What the Heck is a Character Arc?

character arc.png

Click the image for the source: the 5 Minute Workday.  Awesome site!

M.L.S. Weech recently wrote a post talking about how he had to change a couple character arcs in his upcoming novel Caught.  It got me to thinking, maybe I should touch on character arcs.  After all, the first time I heard of character arcs I didn’t have a clue what it meant.  I nodded my empty head, acted like I was checking my phone messages, and quickly did a Google search.  A few years later I have a better grasp of the concept.  So here’s a basic intro for you all to sink your teeth into.

*Failure Log: 000201  It is here I would normally talk about the origins of the term, character arc.  Wouldn’t you know it, I was unable to find the origins of the term.  I was curious as to who coined the term.  Everyone loves an origins story!  If you have some insight – please drop me a line.

When people talk about character arcs it’s really just a fancy way of saying, “a characters journey.”  Each character in your work should undergo changes (ideally) through the duration of the story.  A character arc is a way for you to track those changes.

(Beware!  Lord of the Rings and Hobbit references incoming…)

hobbit hole.jpgBeing a Tolkien fanboy, I think of Bilbo Baggins.  He is plucked from his cushy hobbit hole, thrust into a great adventure, goes through many changes, resolves the conflict, and returns home a different hairy-footed hobbit.  He has a very dynamic arc.

While his arc is interesting and enjoyable, think of all the other characters from the book series.  Frodo, Gandalf, Samwise, Aragorn, and the list goes on.  If you pluck each one of these characters out of the book, chart their progressions individually, you will see major shifts in their arcs.  Arguably, it’s one reason why The Hobbit, which was written in 1937, is still relevant today.

The point of character arcs is to prevent your character from being flat.  By this we mean the character changes very little throughout the story.  If the reader senses no emotional changes or growth in your characters they will be left feeling hollow.

If the concept of character arcs is completely foreign to you, here are a couple resources to check out.

How to Write Character Arcsis an article by K.M. Weiland.  She does an outstanding job of explaining the concept and even digs a little deeper by offering examples of positive change arcs, negative change arcs, and flat arcs.  If you like the article, she has written a few books on the subject as well.  The two I would recommend (in regards to this specifically) are Crafting Unforgettable Characters and Structuring Your Novel.crafting unforgettable characters.jpg

Veronica Sicoe, is an author and blogger.  She wrote an article called, The 3 Types of Character Arc – Change, Growth and Fall.  Not only is her article really solid and spot on, it’s a hilarious read (seriously, her writing style is glorious).  She offers insight into what character arcs are and offers three types: change arc, growth arc, and fall arc.

I‘m not going to try to re-explain what these two have already done perfectly.  What I will offer is how I track arcs when I self-edit, and when I edit for clients/friends.

As I read/write I jot down characters as they appear in the story on a piece of paper.  At the conclusion of the chapter I write whatever it was they did.  Sometimes the character does nothing.  Sometimes they punch a hole in someones chest, and in doing so, learn a greater lesson about life and love.  I keep a separate piece of paper for each character.

Character Arc Tracker

Here is an example of what I use.  Feel free to use it yourself.  Image is linked to my Flickr.

 

As the book progresses I continue to add events onto the character pages.  Once the book is completed I look at the character sheets individually.  This is when I can really see the change in the characters.  Does hero #1 simply crush everything in his path?  Does he/she ever really get challenged?  Sure it can be cool to have a hero that is a demi-god and smites every obstacle foolish enough to present itself, but in the way of emotional content this can be a fail.

Looking at it on paper lets me cut through the pages of extra information and focus specifically on the character minus all the other frills.  As writers we tend to get lost in the story and can lose track of what all our characters are doing (or how they are growing).  It’s also effective because so many writers focus mainly on the protagonist and antagonist.

one ring.jpgIn the Lord of the Rings series, Samwise Gamgee could have just been a guy who took some punches, carried gear, and groomed his hairy feet.  But no, instead he touched our quivering hearts by saying stuff like, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”  What a moment.

Sam wasn’t just carrying Frodo, he was helping to carry the story.  For moments like this to happen in your own writing, each character needs to grow and change.  Character arcs can help make that happen by forcing you to consider the work each one of your characters are doing to elevate the story.

That’s it for today.  Don’t forget, if you are the keeper of character arc lore and know the origins, please share.  Do you have a method of utilizing character arcs?  Do you make doodles or outlines?  I’d love to hear about your processes.  Here is a template I use myself. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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47 responses

  1. I tend to get lost in the story, I came about my eighth or ninth draft (you start losing track after a while right), and got the rude awakening that my main character was not fulfilling a character arc, ouch. So I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this and how to go about it. I like what you did here, charting everything out separately, might help me a lot : )

    Meno

    Liked by 1 person

    • You aren’t alone when it comes to realizing (after much time spent) the arc needs to be analyzed more in depth. The important thing is you noticed it before the final stage – publishing.

      Try some different recording methods and see which one rings true for you.

      Thanks for reading and best of luck moving forward!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You had me at chaos! Anytime we can insert some wonton insanity into the process, without destroying the whole of the work, I’m all for it. Good luck roping your characters and keeping them on track.

      Thanks for reading and happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I should have used a Game of Thrones theme for this post – talk about character arcs *smacks forehead*

      That series is a great place to find some solid arcs (and have your heart broken as your favorite characters keep getting killed). Thanks for reading and pulling my brain in this direction.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I have no doubt that when the new semester starts I will need this post, it is awesome! I am now reading, WordPress: The Missing Manual , got it off of Amazon early this morning and cant put it down. I am definitely going to write about this tomorrow. Thanks Q.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s near impossible to think on character’s journey without turning into LORT blabbing, is it? Another fine reference in more recent media is Rocky. Boy, I love his journey. But I may be biased since I lived in Philadelphia for 2 years. Either way, it is hard to do big characters arcs for all your main characters without having a 600 pages novel. Would you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Who doesn’t love the Italian Stallion? I bet you have some pictures of yourself posing in front of his statue if you lived in there. I would.

      In regards to length – I don’t think there is a correlation between book length and the strength of an arc. I know I cited a massive series of books, but that was just an example I figured many people had heard of.

      Just remember, all an arc really is, minus the fancy language, is a characters journey. It’s very possible to create a compelling journey with compelling characters in a short number of words. What comes to mind are graphic novels and novellas. Both of which are short, but both mediums offer amazing characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. However, most normal sized fiction books (pick one you like and look for yourself) contain strong arcs. Many times it’s just subtle. If we aren’t thinking in these analytical terms, we just don’t notice it, and that’s a good thing.

      When it all boils down all the arc does (from a writer and editor perspective) is allow us to look at the characters and make sure they are doing something relevant chapter to chapter. We want to make sure they are doing work and growing in some manner. This can be as subtle as a line of poignant dialogue.

      The process scares some people, but the truth is, it (usually) only takes some minor tweaking to fix issues. The important thing is you at least are aware problems exist and can move to correct and improve.

      Good luck and try not to get discouraged. I know you are on your 8+ draft, but heck, Tolkien spent some 30+ years creating his universe – and I’m still blogging about it today.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. EGADS! What sorcery is this?! Keeping track after each chapter of every character and what they have done and by the end having a chart to see how or if they have developed sufficiently, thereby practically ensuring all your characters have a story and are as memorable as the story you are writing yourself!

    This is brilliant! It is very easy to get lost in a story and forget to flesh out all the characters or any for that matter. Alas, I am humbled and amazed by this method you use! It would come in handy…heck, writing anything down would come in handy! Xp

    Thank you for sharing this with the rest of us. I learned a ton in just that alone, but also it is nice to see there is another huge LOTR and Hobbit fan here as well. Great stories! Just brilliant!

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for stopping in! I hope you find some success using the method.

      There are also places where you can download templates to print out – these can assist you in organizing materials. If I’m doing it for me, I just doodle away. But if I’m doing it for a friend/client I try to organize it a little better.

      Happy arcing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. There’s a terminology issue that I sometimes face when talking about arc vs plotting. Each character may have more than one arc. The more interesting characters do. Character studies help show this better than I could ever explain. Plotting is when a writer outlines the arcs of each character. My writing process goes from character development, to plotting to outlining to discovery draft. I wonder what would happen if you looked up plotting in general? I’ve taken to listing the different types of arcs (and oh boy does that get extensive) for each of my character so I can see his progression. The trick is distinguishing between the arch in terms of what a character must do and what a character experiences and how he changes. None of these are EXACTLY the same thing. They actually build off one another. I’ve only recently started playing with this in New Utopia and Images of Truth. One of the reason Sal’s arc (from Caught) didn’t have so much of an emotional tone was because archetype was something I focused on for that book. It was my fourth novel, and I was still experimenting with various writing tools. I’m still experimenting now, but I think I have the process that works best for me nearly ironed out. The idea comes form the premise that no one person is solely driven by one motivation. As a character moves toward a goal, he may find himself needing to execute a mini-mission of sorts in order to advance his own overall goal. What I learned most from Sal was not to let the archetype and process of his story take away from the emotional arch. The reason I mention plotting is that it might help you in your search for the origin. I think some people use the term synonymously. I actually see a distinction, but maybe I’m splitting a hair that isn’t meant to be split.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could be off, but I believe the way to separate plotting from arc, is to consider that one happens before writing (plotting) and the other is a result of that writing (arc). Without a doubt, what we plan to write, and what happens after we start, can be very different. If this can be accepted, then we can see the difference between arc and plotting. This is just how my addled brain attempts to separate them – I’m figuring things out just like everyone else.

      As you mentioned in your own process, you develop characters, you plot out a timeline, then you bust out the discovery draft. My process is very similar. For me, (and I don’t think I’m alone) I had a preconceived notion of how my characters would cope with the conflicts I thrust on them. Put another way, I had a plan for what their arcs would look like. Truth be told, because my writing seems to be rather organic, character growth or degradation seems to be organic/unpredictable as well.
      This issue above (unpredictable growth or digression/changes incurred in sub-missions like you mentioned) is why considering the arc after you are finished writing is so important. In the creative process characters can become unwieldly, or simply become pawns to advance he story. Tracking the arc lets us pull them back into line and make things more fluid.

      I really liked that you mentioned one character could have multiple arcs. This is great information (and something I didn’t touch on at all). By taking the time to consider multiple arcs (motivations) we can ensure for multi-dimensional characters. Great tip Matt!

      Thanks for this awesome comment. Maybe I will try combing plotting and arc in my search for the origin. Someone had to come up with this stuff! If not…we shall claim it as our own! *insert maniacal laughter*

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Do you think short stories should have the elaborate character arcs that novels have? After all, there aren’t as many pages to use to make it all happen. Are the arcs different for short stories? Sure, a character’s emotions change through the story, but because the length is so short, I don’t see how they can grow that much unless the story line is about the amazing moment of understanding something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Folks who excel at writing short stories create yarns that can have just as much impact as longer works. In fact, many of the “recognized” authors out there have created amazing short stories. Working on shorter pieces of fiction can improve your craft by teaching you how to achieve certain effects through concise language. The best way to get a taste for this would be to snag a few short stories and see how the pros do it. The link here offers 50 of the all-time bests. I don’t know if I agree with all of their selections, but there are some really amazing ones on there. I haven’t read all of them, but I really enjoy I, Robot, The Lottery, The Fly, The Body, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and there are some others on there too.

      Remember, an arc doesn’t really have anything to do with length, it’s really just a gauge to ensure characters are doing work in the story. That they have purpose and are growing and changing.

      Hope this helps. Like I mentioned earlier, reading shorter works will give you the best idea of how to accomplish the feat yourself. And the best part is, it doesn’t take that long to read them!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a great idea! Thanks for sharing yet another great piece of writing advice. You have a real talent for this =) For my stories, I try to make sure my character arcs make sense to the readers. Even my sidekick characters and supporting characters have their own arcs. Of course, their arcs flow along with the main characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I find it interesting that character arcs are so important and yet it’s one of those things that readers never talk about when discussing a book. Is it because they have other means of talking about it? Or is it because character arc is merely a ‘writer’s’ tool?

    Still, I fear the writer that focuses too much on ‘character arc’ may not have a good understanding of the concept. Or maybe they are focusing too much on the character arc and less on how the character would change based on the events happening to them. After all, the character change shouldn’t be forced. It needs to feel natural otherwise the story is bad, no? Or do I have a bad understanding of character arc and it’s importance?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you hit it on the head with you first statement. People talk about arcs, they just use different words.

      When a beta-reader, or normal reader, gets back to you and says stuff like, “I didn’t relate to this character,” or, “It felt like this person was just kind of there for the ride,” or, “The main character never got challenged by anything, he/she was too powerful from the start,” – they are really talking about character arc.

      In regards to the value of a character arcs (or any means of tracking character change) – I think their worth is hard to refute. Characters dealing with conflicts are what drives stories for me. If I really like a story, the characters in it are what I remember. “Remember when so and so did this? So and so was amazing – they made that story!”

      There are many aspects that create an interesting character (i.e. dialogue, background, physical and emotional traits, the world they live in and their view of it). But the character tends to only be as interesting as the journey they go on. What if Dr. Jones (Indiana Jones) never left the university?

      You sort of answered your own question when you said, “…maybe they are focusing too much on the character arc and less on how the character would change based on the events happening to them.” In essence, these are both the same thing. When you focus on the arc, you are focusing on changes the character goes thought as events happen to them. It’s simply a way to extract the character from the book and look at their individual progress.

      By doing this we ensure all “important” characters are accomplishing something and adding an element to the story.

      I’ve edited work where a group of characters face a major conflict, and when I get through it I realize Character X didn’t do anything to help. Where did they go? Were they standing there with their hands in their pockets? What happens as writers create, is they get lost in the story, and sometimes lose track of their characters. Arcs are a good way to reign them in.

      I hope I was able to answer your question (in my own rambling sort of way). If you need anymore clarification, don’t hesitate to drop follow up questions.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

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