8 Things You Need To Know About Character Arcs

Jaime-Lannister1. Character arcs are not 100% necessary. I’m going to get this out of the way first thing.

This argument is made all the time, and there’s some truth to it. There are some very successful characters that never have a character arc. James Bond is the one most mentioned. While he was retooled somewhat when Daniel Craig took over the role in the movies, the character has never undergone a significant arc. Miss Marple never has an arc, or Hercule Poirot, or Stephanie Plum.

See a pattern here? They’re all characters in a long-running series of stand-alone books. While there are series characters that have arcs (I would argue Indiana Jones is an example) most don’t have them. Mainly because having the characters change would disrupt the series too much.

2. However, not giving your character one can simply be laziness on your part. Just because there are characters that have no arcs doesn’t mean yours shouldn’t. While in certain kinds of stories readers like knowing the main character will not change, in most stories, readers enjoy characters that undergo a significant arc.

3. When someone claims a character has no arc, take a closer look.  I once heard someone make the argument that Sarah Connor in The Terminator movie has no arc. He claimed she doesn’t do much in the movie besides avoiding being killed by the Terminator.

I would argue she has a very significant arc. She starts out as a seemingly ordinary person whose life is actually critically important to the survival of the human race as the future mother of the man who leads a revolution against cyborgs. Accepting and stepping into that role is a big part of her arc.

That’s on just one level. On another, she changes as she acquires mastery of survival skills from Reese, the man who travels from the future to save her from the Terminator.

She evolves from a waitress to, well, a kind of goddess, the mother of a savior. Beyond just giving birth to him, she also evolves into a mentor for her own son, who can pass on what she has learned about fighting against the cyborgs.

The point I’m making is that arcs are not always that obvious–and that’s fine. Arcs can be subtle, and even if readers/viewers don’t pick up on one consciously, it still enriches the story.

4. Arcs can go either way. A character can start at a low point and end up at a high point, in other words, in some way evolve. Or they can start at a high point and end up at a low point—devolve.

MacBeth is a good example of a character that devolves. The story starts with him gaining favor for an extraordinary act of bravery. This is the kind of act that usual results in the evolution of a character—he’s a hero to the other characters. Instead of taking on that mantel of heroism, he uses that position to ruthlessly gain power for himself. In the end, it destroys him.

5. Or, the character’s evolution may not be shaped like an arc at all.  For instance, a character can start at a high point, devolve, then climb back up to a high point again, and so on.

Scarlet O’Hara is one example: she starts as a girl with everything, loses it all in the war, gains back what she lost and more—and at the end devolves again, losing things she didn’t realize were important to her.

6. The important part of all this is change, mostly internal. Although change may also manifest itself in an external way, i.e. how they behave, how they speak, a physical change of some kind.

Don’t think of it as merely change, however. Making your character a jerk and then suddenly nice won’t cut it. I keep using the words evolve and devolve for a reason—certain things that were already there, perhaps deep down, come out as the result of what the character experiences in the story.

7. If you have a main character that doesn’t require an arc—give arcs to one or more secondary characters. One of the best examples I can think of is the movie Braveheart.

William Wallace, the main character of Braveheart, doesn’t really change much over the course of the story. In a prologue sequence, his family is killed and his uncle takes him away to the Crusades. When he comes back, he’s already an evolved hero. Yes, he suffers a terrible tragedy, but he’s already evolved to a point where he can step automatically into the role of hero and leader.

The movie would have been just fine like that—it’s an exciting story with or without a character arc—but screenwriter Randall Wallace gives arcs to two of the secondary characters: Isabelle, the French princess who arrives to marry the English king’s son, and Robert the Bruce, a Scottish nobleman who can’t quite decide which side to be on.

Wallace serves as a mentor character to both of these characters. Because of his example of bravery, both change significantly by the end of the story.

8. Two sure-fire ways to help give your character an arc:

Give them exactly what they think they want.

or

Take away something (or some things) deeply important to them.

I’m going to give two examples from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series (Game of Thrones to those familiar with only the TV show):

Robb Stark is proclaimed King of the North after his father’s death.

Robb’s enemy Jamie Lannister is captured by the Starks and suffers humiliation after humiliation.

Both have to face situations they never faced before, and that changes them. In Robb’s case, he gets something a lot of other characters in the story want (a kingdom, at least in theory). In Jaime’s case, he loses everything that mattered to him—his status, his power, his family, and, um, something else I won’t mention because it’s such a huge spoiler.

Robb starts out as a young and untried man who gains his crown in the aftermath of his father’s death, and then goes on to have extraordinary success in the battlefield. The success doesn’t go to his head, exactly, but it does goad him to make some errors in judgment—and one is a doozy.

Jaime starts out at the beginning of the story as a flat-out villain (he pushes Robb’s younger brother Bran out of a tower window, crippling him permanently, when the boy catches him having sex with the Queen—who also happens to be Jaime’s sister). He is called the Kingslayer because he murdered the previous king, breaking his vow to protect his monarch. As he faces a continual worsening of his situation, some of his arrogance and lack of concern about other people begins to fade away.

The result is that readers/viewers who liked Robb at the beginning of his story begin to become frustrated with him, and those who despised Jaime begin to like him.

Readers love to have their perceptions of characters change. Creating an arc is one of the best ways to engage your reader.

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44 thoughts on “8 Things You Need To Know About Character Arcs

    1. Thank you! It was inspired by the reaction to the latest Game Of Thrones episode. Great example IMO of how character arc impacts how people feel about characters and the story. And thanks so much for the reblog!

      1. No problem, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And its funny, because my husband and I were talking about Jaime this last episode too (I’ve read the books; he hasn’t). He was saying how well Jaime’s character evolution was written. I told him that Jaime was my favorite example of a perfectly written character.

  1. Great post! I will reblog as well 😉 I have two first-draft novels with plenty of characters for me to be musing about character arcs. Your post will really help.

  2. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    This is a wonderful post for all of you currently writing fiction and needing advice/suggestions about character arcs. As I was reading Debbie’s post, I realized that I provided different arcs for different characters in my last two NaNoWriMo novels. That’s a good thing, but I hadn’t put much thought into why I was doing that. Debbie’s post actually gives me an understanding of what I’ve done and (hopefully) how to make sure the arcs worked for the characters.

  3. I’m in Gatsby mode at the moment with it being a fave book and the film having just come out. I wouldn’t say the characters are likeable (although I always find myself sympathising with the idiotic George Wilson) . Not intentionally anyway, but there is one character who’s arc I love so much. Nick Caraway. When I first read the book in school he was just the narrator to me, then as I got older I started to notice that as the outsider looking in like many of us, he started off so jolly, in awe of the good life and the beautiful people, then by the end is an alcoholic, disgusted by them all so much he has to leave. It’s not a happy arc by any means, and because of his eagerness to be part of that world and his choice to be seduced by it, it kind of feels that like Gatsby and Myrtle (all those on the outside looking in) he was punished for it just the same. It’s just not as obvious or seemingly as tragic – but I always thought he had it worst having been allowed to walk away and still be damaged by the whole ordeal.

  4. Reblogged this on MOON IN GEMINI and commented:

    No new post this week–I’m suffering from a muscle spasm in my back, so sitting at the computer is kind of difficult. So I dove into the archives and came up with this post. Hope you enjoy!

  5. You make an excellent point – readers always feel more engaged when a character transforms in some way. Especially if they surprise you by becoming more likeable.

    1. Thank you! I know I especially enjoy having my initial perception of a character challenged or even changed. It definitely brings me more into the story, and I think that’s true of most readers.

  6. I enjoyed reading your examples, being a big Braveheart and GOT fan! I think the worst sin that many inexperienced writers make, though, is not actually thinking about the character at all, but only about what they want that person to do for the sake of the plot!

    1. Oh, I agree, I can’t stand stories that have characters that merely exist to serve the plot.

      Ever since I saw Braveheart the first time, I was struck by how it had a main character without an arc. Which, as I said in the article, would have been just fine, but IMO, it was a stroke of genius to give arcs to two of the secondary characters. I remember one of my friends commenting at the time that the turnaround of Robert the Bruce’s character made the movie for him. And GOT is just chock-full of characters with interesting–and sometimes unexpected–arcs. Which is one reason it’s such a great story.

  7. A great post on a brilliant subject that, as a student attempting to be a writer, is really close to my heart and I LOVED the examples you used from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire and Braveheart- I will look out for the arcs you mentioned when the film begins to get aired constantly in the run up to potential Scottish independence- definitely one to be re-blogged!
    Phoenixflames12 x

  8. Reblogged this on Confessions of a fanfiction writer whose dreams are to reach the sky and commented:
    A great post on a brilliant subject that, as a student attempting to be a writer, is really close to my heart and I LOVED the examples you used from Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire and Braveheart- I will look out for the arcs you mentioned when the film begins to get aired constantly in the run up to potential Scottish independence- definitely one to be re-blogged!
    Phoenixflames12 x

  9. Writers are rule-breakers by nature. But to make the rules work for us in all of their facets we should think outside the box and work with what we already have. This post shows us how to break rules the right way. That it isn’t an abandonment of strategy, it’s a manipulating of standards. Thank you for this.

    –Julie

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