change
When the main character i.e. the protagonist wins the obstacles and overcomes internal flaws in pursuit to become a better human, then the result can be described as a positive change.
Steps to Write a Positive Change Character Arc
1. Give Structure to Your Characters
- Write three factors of your characters
- Add emotions through your words
- Develop a relation between 1 and 2 to deeply involve your readers
2. Craft the Lie that Your Characters Believe
- A lie is a reason for a change arc
- Characters may see their life extremely horrible or pretty good, which is nothing but a lie at its core.
3. Characters’ Desires vs Needs
- The lie works by confronting the clash between a character’s desires and needs
- The Need is the truth while the Desire is the misinterpreted truth that occurs from the lie.
4. Cause for Change
- Figure out the cause of change that makes characters to take certain actions
- It can be anything that happened either to them, their environment or their family.
5. Start with a Strong Characteristic Moment
- In the book, The Great Expectations, I really like the way Charles Dickens introduces the main character Pip. He threw his introduction with lots of contradiction as well as likes and dislikes.
- You need to develop a characteristic moment at the beginning of the story so readers are curious to know about the characters.
6. The Balanced Act
- The Balanced Act plays a huge role at the beginning of your story.
- This can be understood as the set-up of your plot.
- It helps to give a concrete setting to your story, on the basis of which the rest of the plot is measured.
7. The Beginning of the Second Act
- The Second Act is the journey of your characters
- When they finally start to work on their goal and as the story progresses, they confront the reality of the lie.
8. The Middle Act
- The characters spent their time investing in the lie they thought were true.
- They commit mistakes, figure out things and learn the real lesson.
- This change of mindset leads them to a new venture.
9. The End of the Second Act
- The characters move out of the misconceptions they earlier had.
- They take control of the conflicts and proceed on to self-discover the truth.
10. The Last Act
- All the conflicts they faced, come out to be the beginning of a victorious life.
- They stop deceiving themselves and destroy all the issues and lies.
11. The Climax
- The Climax describes the reason for the endurance of the characters on the journey.
- Here, the author reveals how hurdles and trauma turned out to be a positive change arc.
- The character is shown living in a new world with refined truth and no lies.
The arc is built through three major factors:
Every character is written with an aim to accomplish. It can be anything from falling in love to winning a big jackpot.
In the movie Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet life and wishes to live the same life of simplicity forever until he meets dwarves. He, then, decides to help them retrieve the stolen treasure, which is under the supervision of Smaug.
Characters are written from scratch where their exploration has just begun and they lots of misconceptions and lies told to them by somebody else or made by themselves because of the circumstances. It hinders their path in reaching the full potential.
The dwarves live in a peaceful place. For them, the outside world is extremely dangerous to survive. It is a place for brave men who know sword fighting and overcome the obstacles.
The main goal of a positive arc is self-improvement. This is attained when they become adamant to reach their goal and neglect the misconceptions and lies.
The protagonist, in The Hobbit, realizes their potential and follow their morals to face the adversity and win the situation. Bilbo, finally, steals the treasure by winning fights and returning back as a better person.
Character Arc Map
- Have a Goal
- Fear the Lies and Danger
- Dare to Start the Journey
- Overcome the Problems
- Confront the Truth
- Discover True Potential
- Ends with Positive Climax
Some More Examples of Positive Change Arc
A Christmas Carol
- In a Christmas Carol, the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge turns from miser to well-behaved and caring person.
- In the starting, he lives alone and is an old-age miser. His life aim has always been to earn as much money as possible.
- Things changes, when he meets 3 ghosts from the past, present and future and his new goal become not to die like his business partner Marley.
- He discovers wrongdoings and leaves behind the greediness for money.
Beauty and the Beast
- The good looking prince is arrogant because of his looks and has no longing to fall in love.
- He is transformed into a beast, which can be reversed only if someone falls in love with his inner beauty.
- He meets Belle, who, at first, ignores him, but later start understanding him.
- He has emotions for her and his arrogance is finally overcome.
- The story ends with a positive outcome, where he turns back to normal and falls in love with the girl.
On the other hand, not every storyline ends up with positive change arc, there are plenty of award-winning story examples that ended with negative change arc. Here are some of the examples:
Character Arc with Negative Change
Not every character ends with a positive attitude or situation. Sometimes their circumstances are heavily impacted causing a negative change in the climax.
Steps to Write a Negative Change Character Arc
1. The Beginning Act
Not all stories are meant for a happy ending. Sometimes, a story with a negative end also looks justifying and powerful. Characters have goals. They have misconceptions, but these misconceptions don’t put them into trauma, rather they help them to begin their journey. Here, the misconceptions and lies are positive.
2. The Middle Act
Just like positive change arc, characters discover the reality and confront the misconceptions. The difference lies in the fact, instead of building a positive persona, their arrogance is ruptured and they have to face the harsh reality.
3. The Last Act
The Last Act shows the downfall of the characters. Characters are destroyed because of the misconceptions they believed to be true. They, now, know the truth but can’t afford to follow it and thus, a negative change arc.
Just like positive change arc, it also has three major factors:
Characters are driven by goals, which don’t restrict them, rather lures them to take a step forward.
In the movie The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway lives a mediocre restless life. He wants to cherish the life of high-society and get rid of his monotonous life.
In order to reach the goal, the character accepts lies and misconceptions. This can happen either knowingly or unknowingly. The character gets indulged with such lies with an expectation to reach a positive result.
According to Nick’s perception, the life of riches is full of glamour and happiness. Everyone can be taken at face value.
Irrespective of the fact if goal immersed out of good or ill intentions, the truth is it was self-destructive.
Nick’s life is disillusioned with the complexities and truth he faces. He realizes the real faces behind his friends and discovers the harsh reality of rich life.
Character Arc Map
- The character has an extravagant or lucrative goal
- They believe the lies to be true
- They leave behind their regular lifestyle
- They are curious to cherish the lies they have heard or seen
- They face the reality
- They are disappointed by the truth and finally, lose.
Some More Examples of Negative Change Arc
- Walter White is a happily married man and an honest science teacher. He is also the father of a teenage son.
- He comes to know about his chronic illness that he is suffering from lung cancer.
- He decides to become a drug dealer in partnership with his ex-student Jesse Pinkman to pay his medical debts.
- His arrogance makes him believe he would never get caught in the hands of the law and charged for corruption.
- Truth surfaces in front of him when he realizes he is rebelling against his own mortality. In the end, he loses everything.
Besides having a better or worse change in the main character, there’s a high possibility that the character may not change at all.
- This is not necessary that every character needs to go under a major transformation.
- It is important to distinguish growth and change from each other.
- You can’t deny that a character needs to grow as the story proceeds to adapt to dramatic situations.
- In case of change, you can’t be affirmative to always impose a change in the character’s persona at the end.
- Remember every growth is not always transformative. For example, a character may grow by maintaining his discipline or by proceeding on the path, he’s already following.
- Examples of flat arc story are Amadeus, Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs and so on.
- Growth can be non-transformative as not all situations require a character to change their mindset.
Steps to Write a Flat Character Arc
1. The Beginning Act
Characters are already aware of the truth and have no misconceptions or illusions about what lies ahead. They use their knowledge to face the adversities on their journey.
2. The Middle Act
Characters have no need to discover their inner misconceptions or confront them. Instead, they focus on the revelation of the lies that are rooted in their world.
3. The Last Act
The Last Act is quite similar to positive change arc. The only difference is characters are already aware of the truth, they just have full control on the truth now.
Writing a character arc is a fun thing. Try out different experiments and decide which one suits better for your storyline. While change is not always necessary, it is important that your character must grow as the story progresses.
Priya Barua on July 03, 2019:
This has been an incredibly structured guide to providing a three-dimensional personality to the character. Thanks a lot for the article!