The Nitty Gritty of Character Arcs

For this month’s #WritingwithRae we will explore CHARACTER ARCS: What are they? What are the types? Are they necessary? And what are some tips and tricks?

How do we define a character arc? First, it’s important we breakdown its role in the lives of your novel’s characters. To do this, we must know what it is our characters want or need. This is their objective. Conflict arises when obstacles get in our characters paths. How each character reacts to these obstacles creates his or her arc. No one wants to read a story about a character who reaches out her hand and gets her heart’s desire. Readers want characters to deserve it. Characters must struggle; only then will they value what they have gained.

It is essential writers decide what, if any, type of arc their characters(s) will have within the story. And while writers can take inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight “Shapes of Stories,” I tend to side with the three-arcs-camp: static, positive, or negative.

First let’s examine the STATIC character. Often writers overlook such characters, believing arcs are necessary for a dynamic story. But static characters are not flat characters. Flat characters have no depth, but when a static character is crafted with purpose, he or she can still be engaging. In fact, many static characters can take the leading role in a story.  Think of Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES (Collins), Sherlock Holmes (Doyle), Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), or even Alice from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (Carroll). These characters may not make a dramatic transformation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t grow.

Often though, static characters are used to contrast a more dynamic character (Joe vs. Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Dickens)). At times, characters who hold their ground may cause the people and world around them to transform. Other times, a static character is resistant to change due to moral standards. Static characters may be able to adapt easily to the obstacles thrown their way. No matter their impact, the world view of these characters is the same at the end of the story as it is at the beginning.

Now that we know not all characters must endure a transformation, let’s examine the most common arc in literature: the POSITIVE character arc. In the standard Hero’s Journey the protagonist overcomes both external and internal obstacles. With the positive arc, the character goes from “man” to “superman,” an ideal version of themselves. Typically the positive arc begins with a character’s misconception about themselves or the world around him or her. Often times this manifests as a flaw that thwarts the character’s efforts in obtaining their objective.

Along the character’s journey he or she is faced with a crisis and confronted with the truth about the lie they believe or the flaws they possess. If the character’s reaction is to embrace the truth, the result is a positive arc. They have found the chain holding them back or the key to achieving what they need. In some cases the objective may change altogether. Either way, the character has reached an inner strength/self-awareness. They are “more” and equipped to handle their new reality.

I recommend examining the positive arcs of the multitude of characters in novels such as LES MISERABLE (Hugo) or A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE (Martin). You can get the most bang for your buck with an ensemble cast. Taking the time to think critically about each character’s arc and comparing and contrasting these arcs with the others will be a great exercise.

Sometimes characters are bested by the trials and tribulations they suffer. This too can be quite compelling to witness. For these characters, their arc ends on a NEGATIVE note. Negative and positive arcs have similar beginnings: the character struggles to obtain his/her want or need. However, for these characters the misconception they have about themselves or the world around them does not encumber their goal. Instead it drives them.

Characters on a negative arc path do not suspect their arc will end any other way than positive. Where the path deviates from a positive arc is when the character embraces the lie instead of the truth. The acceptance of the lie may result from corruption, disillusionment, or a fall from grace. Often times, the character does so unknowingly, simple because their misconception is validated by the world surrounding them. Ultimately the chosen path leads to a character’s self-destruction. It doesn’t matter if the original objective was for good or ill intent. The result is a downward spiral.

Some of the most powerful character arcs with negative impacts are those where the character doesn’t just discover the “truth,” but has always known the truth. Despite knowing better, the character goes down the opposite path, maintaining all the while they are capable of not getting mixed up, whether it’s morally, legally, or emotionally. Unfortunately, the character is forced to compromise over and over until they are so far in, they have no choice but to accept the lie. This ultimately concludes with their defeat.

Examples of character with negative arcs include Nick Carraway in THE GREAT GATSBY (Fitzgerald), Frank Wheeler in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Yates), and Michael from THE GODFATHER (Puzo).

Lastly, let me leave you with a few closing thoughts all writers should keep in mind when crafting character arcs.

Whether your character’s arc is flat or a personal transformation, it’s crucial writers examine their characters’ arcs so the cause-and-effect of the plot can move to the forefront. This will also anchor your characters within the story.

When facing obstacles, a character’s strengths & weaknesses are tested and stretched beyond the point of elasticity, causing whatever state the character began in to be permanently changed. It is at the climax of the story your character must make his or her choice. Will they embrace the truth about themselves? Will they adapt to the way the world is truly? Or will they discover they were right all along and remain static? How much growth does he or she obtain on this journey?

Conflict requires action and affects characters internally. As characters react to the obstacles set before them they are progressing through an emotional/spiritual crossing. This internal crossing is just as important as the external crossing

Secondary characters have arcs as well, but it’s important writers do not let those arcs upstage that of the main character, unless, of course, you’re dealing with an ensemble cast. For example, Javert’s arc is just as compelling as Jean Valjean’s; Cossette’s as much as Eponine’s; Marius as much as Enjolras in LES MISERABLE (Hugo).

While there is a ton of advice on crafting character arcs, there is no right or wrong way. Pick the approach that works for the character and plot you are implementing in your novel. Many times, your character’s arc develops naturally once you have established what is preventing him or her from obtaining their objective.

Which are your favorite character arcs? Can you come up with examples of static, positive, and negative arcs? If you plotted your own arc, what would it look like?

Thanks for joining me again for this month’s #WritingwithRae. As always, if you found this information helpful be sure to pass it on to other writerly friends. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae blog posts. Join me on Twitter for #WritingwithRae threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month) and on Instagram for announcements. See you next month!

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