Thursday, February 23, 2017

Character Arc - Part 1 - The Basics
Have you ever read a story where the characters clung to you long after you closed the book?

Somehow your thoughts turned a little fuzzy from the whirlwind of emotion, drama, humor, or danger which propelled these characters through a palpable discovery or change which your mind cannot release? Been there?

Oh, I have. It’s a wonderful, and sometimes painful, release for some of the very best stories.
But what are we mourning or celebrating in this fiction-filtered fog?

Usually…it’s characters.

Dynamic characters.

A quick reference in your handy-dandy Webster’s dictionary will tell you that the word dynamic means “marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change” (bolded for emphasis)

This is not to say that all that continuous and productive change is for the greater good, but any memorable character (whether hero or villain) becomes more potent when they’re dynamic.
Dynamic can mean large changes or small ones, but there ARE changes, nonetheless, and they impact not only your character, but usually the characters around them.

Some of the most memorable stories are made up of dynamic characters – and one of the main tools used to create these dynamic characters is the development of the character arc.

I really like how Wikipedia gives a simple definition of character arc: “the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story”

Pretty straight forward, right?

Well… what does ‘transformation’ really mean? Or for that matter, if we go back to the definition of ‘dynamic’, what does ‘productive’ mean?

Both answers might look different based on our character, right? A ‘productive’ change for the Joker is going to probably look different than one for The Dark Knight, right?

Aha, so…here’s the hallmark of a character arc.


The best character arcs are those so entwined uniquely and personally with the character’s personality, past, plans, and progress, that the change is logical, believable, and realistic.

So, to write a solid arc, you need a good idea of who your character is…and where you want them to go.
There are three possible directions your character can go with an arc.

1.     He can transform – a move from a weak, nobody to a hero of the known world J Or…Beauty and the Beast (both figuratively and literal change in this one)
Does your character become a whole new person by the end of the story? From dark to light?
Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Zuko in Avatar the Last Airbender (animated series), George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Can you name a few?

2.     He can grow (and arguably the most common in popular fiction). The basic heart of the character doesn’t change/transform, but the character grows from a weaker person, lesser understanding, undecided, etc. In most novels, we read, the character arc is a growth from a lesser developed character to a more developed one due to growth…not necessarily a big change. Lizzie in Pride and Prejudcie really stays the same person, but has grown in her understanding of herself and Mr. Darcy. Peter in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe grows to become a braver, stronger, humbler Peter, but the main component of who Peter is stays the same. Jane from Jane Eyre grows in her understanding of who she is and what she can do as an independent woman, but her core personality doesn’t transform, it grows.

3.     He can fail – the one I don’t like to discuss because I’m a happily-ever-after girl ;-) This is your usual tragedy. Romeo and Juliet. The character goes from an area of strength, knowledge, understanding, and declines throughout the story. Personally, I felt that Henry VIII in the movie/book The Other Bolyen Girl shows this arc brilliantly.

What about YOU?

Next time I’ll talk about what aspects SHAPE a character arc but for now, can you list some books where you’ve seen an example of a certain type of arc? Maybe an example of all three??


Courtney Clark (The Green Mockingbird Blog) said...

What a fantastic breakdown of character arc! I look forward to the rest of this series.

A great example of transformation is with the character Julia Elliston in the Price of Privilege series by Jessica Dotta. She goes from a weak/dependent girl who doesn't believe in God to a mature woman who knows the gift of sacrifice and the abundant love found in Christ.

A CLASSIC example of a growth arc is with Jessica Ross in The Thorn Healer! Her personality that makes her tick stays the same, but her prejudices and stereotypical ideas are completely shattered by the end of the story. Thanks to August's determination, of course!

I'm not really a fan of tragedies, either. One failing example that comes to mind is the villain of the film The Count of Monte Cristo: Mondego. He fails by end of story because he underestimates the strength of his "enemy" (Edmond) and continually makes rash choices. And, we want to see him fail because he is evil and morally wrong.

Pepper said...

Courtney, I LOVE that you mentioned Mondego as a tragic arc! That's brilliant!

Courtney Clark (The Green Mockingbird Blog) said...

Thank you! I guess we see that arc more often with secondary characters.