What is a Character Arc?

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A character arc refers to the transformation of a character — aka character development — throughout a story. It involves the changes, growth, or decline that a character undergoes as the narrative progresses. Well-crafted arcs allow your readers to witness a significant shift in characters’ beliefs, values, behaviors, or personalities.

A character arc isn’t just good for your story, it’s crucial. This goes beyond main characters — a secondary character can also have a good character arc to add dynamic elements to your story. If your characters are unchanged by the end of your tale, your readers will feel as though the story ultimately didn’t matter.

I love this quote from K.M. Weiland: “…character arcs are ultimately the whole point of fiction. The change — the journey from one spiritual/emotional/intellectual place to another — is the story of humanity.”

Types of character arcs

When we talk about character arcs, it’s important to understand that we’re talking about the emotional, spiritual, and/or idealistic changes your characters go through — not material changes. So, while a story of how a low-born girl overcomes great obstacles to become a queen might be very interesting, that change is not an arc — that is merely the plot. The character arc will describe how her core beliefs changed during this rise.

There are three popular types of arcs.

Positive arc

In a positive arc, sometimes called a Moral Ascent Arc, the character starts in a less favorable state and, through the course of their journey, undergoes positive growth or development. This is a common arc where the character overcomes challenges and becomes a better version of themselves. The positive arc is usually used for hero’s-journey-type stories.

Let’s return to our example of a girl becoming a queen and give her a positive arc. Perhaps she begins her tale believing that one person can’t make a difference, but by the end of the journey, she realizes that through hard work, willpower, and believing in oneself, one person can truly change the world.

Negative arc

In a negative arc, also called a Moral Descent Arc, the character may start in a positive state and experience a decline or moral deterioration. This type of arc is less common but adds complexity to a character. This arc is usually used for anti-heroes.

Let’s use our queen example again, only this time giving her a negative arc. In this version of events, she begins as a heroine. She wants to become queen so she can right the wrongs that have been done to her people by the reigning monarch. But in her quest for power, she has to sacrifice her morals, one by one, and by the end, she is no better than the people she has overthrown.

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Flat arc

In a flat arc, the character remains relatively unchanged throughout the story. Usually, characters with flat arcs have their morals tested, but they finish their story with their morals intact. Instead of having their own personal transformation, the character serves as a catalyst for change in the world around them or influences other characters. This is a great arc for the protagonists in an ongoing series. Think Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Superman, James Bond, etc.

In a flat-arc version of our story, our queen might begin her tale with the high ideals of a naïve teenager, only to have the situations she places herself in and other characters she encounters threaten to shatter her worldview. At some point, she is given a choice to make: she can abandon her ideals and take the easy road to power, or cling to her beliefs and risk failure. In the end, she stays true to her morals and manages to succeed.

As you can see, thanks to these three different character arcs, we’ve managed to create three very different versions of the same story.

Crafting compelling character arcs

To write a compelling arc, you first need to know your character inside and out. Who are they, and more importantly, what’s wrong with them? They should have a character flaw. They are unhappy, unsettled, wounded, obnoxious, or believe a lie about themselves or the world.

This character flaw can’t simply be anything. It must be connected to the story. It has to impede their ability to succeed in their external goal.

With this in mind, let’s examine our three types of character arcs.

Building a positive arc

A positive arc will follow a character as they improve throughout the story. This is the arc of most heroes. Maybe they begin the story believing they aren’t worthy of happiness, or they are haunted by a past mistake and can’t forgive themselves. Perhaps they think the system is broken and can’t be fixed, or perhaps they once had their heart broken and no longer trust anyone.

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchTypically, these characters arrive at these beliefs due to a traumatic experience, sometimes referred to as their “ghost.” It’s a good idea to reveal that ghost to the reader, though be sure not to do so too early in your story. You don’t want the beginning of your tale to be an info dump.

As this is a moral ascent (or positive change arc), your character will, thanks to the events of their journey, come to realize the truth: that they are worthy of happiness, they can forgive themselves, the system can be fixed, they finally open their hearts and find true love.

Again, you need to make sure the character arc matches the plot. There’s no point in having a character believe that the system can’t be fixed if they’re in the middle of a holiday rom-com.

Constructing a negative arc

While positive character arcs are more common — and certainly more rewarding — negative character arcs can be more interesting.

On the surface, it may seem that a negative arc will be the polar opposite of the positive one. Whereas in our positive arc, the character starts off with a flaw and improves; in a negative arc, you might think the character starts off perfect and becomes corrupt. While this can be the case, more often, the character in negative arcs also starts off with a flaw or they believe a lie about themselves, and it’s this flaw that spells their doom.

In The Godfather, for example, Michael Corleone knows his family is involved in crime, but he believes he’s different. “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me,” he tells his girlfriend. But this is a lie. As Michael gets drawn into his family’s business, he finds that he thrives in this criminal environment and he winds up being the most ruthless, vicious member of his family.

The role of flat arcs in storytelling

As I mentioned in the story about the queen, in a flat arc, the character will have their beliefs about the world shaken, but ultimately, they will end the story very much the same person as they began. The thing about flat character arcs is that they change the people around them.

Which brings me to my final point: Every major character in your story needs to have a character arc, not just your protagonist.

Be sure to mix things up. Have some characters have a positive arc, while others have a negative. The very same experience can enlighten one person or permanently damage another. That’s life, and that’s what makes stories so compelling.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. We writers sometimes forget the basics, and, as the old saying goes, “a good professional always goes back to the basic.” Your article has reminded me that I need to enhance the arc of the protagonist of the historical fiction I am currently writing. Thank you for pulling my coat tail!

  2. I’ve recently completed my third novel. A fictional tale of a group of teens who go up against an evil chemist. I feel like the manuscript could be a bit longer. It came in at 66,000 words. Your description of character arcs is knowledge needed.

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