Character arcs are the bread and butter of storytelling. Many people argue that there is no such thing as “plot”, there is just a character undergoing change as they interact with their surroundings. I often find it helpful to think of a story as just a series of choices made by a flawed character. So it stands to reason that a character arc is oftentimes the backbone that a story is built on.
While character arcs can have infinite complexity, they all share a few key building blocks. Not all of these are necessary, but most good stories will use one or two of them. As always, find your originality in the ways you break away from these building blocks, yet at the same time, they are still important tools.
Just to preface, I am currently in the process of outlining a story, and I reached the stage where I plan character arcs. After spending a few minutes looking at the white page and drawing a blank, I decided to review everything I’ve learned about character arcs, and assemble that information into a tidy little guide. So as you read, bear in mind, this article is from the same perspective as all of you; an avid student of the most difficult craft. I am not an expert, but I am a learner, and perhaps you will find this article more helpful because of it.
- Built In Potential
Before you do anything, you must first make sure that your character has the potential for change. This can take many forms. Maybe something is missing from their life, that they need to get. Maybe they have a flaw of personality they need to overcome. Maybe they have a perfect life, but the potential to fall into depravity. It can be literally anything. But from the very beginning, a character must be designed to change.
As a rather archetypal example, consider Achilles from The Iliad. He goes from a paragon of heroism to a creature possessed by his own rage. His character arc is of a man becoming an animal. But this regression didn’t come out of nowhere. The potential was always inside of him, represented by his ferocious and legendary anger. Without his anger to drive him into inhuman depth, his character arc doesn’t make sense. His character is structured to change.
- External and Internal Change
Character arcs are built on change. But even a character with the potential to change won’t realize that potential if nothing happens. If the Trojan War never happened, Achilles would never have changed. It was only because of the war, because the man he loved died, that his character arc began.
This change comes from two places, external and internal. External change often takes the form of the “inciting incident”. Something happens to the character. Their life is wrenched from the status quo. It is important, though, for external change to continue to happen to a character. Don’t let them form a new status quo. Keep challenging them with new circumstances.
Internal change is often a result of the character thinking about or processing the events of external change. This is where the real meat and potatoes of character growth happens. A character’s thought process is a window into both their mind and into the themes of a story. Scenes of a character grappling, wrestling, with their own emotions can be some of the most powerful moments in your story. Milk those scenes.
It is important to give these two things roughly equal weight in a story. Too much external change, and your story will feel plot-driven and empty. Too much internal change, and your story will feel slow-paced and uninteresting. Find the happy balance that works best for the story you want to tell.
- Character Through Decisions
Now that you have a character with the potential for change as well as the impetus for it, you need a way to convey that change. My recommendation is to do this by showing your character making decisions.
Decisions are an oft-misrepresented concept. In Story by Robert McKee, he explains how the choice between “good” and “evil” isn’t actually a choice. Good is just so blatantly obvious. A character like Superman does not make a decision to save the innocent or not, he just does.
Rather, a real decision has to be between two equal options. When Superman is asked to choose between saving an innocent or stopping a villain, that is when his true character is revealed. And when he still chooses the innocent, the story has successfully shown what he truly prioritizes.
Equal options make for more interesting choices because they have stakes and consequences. Choosing one option means abandoning the other option. And when both options are equal, it means both the character and the reader feel a sense of loss that only one can be chosen. Don’t be afraid to let those consequences be real.
The consequences of the choices a character makes should increase over the course of the story. Something that many stories do well is have a character choose wrong when it matters most. Have them experience the greatest possible consequence. Putting your character through the thing that would make them suffer the most, as a result of their own decision, is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling.
I find it helpful to have characters make these decisions periodically throughout a story. In many ways, I structure a story entirely around these moments of intense decision making. I also try to make the decisions thematically resonant, they relate to each other. This way, I can show how a character changes by the different choices they make when confronted with similar problems.
- Conscious and Subconscious Goals
When a character makes a decision, they do so in pursuit of an objective. A character should have a goal, a motivation, something that they wish to accomplish. A small thing, such as winning an argument, or a larger thing, such as finding love. Whatever it is, a character is always working towards something. This is why they’re in a position that forces them to make a decision in the first place.
I find it helpful for a character to have two goals. A conscious one, and a subconscious one. The conscious goal is a concrete thing. Something, someone, that they can physically touch. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants to find Nemo. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to destroy the ring. These conscious goals are stated out loud, explicitly, and involve specific and concrete solutions.
In pursuit of a conscious goal, a character will naturally, but accidentally, accomplish their subconscious goal. Unlike the conscious goal, the subconscious goal is never stated out loud. It is intangible, often involving a character’s true nature.
In Finding Nemo, as a side product of finding Nemo, Marlin becomes confident and capable. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to. In Lord of the Rings, as a side product of destroying the ring, Frodo becomes a worldly, experienced adventurer. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to.
The subconscious goal was well established by the narrative, but the characters would never have said to themselves that was the reason they went on the adventure. Both the characters and the story used the conscious goal as an excuse to allow the character to achieve their subconscious goal.
- Relationship Tugging
Finally, it is important to remember that no character goes through change alone. Each character is surrounded by a web of other characters that influence the decisions they make and the arc they travel.
I like to think of different characters as playing a game of tug-of-war with the protagonist in the center. The protagonist gets tugged back and forth by the people they are in a relationship with, until eventually they are pulled too far to one side.
Star Wars is a story that does this excellently. Luke Skywalker’s character arc is of a peasant boy with no skills becoming the savior of the galaxy. As a part of that process, he is tugged in different directions by Darth Vader and Princess Leia. Vader wants him to become a dark lord, and Leia wants him to become a Jedi hero.
Luke is tugged back and forth between these two sides. As with the part about decision making, these two sides are presented as equal in his mind. Sometimes he feels the tug of the dark side stronger, sometimes he feels the tug of the light side. The climax of the story is when he is tugged all the way to the light side.
Importantly, you’ll notice that Vader is a character who is also undergoing this ‘relationship tugging’. Luke is tugging him in one direction, and Emperor Palpatine in another. To make the world of your story feel truly rich, and your characters feel truly dynamic, it is useful to create a web of interconnected interactions like this.
As with all writing advice, you’ll only drag yourself down by trying to follow it exactly. I can think of a dozen amazing stories that use none of these building blocks, yet have spectacular characters. I compiled this list as a way to inspire myself, for my own process. If it helps inspire you, I couldn’t be happier. But there are uncountable places to draw inspiration, and every writer’s process is unique.