Writing Tips: Character Arc

marc henry johnson on character arcs

Today I’m continuing our discussion on character development with one of the most popular issues on the larger topic and that is character arcs

A lot of you have asked me about character arcs- what are they? What makes them good and are they necessary, etc.
Plenty of writers stress over this important concept but the good news is that character arcs are really pretty simple and you’d do well not to over complicating it.
So let’s get down to the most common questions I get about character arcs –

Exactly what is a character arc?

Simply put, a character arc is the transformation of a character during the course of the plot. The character starts off as one person then due to the events in the story, develops and changes into someone else.

There are a bunch of different types of character arcs and the three most common types of character arcs that you’ll hear about are positive, negative and flat arcs. Which characters should have a character arc?

Well, in novels pretty much any character who isn’t relegated to the background can have an arc but for film stories, the limitations of space and time mean your character arc will almost always belong solely to the main character.

In the television medium, you may be able to apply character arcs to supporting characters that reflect back on to the main character. Of course, ensemble stories will certainly feature more than one character with such an arc. Do we need inciting incidents for character arcs?

The short answer is yes. Obviously when we deal with the world of fiction and drama we are dealing with a character equilibrium that is unbalanced or becoming that way. This leads to the character’s reaction to this inciting incident that dramatizes the character arc through the rest of the story.

Conflict, in other words. It is this conflict that powers the storyline as it motivates a character to work harder or learn new skills, or acquire a different view of the world or whatever else it takes in order to tackle that problem by the end of the story.

It is at the end of this dramatic journey that your character is expected to have resolved their issue and are walking away a new person because of it.
This change can be exemplied further by the changes in themselves that affect their survival.

Quite often, the impetus for character change is a lie or false belief that prevents a character from tackling whatever problem you’ve created for them. Sometimes the change is induced by a failure to recognize self-truth and often what the character believes to be necessary or the solution to a problem is actually a hindrance.

What we often see here is a point where the character starts to move toward the truth and/or realizes they were wrong and embraces whatever they need to do in order to accomplish their goal and bring the story to a climax.

A sturdy conflict leads to a strong character arc that makes for an interesting character the audience can identify with.How should a character arc be paced?

Pacing a character arc obviously depends on the specifics of your story structure, however there is general guide for how the arc should progress.

This is known as standard 3 act story structure in films or more acts in t.v. shows.

The beginning starts with the inciting incident leading to the end of the first act climax that leads us into the rising action of act two. This is where you will find the bulk of your story, where the character attempts to solve their problem using false premises and only fails.

At the end of act two, the character’s predicament usually gets worse and thus your character

starts to change/have a breakthrough in order to make a final push for a victory/resolution.

Lastly, the third act or the climax and resolution is when the character arc comes full circle and the transformation is complete. Here we find the character is a new person, or at least changed a bit as they solve their problem.

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