What is a Character ArcA Character Arc is the inner journey that a character take from the beginning to the end of a period of time. In novels, the character arc for the main character generally covers the length of the story, but minor characters may also have character arcs and theirs may run for shorter periods of time. The inner journey reflects a change a character makes in terms of philosophy or viewpoint.
Character arcs are tied closely to conflict and tension in a story because what a character wants will be interrupted by all the hurdles thrown at them to bring on conflict as they work to achieve their goal. Having a solid character arc requires the writer to get to the crux of what the character wants and needs. It often will be reflected in the flipping of a strength or weakness of the character by the end of the story, so a character trait presented early in the story as a weakness becomes the character's strength in the end.
Wants and needs are two very different dimensions in a character. Wants are superficial. They sit on the surface and are based in some deception the characters have brought onto themselves. Needs are the deeper, more meaningful aspects that are often hidden, not only from the reader, but from the character as well. It's only as the character goes after what they want that they discover what they need.
For example, let's look at a book whose central theme is bullying and where the main character is being bullied. What the character wants is for the bullies to stop bullying. What the character, needs, on the other hand, is a coping mechanism. The want is what sets the character on his path to finding a way to not be bullied. During that journey and after the climax, the character may discover he is smarter or stronger than the bullies, but what he needed all along was a way to cope with the bullying. The change that has come over the character by the end of the story is that he has learned how to deal with bullies.
Types of Character Arcs
Character arcs can be neutral, positive, or negative. Generally speaking, if you are writing a novel and find your main character's arc does not change your character for the better or the worse, you will risk frustrating and disappointing your readers. The point of reading a book for most people is to find out what happens when, and if the answer is "nothing" in the end, the reader is left with feeling the book was a waste of time. There are some exceptions, including non-fiction books and mysteries, but the goal should be to leave the reader satisfied with the result (positive arc), activated to make a change or do something different (negative arc), or learning something new (which is often the purpose of non-fiction works and mystery novels).
If you are writing a mystery, you may want to focus on the secondary characters rather than the main character. The main character may have a neutral character arc, but the secondary characters are likely to have either a positive or negative character arc.
A Positive Character Arc
A positive character arc is one in which the character overcomes challenges and becomes a better person. They may be physically stronger, mentally smarter, or more emotionally empathetic. Stories with positive character arcs are fun stories. They are the Disney fairy tales, romance stories, and heroic journeys on the shelves. They show us that everyday people can achieve great things and give us hope or comfort that we too can do great things.
A Negative Character Arc
A negative character arc is one in which the challenges get the better of the character in a way that stunts the character's growth or development. In the end they are a worse person instead of a better one. Stories with negative character arcs act as warnings, either letting us know what we would be up against if we choose the main character's path and how things can go terribly wrong.
Subplots and Secondary Characters
Subplots generally are supporting the primary theme of a story or presenting additional related themes with a supporting characters journey as it coincides with the main character's. Therefore, if you are introducing subplots in your novel, be sure to consider the character arcs of your supporting characters as well.
Exercise: Character Arcs
If you are creating your notes in your OneNote Novel Editing notebook, follow these steps to complete the exercise:
Chapter Summary Parameters
You should complete this exercise by reviewing your Day 3 Character Attributes worksheet, thinking about your central themes, and skimming through your story as needed.
Character - Write in the character's name or, if unnamed, a short description.
Goal/Want - Write down a short description of what the character wants.
Deception/Lie - Define the lie or misconception that the character believes about themselves or the world around them that prevents them from achieving their goal.
Strengths - List the character's strengths as they relate to the goal.
Weaknesses - List the character's weaknesses as they relate to the goal.
Change - Explain how the character overcomes the deception that prevented them from going after their goal (positive character arc) or how the character comes to believe the lie and self-destructs (negative character arc).
Character Arc Analysis
Your character arc for each character should have all of the elements listed above in the parameters. If it doesn't, something is missing. You can ask yourself the follow questions to try to get to the crux of what is wrong:
DOWNLOAD: Character Attributes Worksheet
Tips for working by hand
If you'd like to work on notepaper or set up your own table in your favorite application, include the columns listed above for each table. The percentage listed is approximately the size you should make each column. Add rows as you work through your chapters. Leave a little extra space between characters so you have plenty of room to add notes about changes you might want to make.
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