5 Easy Steps to Make a Character Arc

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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

In Conclusion

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.

Featured

Trail’s End

The car skips and bounces down the road. Gravel kicks up in streaks of dust behind the wheels. I look out the window and lean my head against the glass. 

“Well?” Amy asks. She’s driving. I’m in the backseat, stretched out, my legs pressing against one window and my head against the other. I look at my toes. Each of the nails is bruised. The one on my big toe is cracked in two different places. I wiggle them. I’m sure they stink, but I can’t smell it anymore and Amy is nice enough not to complain. 

“Well?” Amy repeats. She glances at me through the rear-view mirror, smiling. Waiting. Wanting something from me. 

“Well what?” I ask. 

“How was it?”

“Good.”

She laughs. “That’s not all you’re going to say, is it?”

“It was hard, too.” I smile back. “Sorry, It’s just…” my voice trails off. 

“Well, what was your favorite state, at least.”

“New Hampshire.”

“How come?”

“Had the prettiest mountains.”

“Did it help?”

“Did what help?”

“The trip.”

I turn my head and watch the forest slide past outside the window. The road we’re on stretches nearly parallel to the trail. It’s odd, because in the last half hour we’ve travelled what took me three days to walk. It doesn’t feel like just travelling, it feels like the car is erasing the trail, eating it up, turning it into a green blur barely perceived through a window. 

“No,” I say. “It didn’t help.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asks. Her face is a mask of sympathy, tinted dark by the shade of the mirror. 

“No,” I say. “Just thinking.”

“You can sleep if you want. We can talk later.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

I lean back and close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I think about this picture I saw of a man at the end of the Appalachian Trail. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, on his knees, and he’s gripping the summit marker with both hands, pressing his head against the wood. Sobbing. The picture doesn’t move but I can see his shoulders heaving.

I thought it would be like that when I got to the top, to the end. But it wasn’t. I don’t know.  I looked at the view, which was nice, but I had seen better, and then I walked down to the parking lot and waited for Amy to come get me, drive me home. I thought it would mean something. 

Home is back in Connecticut for us, which means the drive is nearly ten hours. We take a pit stop at a convenience store outside of Portland. It’s dark now. We’re the only car in the parking lot. Neon signs say proudly that the gas is only $2.95, the light from inside the store is almost painful to look at compared to the rich dark of the clouded sky. The car’s headlights sweep across the asphalt and Amy cuts the motor. 

I get out of the car and stretch. The lights of Portland turn the sky orange in the distance. Even if there weren’t clouds, there wouldn’t be any stars. 

“I’ll get gas,” Amy says. 

“I’m gonna piss,” I say. 

My boots don’t fit linoleum tiles. They’re so scuffed around the edges that they look almost fuzzy. What used to be grey and blue has turned almost black with caked mud. The tiles are sharp and edged. They have the usual crumbs and dust and scratches, the store owner in the corner is busy sweeping the residue under the counter. 

“Hey,” I say. “Got a bathroom?”

He points. 

The inside of the bathroom is covered with funny quotes about alcohol. I’ve had one beer too many, but I can’t tell if it was the eleventh, or the twelfth. Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer. I chuckle at a good one about Winston Churchill. 

I’m so used to pissing on trees that I nearly forget to flush. It’s funny. I thought I might change. I thought I was supposed to change. But I didn’t mean change as in, I forget to flush. I meant change, as in, I cried when I held the sign on Mt. Katahdin. 

At the counter I toss a bag of Cheez-Its to the store owner, who scans them and tosses them back and then I toss him some coins, a game of catch. He looks me up and down. 

“Hiker?” he asks. 

“What gave it away?”

“The beard,” he says. I scratch at it thoughtfully. I haven’t shaved in six months. 

“That’s true.”

“Let me guess,” the store owner says. “Baxter State Park?”

“For a little,” I say. “I was a through hiker.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“My son was a through hiker.” He gives me the receipt. “See any bears?”

“A few,” I say. “When I was in the White Mountains, I saw one trying to reach for my bear bag. I hadn’t hung it in the trees properly and it was too close to one of the trunks, and this bear had climbed all the way up it and was reaching its paw for the bag. As I watched, the branch it was on broke. Real awkward thing, too. Paws flailing everywhere. It stood up and looked around like it was embarrassed, scratched its ear, and walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The store owner laughs. “I’ll tell my son.”

“I had a son, too,” I say. 

“How old is he?”

“Would have turned fifteen in a month.”

When I get back to the car, Amy is sitting in the driver’s seat. The lights are off, so the only thing illuminating her face is pink neon, her expression bathed and washed and bleached. I get into the back seat. She doesn’t start the car, we just look at each other through the rear view mirror. 

“Did you get gas?” I ask. 

“I want to know why,” Amy says. 

“Are you crying?” I ask. 

“You were gone for six months.”

I don’t say anything. 

“You were gone for six months and you just left me.”

“Can we talk about this when we get home?”

It’s a silent car ride back. 

We sleep in the same bed. It’s the first time I’ve slept next to someone since I began the hike. She sleeps facing away from me. Morning light already fills the room with grey fuzz. I look at my hand, eyes open. Every part of me is aware of my wife, the weight of her in the bed, the warmth of her in the room, the sound of her breath and the smell of what she washed her hair with. All of the sensations are too much, I can’t handle the proximity, the constant reminder of another consciousness unable to sleep because the same grief is in both our hearts, I don’t want to feel her emotions as well as mine, so I get out of bed and I go for a walk down the street, in the same jacket I wore while hiking, barefoot, the concrete leeches warmth from my soles. 

In the morning I have the same breakfast that I had on the trail. Oatmeal, brown sugar, powdered milk. I eat it at the kitchen counter, hunched over the food, too bleary eyed to focus on much of anything.

Amy sits down across from me, wearing pajamas, her hair erratic. 

“Where’d you go this morning?”

“Just for a walk.” I pick up my bowl of oatmeal and wash it in the sink. The flakes stick to the side of the bowl and it takes a couple passes with the sponge to clean it out. 

“I thought you’d have had enough walking.” She smiles, it’s a joke, but it really doesn’t feel like it. 

“Me too.”

“I want you to tell me about it. Tell me a story.”

The bowl is clean by now but I keep scrubbing at it. 

“You didn’t call,” Amy says. 

“I texted.”

“Once a week, to let me know you were safe, like we agreed.”

“Did you want me to call?”

“Of course.”

“You could have, you know. I would have answered.”

“Look at me,” she says. 

I put the bowl down. I look at her. She reaches out and takes my hands which hang limp at my sides and holds them between us. Her thumb plays over the dirt on the back of my hand — a half hour long shower couldn’t scrub it clean — plays over the ridge of tendons and muscle I didn’t used to have. 

“I missed you,” she says. “I needed you.”

“I needed to do something,” I say. 

“I know you did.”

“You said it was fine. I asked and I asked and I asked if it was alright for me to go and you said you would be fine.”

“I didn’t want to control you.”

“I just… I needed my life to change.”

“Haven’t our lives changed enough?” Her voice chokes mid-sentence. 

“I got up each morning and I sat on the bus to go to work and all around me, everybody was living their lives, moving, you know, and there I was, pretending nothing was different, moving along with them, pretending like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t do that.”

“And on the trail? Did you stop needing to pretend when you were on the trail?”

I look away. 

“Look at me,” she says. 

“I kept pretending,” I say. 

“And for us?” she says. “Are we going to keep pretending, too? That nothing is different, that you didn’t abandon me, that our son didn’t–”

“Stop.”

“That our son didn’t die?”

“We could keep pretending.”

“I don’t want to. I want to walk with you. I want to feel everything I need to feel, and then I want it to be done, just done, however long it takes for the grief to go away. I want you to be there with me. ”

“I need to call work,” I say. “To tell them I’m back. See if I still have a job.”

“Okay,” Amy says. She turns away from me. “Okay.” 

I reach out a hand to touch her shaking back but I don’t, my fingers hover and then I draw them away. 

At the top of Mt. Katahdin I stand in front of the sign that the hiker from the photo held. I turn from the sign, look out at the view. Clouds curl about themselves in little wisps. Slopes and rocks and trees and cliffs and ridges all around in a jumble. 

I try to wrap my head around just how large the trail is. How large it is and I walked the whole thing, all two thousand two hundred miles of it. I can’t do it. I can’t hold the image all together. I can grab hold to a scrap here, a fragment there, but it is like a cup that has shattered. The shards of ceramic lie scattered in my mind. I pick up a shard and the rain patters against the walls of my tent, yet I am warm inside, wrapped in a sleeping bag, my headlamp reflects off the pages of my book. I pick up a shard and Amy and I are eating lunch while watching tv, I steal a potato chip from her plate and she steals half my sandwich and I steal her glass of milk and she steals a kiss.  I pick up a shard and it is my son’s fifth birthday, I hold him up on my shoulders and run like a donkey around the yard while he smears his face with pink cake. Every time I pick up a shard I am forced to put down the one I was holding, no matter how many shards I grab I can never make the cup whole again, I can never contain the entirety of my son in the breadth of my imagination. 

So I don’t try. 

To The Words On The Tips Of Our Tongues

The box rested in Emily’s hand. Mud speckled her arms and her face and snarled her hair. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes as she examined it, how intensely her gaze scoured the surface as though its contents could save her.

Porter leaned against a nearby tree – and this too I remember clearly – because his arms were crossed and his head was turned. 

The box was a rectangular affair, as they often are. Back then, it looked blank. I know better now. It’s lid wouldn’t come off. 

“It’s aliens,” she said. 

“Aliens aren’t real,” Porter scoffed. He kicked at a stone, affecting an air of disinterest, a false confidence held only by pre-pubescent teens with far too much testosterone for their own good.

I didn’t believe in aliens, but I did believe in Emily. You couldn’t help but trust her; every word was electric with her own spellbinding confidence. It seemed impossible that Porter could ignore her. 

“How will you open it?” I asked. Oh, how I captured the essence of the moment! So succinct was that sentence, so vital. Although I would not grasp the ramifications of my words until much too late. 

Her scrawny limbs quivered with the effort of prying the lid off. Porter laughed and she glared at him. “Get me a hammer.”

“No, you won’t get that lid off.”

“You try.”

“Don’t want to.”

“Then get me a hammer.”

He pried himself off the tree. “I’m going home.”

“Adam, you get me a hammer.”

I jumped a little, surprised. “Okay.”

Emily’s mother stuck her head out the screen door that opened onto the back yard. “Emily! It’s time to take your medicine!”

The box disappeared into Emily’s house, where it ended up on a shelf in her basement and I soon forgot about it.

Emily didn’t. 

I think it was high school when I next saw the box. Maybe middle school? At least four years had passed in any case. We were in Emily’s basement, me and Porter and her. Porter had grown taller, he had to duck beneath the insulated pipes along the ceiling. He played tennis. He walked with long, deliberate strides. 

Emily sat on his lap, and he on a tattered couch they found on the side of the road. Porter absentmindedly brushed the hospital band on her wrist. I sat on an armchair across from them. Her messy brown hair did a poor job disguising the red scar on the side of her neck. The stitches had only just come out last week. I must remember her eyes were the same, even though there were bags beneath them.

“Oh, look at this,” Emily said, springing out of Porter’s arms and swiping the box from where it rested on her workbench next to a large microscope and a smattering of screwdrivers and wrenches. 

“You kept that?” Porter laughed. “It’s useless.”

“No, it’s not.” Her eyes burned. “I can’t even scratch it. Totally unbreakable. And it’s got these really small carvings all over it.”

Porter snatched the box from her hand and peered at it. “You’re mind must be going, Emily.”

And the room fell silent.

“Emily, I didn’t mean that,” Porter scrambled. For a moment, we all saw through his nonchalance to his terror, but he pulled the veil once more across his face.

I interrupted. “Have you tried laser-based spectroscopy? For the box?”

They looked at me. I hadn’t said a word for the last hour we had been together. Porter laughed at me, but Emily was just curious. “No, I haven’t. What is it?”

“Mr. Dimmock has a setup for it. I’ll show you how to use it, if you want.”

For the next year Emily was a regular fixture in the chemistry lab. Often I would just sit and watch her watch the box. She was never frustrated, even though she tried every tool in the lab without success. After that year, her hospital visits became so frequent that she didn’t have the time any more. 

I graduated and left for tech school. Emily stayed. I lasted a week before I called. 

“Adam?” she said.

I held the phone closer to my ear so I could hear every word, every catch in her voice, every lilting syllable. “Emily? How are you.”

“I’m good, how are you?” She laughed. 

I wasn’t laughing. “I meant really.”

“So did I. How was the first week of college?”

“Good. Fine. I’m worried about you.”

“Adam.”

We grew silent. I changed the subject. “Have you made any progress on the box?”

“I have, actually.” Even though we were 2,000 miles apart I could still see her eyes dance, a smile flicker across her face. “The designs are so intricate. I haven’t found a pattern yet, but I know I’m close. Porter thinks I’m crazy, the amount of time I spend on it.”

“Porter?”

“Didn’t you hear? He’s staying back home.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe he’s doing this all for me. He’s not even going to school. Got a job.”

“That’s really nice of him.”

“I spend the whole day looking at the box sometimes. It’s not even about the lid anymore, I don’t think. I  run my hands across the designs and I feel like I’m getting there, like there’s a word on the tip of my tongue.”

We were silent. I had run out of things to say.

“Hey, Adam?” Emily asked. 

“What?”

“If I -”

“Emily, stop.”

“I’m serious.”

“Okay.”

“If I get too sick, I want you to have the box. I want you to figure out what’s inside of it for me.”

A month later I got a package in the mail. There was a note on the outside, her once steady handwriting now trembling.  “Here’s to words on the tips of our tongues. Good luck Adam.”

I spent every waking hour with the box. Under a high powered microscope, I could see Emily was right about the designs. Swirling notches carved into the unbreakable material. I would lose myself in them as they fractured and spun, like the swirling of stars on a cloudless night. How could something so small be so seemingly endless? There was a pattern. Or almost, at least. The carvings were aimless yet organized, both particle and wave.

I worked ceaselessly on the box. Stopped going to class. Every day I felt like I got a little bit closer and closer and closer.  

I got the news that Emily was dead seventeen minutes after I figured out how to open the box.

I called Porter.

He was crying when he answered the phone. “Fuck off.” 

He hung up.

I called again. “Porter, I need to talk.”

“Fine. Talk.”

“I figured out how to open the box.”

“Fuck the box,” Porter said. His voice was quiet, broken. “Fuck the box, fuck you, fuck her for giving you the box. I don’t want to hear another word about that stupid box.”

I didn’t know how to respond.

“I’m sorry,” Porter said after a while. “I’m… “ he sighed. “What’s in the box?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I haven’t looked.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s dumb.”

“Tell me about Emily,” I said. 

“What the fuck do you want to know? She’s fucking dead, Adam.”

Now I was crying. “Just tell me about her.”

“She was really pretty and had nice legs. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Me neither.”

We waited for a long while on the phone together. The static was comforting. It helped to know that we were both feeling the same thing. 

Porter broke the silence. “I understand. About the box, I mean. It’s not dumb that you haven’t looked. In the last few months, before she died, we didn’t know. How long she had, I mean. We didn’t know which words would be her last. So we made everything count. And now, knowing how long she had just fucking sucks. It wasn’t very long at all. I want to go back to when we didn’t know. I miss her.” 

He laughed a little.  “She was really fucking pissed that she died before finding out what was inside that fucking box.”

“Maybe.”

Static again. I hung up.