How To Write A Great Character Arc

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Stories are all about characters. When readers pick up a book, they’re looking to be taken on a journey, and the right characters are the key to that success. Because of this, you need to know how to write a great character arc. A character arc is the path of a character’s development over the course of a story, and it’s what makes a character feel real to readers. A character arc doesn’t have to be complicated or even dramatic, but it needs to be intentional, and you need to know how to write one.


Know the character’s backstory

When creating a character arc, you need to know the character’s backstory. Even if you don’t include the information in the work you’re publishing now, it will help you shape how the plot progresses and your character reacts to various events. The best thing to do is to write the backstory down. Consider it a novel within your novel that will never be published. This allows you to create a complete backstory where you can include personal and emotional details, as well as the events that have shaped the character’s personality.

Another way to figure out a character’s backstory is to look for details in the writing at hand. Is your character sometimes drawn to a particular color because of a story they heard growing up? Perhaps their mannerisms reveal a childhood spent working on a farm, or performing in show business. Make notes about the clues in your current project, and then consider where else you’ve implemented them throughout your narrative. The backstory can be the same for every version, but you must make them different narratively. If you find an early clue in the text, consider what happened just before and after to help spin it. If it’s a detail you’ve used more recently, consider the metaphor and foreshadowing behind it.

Decide on your character’s relatable flaw

The key to writing a great character arc is to pick a relatable flaw that makes your main character feel human, but one that he or she is still capable of overcoming with enough dimension and back-story. The flaw does not have to be central to the book, all important to the character’s arc, or even one he or she is comfortable with. You can find flaws in the way your character talks, slanders others, makes plans, trusts the wrong people, indulges addictions, mistreats loved ones, or worse — look for a physical representation that makes the flaw visible or an external manifestation of it that can be brought to light. Depending on the nature of the flaw, this may not be something that can be overcome easily — maybe the character has to get a serious life-threatening disease first. However, your character also has to have some sort of second chance in order to overcome the flaw. Make sure the flaw fits the character’s personality in some way — someone with a hatred of technology should not become dependent on a smartphone.

Work on your character’s development before you even start writing. Come up with something in the character’s past that contributed to the flaw and that made the character see the flaw as crucial. Then, come up with some quirks, other flaws, or negative personality traits that have not yet appeared, but could arise in even greater strength if they are not addressed by the end of the book. This is key for grounding the book in a sense of reality. For more fantastical stories, think up some positive traits that your character could learn with the right motivation. Make sure the flaws, positive and negative, are all relevant to the plot and that they’ll have an interesting side-effect that will help the character grow.

Identify your character’s inner obstacles

Your protagonist doesn’t want to change, but the events they encounter in your novel will force them to find new ways to adapt. Conflict, and the resolutions that conflict requires, fuel a story forward. But character arcs subvert that imperative to create growth in the protagonist. First, identify the obstacles that are going to impede your successful protagonist from reaching their goal at the beginning of the novel. These should be difficult things for the protagonist to deal with, and it doesn’t help if they have an easy solution. Maybe one of your character’s neighbors is a gang member — is the protagonist comfortable around him, or are they uneasy because they disagree with his values? Maybe your protagonist falls ill and alienated from others — which will hurt them more? Maybe they donate to a charity for the poor, and there’s a story about the beneficiaries on the news — when they see the people they helped, how will they react?

The above examples show just two ways that obstacles can specifically impact your characters — you can go a long way into your character arc by figuring out the specificity with which you want to approach it. The important thing is to write it down. Figure out what you want your character to do, both in terms of how they will act and how they will change.

Create strong opposition

No matter the structure of the show, movie, or book, the audience is waiting for the protagonist to take off. That threshold is often found in opposition. Many shows will start with the opposition the main character faces in their current life, going back to Greek plays and Ancient mythology. Shows like Bojack Horseman go a step further, creating an opposing character, who also becomes a voice of the protagonist’s conscience. Struggling to find a connection with his stunted self, Bojack relies on a familiar character not only to challenge what he sees as his best qualities—sympathy for others and fear of being the worst—but also to rein him in when he most wants to give up. If you want to write a great character arc, you have to make sure the audiences have something to fear they will lose along the way in the first place. Be consistent when it comes to building opposition for your main characters, and most importantly…

Make them worthy of change. There’s a big difference between struggling with small-scale issues and reaching to overcome larger issues, and you need to make that clear with your main character. But don’t throw obvious change issues at your audience in your very first work, or they’ll lose trust. Start small, with more personal challenges, going beyond small vices to something like a fear of intimacy, or dissatisfaction with their hometown. Resist the urge to make your main character too good in the world they’re living in, making excuses for their lower standards or their fixed ideals. There’s always an easier route to take than change, and audiences will always root for characters who see the harder path as the better one to take. Leading characters—and supporting stalwart friends, parents, siblings, and mentors—who don’t take responsibility for their actions have a way of ruining narrative arcs, so plan ahead.

Make them multi-faceted

While your central character may be the protagonist, they’re not likely to have all of the important qualities that will drive your story’s plot. In fact, they probably shouldn’t. The most dynamic characters have all kinds of different qualities — positive and negative ones, strengths and vulnerabilities. Psychology today calls this a dialectic — a kind of organized mess that reflects life. To really introduce variety on the page, write your character with many different traits and characteristics, and plot out how to place each of these in conflict. Remember to keep your character’s personality consistent. Nobody can be both strong and weak at the same time, or cautious and reckless. Nobody can get insta-strong the moment they want something badly enough, or develop bad aim immediately after they learn how to use their weapon effectively. Characters must retain credibility, and that means consistent behavior, no matter how their world is going to turn against them.

Once you create your main character, spend some time writing descriptions of them from the point of view of other characters in your story. Good antagonists include not only character traits, but also an internal conflict, an obsession or enemy that they have a difficult time overcoming. A good protagonist will have an internal and external conflict, since internal and external conflict always reinforce each other.

Choose a voice for your character

Once you’ve written your basic bio sketch of your character, it’s time to start digging into his voice. Look for the ways that he speaks and writes, and begin building a distinct voice for your character. Think about how your character uses the vocabulary you’ve given him, and give him scenarios that will allow your reader to see the character fully and truly inhabit that voice. Once readers like and fully understand a character’s voice, you can begin to play with it on the page and in his developments.

A character’s voice can be an extremely effective tool of characterization, and it can also be the most frustrating to navigate. If a character’s voice fails to present itself on the page, the reader might struggle to absorb history, plot and setting details that will eventually seep in and become meaningful. If your character’s voice is still underdeveloped, consider one of the many exercises drawn from poetry and song that will help you open aural floodgates. Read your character’s bio aloud. Recite lines of dialogue. Use a line of free verse as a model to play with the tone and rhythms of your character’s voice.

Avoid character cliches

The clichés that plague writing in every genre are almost endless, but one of the worst involves characters. A character cliche is a stereotype that feels like an exaggeration, or a fictional archetype or archetype, like an innocent simpleton. If the people in your novel feel like standardized collections of adjectives instead of complex human beings, you might be adding a character cliche to your work. If you write a loner protagonist, for example, and he happens to be both brilliant and a billionaire in his teens, you might be over-emphasizing the loner part, and pushing a little too far on the brilliant and the billionaire parts, as well. More subtly, if your group of best friends all happen to be from different ethnic or social backgrounds, you might be veering into cliche territory.

Creating a character cliche in any piece of writing, not just a novel, can fundamentally weaken the story’s impact. A cliche character is a collection of traits instead of a real person, and therefore it’s a lot more difficult for readers and audiences to connect with them on an emotional level. It’s the reason why character arcs are so powerful, after all — they’re journeys toward understanding and acceptance of who we are and what we want out of life. Struggling with a character cliche in your fiction doesn’t mean you’ve written a bad novel, it just means you need to go back and work a little harder to make your characters something more than a collection of clichés.

Create believable motivations

A difficult part of a character arc is to give the main character a believable motivation for his changes. To be effective, the motivation must come from within the character, not from outside events we might as well declare “reasons by plot decree” and hope no one notices. This motivation must be insightful, and it must be true to the nature of the character. It may unfold slowly, or dramatically, but ultimately, the character will make an effect, even if just within their own mind or heart.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between growth and decline. In fact, it’s a common mistake to try to write growth arcs, without paying proper respect of the decline that must come with it. Growth arcs will eventually come to an end, just like their retrograde counterparts, but without a foundation of true character change, the process comes off as shallow and, worse, unbelievable. Character change does not come easily — characters can’t just start believing a negative thing, and then change their thinking to something positive, and expect to make an arc.

Note how your characters function during the story

Character arcs are built around the idea that a person isn’t static, but constantly changing. Before you can decide what your character’s arc should be, however, you need to fully understand how that occurs in the mind of a human being. The story of a character arc is more often the product of what they think or feel than what they say or do. If readers are rooting for a character, it’s because they believe that some sort of ultimate state of fulfillment is possible. If you have an external character arc, you unfold the arc based on the experiences the character has. If you have an internal character arc, the main character undergoes a change as a result of the thoughts they go over.

It’s so tempting for writers to get lost in the plot when they’re writing the bulk of the story — that’s when all the big action is going down. But don’t forget that character development is just as important as plot development, if not more so. In the second draft of your book, start at Chapter One and go through your manuscript, making note whenever you can of where your characters act out of character, because of a change within them. What was it that caused them to do something so out of the norm? Could they have done anything else? Why? What would it take to reach that state of fulfillment?

Show your character learning

One of the most critical aspects of any arc, and one of the easiest parts to mess up, is the learning part. Your character must undergo enough change due to their experiences to justify their transformation. Like any other good plot point, this change must happen early in the story, and be evident in every following scene. If you stow your character’s change away in some later scene, you’ll weaken the importance of your work to much of your audience. The form your story takes will also dictate the nature of this change. Novels tend to be more internal and subtle, where TV and movies must be more external and obvious. If you’re writing a novel, focus on small, discrete actions that hint at a larger change, or another big event that makes the reader aware of the change for the first time. If you’re writing for film or television, remember that scenes still have to move the plot forward, so try to fit most of your character’s growth into the central events.

Showing your character change may be the most important characteristic of a story arc, but making them useless to the story is actually the most common. Why waste an entire episode in order to show that your character has the right stuff? Make them hit the ground running, and the ending won’t need to fall back on the typical clichés. Take a closer look at the inciting drama — the problem that kicks your story into motion. Do you really need it to be a monumental moment of injustice? What if your character cares about the issue and wants to help in a small way instead? The importance will still be there, while the use of a small conflict can help set up a more believable journey.

Use change in the story to tell readers more about them

Change in a character is the key to all character arcs, but in order for change to truly tell us more about the character, it can’t just be change for the sake of it. Change must be visible — it must be visited upon a character by a compelling force, and tested in the crucible of his own experience. If most characters in your story are static, with no arc of either action or conflict, then your readers will likely think the same of your writing. Your characters must be tested, grow, and change as a result of something that happens in your story. No change — no story!

 Motivation not only drives the action in your story, but it progresses character arcs as well. Once your characters are facing conflict, guiding them through the scenes, interactions, and confrontations with their enemies that define the plot of your story becomes easier. Heroes and villains must both have motivations, villains must be both complex and understandable, and both must have an internal goal that doesn’t just revolve around the plot of your story. The characters may come to understand their internal conflicts better as they write their way into the story, but keeping these in mind before you begin will make them easier to address.

Use success to explore your character’s personality

Many writers believe that the way their character arcs is by having them overcome the antagonistic force — the villain. While it’s true that any character who can be completely overcome by their antagonist is a fairly flat character, too often, writers neglect the other elements of a character arc. Things like motivation, personality, and flaws have almost as important a place in character arcs as the conflict or antagonism. Remember that your characters’ motivations are going to be tested in the crucible of the story — every decision they make in pursuit of their goal reflects on both the conflict and their inner journey.

Do not force anything

At its core, a character changes when they have a shift in their psychology or worldview. A writer agonizes endlessly over an arc, because if it’s done “too soon”, you end up with little but a lecture, and that’s not dramatic. Too late and you end up changing their makeup just for drama, instead of because they’ve learned something. Writers worry about making characters too perfect, and readers worry that flawed heroes aren’t human enough. In the end, the key to writing a great character arc is to keep all of these concerns at play, and let them color the story in the ways they need it to.

In most character arcs, there will be a push and a pull. Is it an external event which creates the “push”, or is it your character’s temperament? Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s one, and they have to really struggle to become better than they were. Obviously, the closer you can bring this event to the climax of your story, the more impact it will have, and the better your story will be. Your new worldview should cause them to modify their behavior, and then be tested. The hero might overcome, or they might throw away their victory and continue being selfish. Either way, you will have written an exciting character arc.

With these ideas in mind, you’re sure to write a character arc that will order your story and draw your readers deeper. The old rules can be broken, but your story can follow a foundational progression. We all love happy endings, but readers will expect them — even demand them in some ways. Use your fictional universe to break conventions while still staying true to your world. Life is messy and reality is complicated, but fiction can reveal universal truths about the human condition. That’s what readers are looking for in a story. If you can deliver this experience for them, you’re sure to write a character arc your readers will love.

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