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