A Complete Guide to Character Arcs: The Foundation of Fiction Writing
Have you ever read about a character in a book and thought to yourself, “I really don’t care what happens to them!” right before putting the book down? If so, then there’s probably something wrong with their character arc.
A character arc is the development of your character from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s crucial that each character has an arc where they grow and change as individuals.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about how to develop a good character arc for your story.
What Is a Character Arc
A character arc in a work of fiction is the change or growth that a character experiences over the course of the story. This can be a physical, emotional, or psychological change, and it often leads to your character becoming a different person by the end of the story.
A character arc usually follows three steps:
- The character is introduced with some flaw or weakness.
- The character is challenged in some way, and this challenge forces them to grow and change.
- The character returns to his starting point but is now stronger and wiser thanks to the experience he has undergone.
The best character arcs are those that are believable and that make logical sense given the events of your story.
For example, if a character starts out as selfish and self-centered but then undergoes a change where they become more compassionate and selfless, that arc needs to make sense in light of the events that transpired in the story.
Why Do We Need a Character Arc
In real life, we all have highs and lows, moments of greatness and moments of weakness. Our memories are filled with both good and bad experiences, happy and sad moments.
To be truly believable, a fictional character needs to reflect this same complexity. They need to experience growth and change over the course of the story. This is an essential part of storytelling and something that keeps readers engaged.
Without a character arc, your characters will feel one-dimensional and flat. They’ll be little more than cardboard cutouts going through the motions of a plot without any real emotional connection to the reader.
But with a well-written arc, your characters will come alive on the page. A good character arc will show that a character is willing to put in effort to grow and change, even when obstacles seem insurmountable.
And, as they progress through their arc, they should learn more about themselves and come to understand themselves better. This growing self-awareness is what makes for an interesting read; it’s why readers keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
How to Create a Character Arc
When creating a character’s arc there are a few things to consider. First, you need to think about what kind of journey the character will go on. What challenges will they face? What growth opportunities will be available to them?
Second, you need to make sure that the arc is consistent with the character’s backstory and motivations. Why do they want to change? What inner conflicts are driving their behavior?
Third, you need to create plot points that’ll force your character to confront these challenges and opportunities.
Here are three basic steps to creating a character arc:
- Start with your protagonist’s flaw or weakness. This should be something that keeps them from achieving their goal, and is also something they’re aware of.
- Set up an event early in the story that tests your protagonist and forces them to confront their flaw head-on.
- Have your character find a way to overcome their flaws and become stronger as a result.
The key to creating a successful character arc is ensuring that the change feels organic and believable.
This means that the reader should never feel like the writer is forcing the character to change for the sake of the plot, but rather that the character’s development follows naturally from their backstory, personality and experiences.
Plotting Your Character Arcs
Plotting a character arc in your story can be tricky, but it’s essential for creating an unforgettable and believable character. It usually follows a three-act structure:
- The Setup – In this act, the reader meets the protagonist and learns about their life.
- The Conflict – This is when the protagonist’s world is turned upside down and they are forced to change.
- The Resolution – In this act, the protagonist resolved their conflict and changes as a result.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Know your character inside and out. What motivates them? What are their fears and desires? What is their backstory? Only by understanding your character completely can you hope to write an arc that feels true to them.
- Figure out what the story is really about. Every good story has a central conflict or problem that the protagonist needs to solve. Your character’s arc should be directly related to this main conflict.
- Create a clear goal for your character. This goal should be something that is both challenging and motivating.
Character Arcs In Different Genres of Fiction
There are a multiple types of character arcs that can be found in different fiction genres, but some of the most common include the following:
- The typical hero’s journey, in which the protagonist starts out as someone who is not particularly heroic or special, but who goes on a journey and eventually becomes a hero.
- The journey from innocence to experience, in which the protagonist starts out naive and inexperienced but gradually learns about the world and becomes more capable.
- The journey from selfishness to altruism, in which the protagonist starts out as someone who only cares about themselves but eventually learns to care about others as well.
- The journey from being powerless to becoming powerful, in which the protagonist starts out weak and vulnerable but eventually becomes a force to be reckoned with.
In mystery novels, the protagonist’s character arc is often one of self-discovery. They start out uncertain of who they are and what they want in life, but over the course of the novel, they come to understand themselves better and figure out how to solve the mystery.
In romance novels, the protagonist’s character arc is often one of finding love. They may be unsure of themselves at first, but by the end of the novel they have found someone to love and care for them.
In science fiction novels, the protagonist’s character arc is often one of accepting change. They may be resistant to change at first, but eventually come around to accepting the new reality.
Common Pitfalls When Writing Character Arcs (And How to Avoid Them)
If you want your story to resonate with readers, it’s essential to make sure your characters feel real and believable. Avoid these traps, and your readers will be rooting for your characters all the way!
- Making the character arc too simple or predictable.
For example, beginning with a character who’s completely unformed and ending with the same character fully formed; or having the character go through a series of challenges that always result in growth with no backsliding.
A more effective approach is to make the arc more gradual, with the protagonist evolving step by step including missteps. This makes the transformation feel more believable and realistic, and it also provides a greater sense of suspense since the reader doesn’t know exactly what will happen from one moment to the next.
- Another pitfall is not giving the arc enough time to play out.
If you try to cram too much change into a short story or novel, it will feel rushed and unnatural. Or conversely, if you stretch out the arc too long, your readers may lose patience and quit before they reach the end.
- Another common mistake is making the character’s growth too linear or simplistic.
For instance, a character might only change in one specific way over the course of the story, and this lack of complexity can make it difficult for readers to identify with or care about the character.
- Inconsistency in the character’s arc throughout the story.
The characters and their arcs should be believable and consistent within the context of your plot. If something about the arc feels disconnected, then make adjustments until it does.
- Focusing too much on plot and not enough on the character arc, resulting in a story that’s uninteresting or implausible.
Plot arcs and character arcs are two different things, and you can’t just assume that because you have a great plot your characters will automatically be interesting.
Your plot is the sequence of events that happen in your story, while your character arc is the journey that your protagonist takes over its course.
If you want to create an interesting story, you need to focus on creating a strong character arc as well as a strong plot arc.
Tips for Writing a Good Character Arc
- Start with the end in mind and work backwards to figure out how you want readers to feel when they finish reading your story
- Keep the stakes high — make sure that there’s something at stake for both your protagonist and your antagonist
- Make sure there are enough obstacles in the way of your protagonist’s goal so that they have to struggle to reach it
- Create compelling characters who are easy for readers to relate to or empathize with
- Give readers time between chapters so that they can process what has happened before moving on (this also helps them anticipate what will happen next)
- Use dialogue sparingly — use more description than dialogue because it engages other parts of reader’s brain besides just hearing words in your mind
- Use point-of-view shifts strategically; don’t switch back and forth too much (only do this if a necessary part of your story)
- Pay attention to sentence length; shorter sentences create tension while longer sentences provide space for reflection
- Show rather than tell — don’t give away too much of what is happening early on or else people won’t be interested in reading more
Character arcs are the foundation of fiction writing. They’re the sum of your character’s emotional and psychological progress over time.
They allow readers to connect with your characters on a deep level that translates into empathy for their struggles. Your story will be richer and more satisfying if you take the time to map out each character’s journey from beginning to end.
I hope this article has given you the tools and knowledge you need to create a character arc that’ll be both engaging for your readers but also fulfilling for your protagonist.
If you’re working on a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.
One response to “A Complete Guide to Character Arcs: The Foundation of Fiction Writing”
Glad to get to right answer to my question. Thank you for breaking it down to the Simplist form. Language allowed me to have an epiphany now if I can just stop feeding into my own fears so I can caught up to myself…. Thanks again
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