What Makes a Good Character Arc?

Here is an in-depth look at what makes a good character arc.

Guide to What Makes a Good Character Arc

Creating a character arc that stands out and makes the story unforgettable is the most difficult task every writer faces.

If you enjoy reading stories, you probably already know that the characters are always the most important aspect of any story. A seemingly "boring" premise can become an unforgettable adventure if it contains compelling characters (like in The Book of a Passion). At the same time, an idea with a lot of action can be rendered completely ineffective if the characters in it are unconvincing and unrealistic (like with Captain Marvel ).

The arc that a character takes in a story is, of course, the single most important factor in determining whether or not they are a strong character. Because of this, I would like to focus on how to construct a journey that the reader lives alongside them (both the protagonist and the villain, as well as the secondary characters) and that the reader will never forget.

What is a Character Arc?

Let's start by defining what a "character arc" is.

This phrase refers to the character's internal development over time. Of course, it differs from the plot, so don't confuse the two.

The story's events must all be resolved for the plot to occur; in other words, "A leads to B, and B leads to C." As a result, the character arc is more subdued and connected to the internal revelations and transformations that the character goes through due to the plot.

For instance, Edmund from the Chronicles of Narnia goes through a very in-depth character arc that makes him realize how evil his actions are and ultimately aids in his transformation into a better person.

The "Edmund of the beginning" and the "Edmundo of the end" are very dissimilar, and this evolution is what we refer to as a "character arc."

Elements of a Good Character Arc

Now that everything is clear, it's time to discuss the components of a strong character arc. Let's get going!

The Critical Flaw

Nobody in this world is perfect, and almost everyone can see their flaws more readily than their virtues—barring hopeless narcissists.

Because we can't accept that someone without egregious flaws that stand in the way of achieving their goals exists, nobody likes them.

In other words, we think there are intelligent, strong, charismatic people everyone loves, but they are not infallible (like Rey from Star Wars, for example).

A character's arc will suffer if they don't have a significant personality flaw because they won't be able to change.

The more severe the character's internal flaw, the more powerful and obvious his final transformation will be. To make the contrast at the end memorable, the protagonist in many stories starts extremely petty and immature.

Don't, of course, make the error of giving him a mistake that has no bearing on the story. He tends to be rude, but it never really affects him. He must sink and make mistakes because of his failure. His victory will feel more satisfying (or his defeat more tragic) the lower he falls!

The Hero's Goal

Giving the character motivation and a goal to work toward is one of the first steps in giving your character arc structure.

For example, he might decide to "destroy a ring on Mount Doom," "become the Hokage," "avenge his father," etc. This component will enable you to link the story's conflict with the main plot and help the audience understand what your character stands for (something much more complicated to achieve than it seems).

Naturally, this still holds when you develop the backstory for the supporting cast. Remember that the most significant ones should have at least a brief arc that aids in developing your protagonist and reinforcing the story's theme.

The secondary arc must strike a very specific balance: it must exist independently of the protagonist but still be important to the plot and interesting without taking over from your main character.

The goal will assist you in striking this balance because it will enable you to connect the secondary objectives with the primary ones and more easily identify their differences.

what-makes-a-good-character-arc

For instance, the main plot of The Lord of the Rings is to "defeat Sauron and save Middle-earth," but the characters' objectives are very different:

  • Frodo seeks to destroy the ring;
  • Sam wants to help Frodo and keep his promise to Gandalf;
  • Gandalf wants to guide everyone to the right path;
  • Aragorn wants to become someone worthy of being king.

Everyone is autonomous and driven by their objectives, making them feel like real people rather than mere satellites that revolve around a single character.

Curiously, the objective your protagonist sets for himself need not be the one he will ultimately accomplish. To put it another way, perhaps your character aspires to be the most renowned attorney in the community, but what he needs to do is learn to be a better neighbor.

The character might then falter and be forced to deal with the fallout (something that occurs perfectly with the majority of the Avengers' arc in Avengers: Endgame).

The objective is merely a compass to direct the story; it is not a fixed point.

The Antagonist

While it's true that a villain doesn't necessarily need to have a story arc to be very powerful (as the Joker did in Batman: The Dark Knight), he must play a significant part in the development of the protagonist.

Making him share the protagonist's goal and have his worldview is the most successful way to accomplish this.

For instance, referring to the Batman film, the Joker is battling for the same cause as the protagonist: the very soul of Gotham City. Throughout the movie, Batman's storyline challenges his belief that anyone can be saved, no matter how terrible they appear.

This fight is entertaining from an outside perspective and has real power when you examine it philosophically and psychologically.

I will admit that I have some criticism for this antagonist because I find it a little too compelling and strong, which weakens the protagonist's influence in the narrative.

Of course, this is a very personal criticism, and the truth is that I adore this film beyond belief, but it makes the Batman arc less compelling and less memorable. When people discuss this movie, they almost always talk about the Joker and never the protagonist!

Self-Disclosure

The character's realization of his significant failure and decision to improve himself could be considered the story's turning point.

Specifically, I'm referring to the protagonist's realizations that money is not the most important thing, that he is happiest when he cares about others, and that telling a lie can have unexpected and terrible results.

The character's self-disclosure enables him to rise to the occasion and succeed by preparing him to face the antagonist and get past his challenges.

It could also be the turning point in his decision to become evil and abandon his initial disposition, as in The Godfather, for instance.

The key is that the character must learn something in this scene that inspires him to develop and change. The better the arc he has, the more potent this element is.

The Change

Of course, if a great self-revelation does not result in a genuine change in the character, it is useless. That Sierra Burges is a Loser doesn't change at all due to her self-disclosure is one thing that irritates me the most about her book. She remains the same self-pitying, pitiful loser after the narrative. She essentially didn't mature at all.

If your character underwent a significant and powerful arc, then he or she must demonstrate it; there must be a genuine change in the character, not just a shift in mood.

It's similar to the scene in Real Steel where Hugh Jackman's character, Charlie Kenton, has fundamentally altered his outlook on life and could be considered a completely different person.

It is still plausible, though, because his character's arc was flawlessly developed, and the plot produced crucial moments that progressively changed him.

If this component weren't present, the bow's entire mission would have wasted time.

Here are resources I recommend to get more in-depth knowledge

Storytelling 101 teaches you how to write compelling stories worthy of commercial success. This is best for screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, videogame writers and storytellers.

Children’s Books 101 teaches you how to write stories that children will love. This is best for aspiring children’s book authors and storytellers.

Owl AI is the revolutionary AI-powered content production platform that helps storytellers, writers, and bloggers of all subject matter easily create highly-polished content.

Success, Money & Mindset Subliminal is a self-hypnosis recording that we recommend to new writers to help with focus, concentration, creativity, and motivation.

Shadow Work Journal: 240 Daily Prompts contains inner work exercises related to relationships, anger, anxiety, self-love, healing trauma, abandonment issues, depression, forgiveness, etc.

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