by Dr Sharon Zink
Character arcs are some of the most important tools in terms of writing compelling fiction, even if they’re played out on a smaller scale in a short story, but certainly when writing a novel.
They play a central role in not only establishing your lead’s motivations and thus narrative aims in a book and thus form the spine of the plot arc, but they are what makes the reader believe in and root for the lead which contributes hugely to how much they’ll invest in your story.
In this piece, we’ll discover the different ways to develop a strong character arc, together with some examples and a template to help you create your own powerful character arc based on a lead who feels ‘real’ to the reader and who keeps them turning pages.
What Is A Character Arc?
Basically, in the course of a novel, or even a short story, a character needs to be pursuing a certain goal. What they want and why needs to be obvious to your audience so they can root for the lead to get their aim in the novel.
This goal is usually something noble, like finding love in women’s commercial fiction, solving a murder in a crime novel or even saving the world in action or adventure writing, although in literary fiction, the ultimate direction of the character arc might be something more subtle like seeking redemption or freedom.
However, whatever genre you’re writing in, your character arc is based upon this purpose or quest the protagonist is set on and is doggedly pursuing through the piece and your story arc will not have the poignancy or sense of purpose it needs without this being crystal clear to your audience and thus forming the backbone of your plot.
How Do You Write A Character Arc?
One thing readers are looking for in a satisfying character arc is that the lead will have changed by the end of the book due to all they’ve experienced whilst fighting to get their narrative goal. Therefore, it’s key that your protagonist has grown by the end of your story arc and is not the same person as they were at the start.
First Act — How Your Character Starts
In some ways, this is the prologue work. Who is your character, on a fundamental level? Name, age, race, class, occupation — the basics, yes, but also things like what kind of food they like, what their aspirations in life might be, if they’re left or right-handed. (You don’t necessarily have to know everything about them like their mother’s maiden name or their third-grade crush or the places they want to visit before they die… but maybe those things are useful, so if you think of them, why not jot them down?)
The arc begins (as does the plot of your novel or story) when the character’s normal life is turned upside down by a trigger event or inciting incident – say, a murder in a crime novel which sets the detective on the hunt for the killer. As they do this, like any lead in any genre, they need to be proactive in going after their narrative goal, entering each scene with the intention to get their story arc aim or move nearer to it, only usually to fail or to make some progress, only to face an even bigger obstacle.
Second Act — How Your Character Develops
You’re not the same person you were yesterday, and you’re certainly not the same person you were last week, or last month, or last year, and so on — and neither are your characters. As things happen to them (or because of them), their world changes and how they respond to those changes is key to developing their arc.
Maybe the milquetoast office drone thrust into a plot of murderous high-stakes intrigue has discovered that she’s actually really good in a knife fight. Maybe the fast-and-easy pirate has developed feelings for his first mate, despite saying that he’d never settle down. Whatever the case may be, these developments and discoveries aren’t happening in a vacuum: the character is going to have some feelings about what they’re going through! So it isn’t just that office drone turns out to be good with knives, but also that she’s morally conflicted about how exciting she finds it.
Authors often forget that there needs to be this emotional reaction after action to make their characters feel human to the reader, but then the planning part too, so the story arc has a causal connection and we see why one thing happens after another, this set-up ensuring the protagonist seems energetic and plucky and which keeps the story arc full of drama and an obvious forward-moving purpose.
Third Act — How Your Character Ends Up
As your plot builds to a climax or conclusion, the changes your character has undergone will be brought to the fore. How do they react to this new situation, with everything that’s happened to them? Do they accept it? Do they fight against it? How will they attain their goal — and how might their goals have changed, as they have changed?
Bilbo Baggins is not the same hobbit when he comes home to The Shire as he was when he left. Some of that is obvious, but some of it lives in the background: he’s traveled, he’s seen horrible things and wondrous ones too, and now as the book comes to a close, he returns to a life that doesn’t look familiar any longer.
Your character doesn’t have to go through such immense changes, but chances are they will whether you planned for them to or not. As your story comes to a close, your characters will have been pushed to their limits in one way or another and become someone new. It doesn’t have to be satisfying, necessarily, but it should be real. It’s unlikely that the knife-wielding office drone is going to be quite such a shrinking violet after everything that’s happened to her — and even if the pirate doesn’t stay with his first mate, his heart might not be so freewheeling now.
Conflicts – Internal And External
An antagonist for your protagonist — an opposing figure or force against your main character — is a great way to help build out a character arc because it gives your character something to fight or push against, adding tension and strengthening the lead as the story arc progresses.
However, there can be other causes of external conflict than the villain figure, such as a confidant(e), which may be a best friend or family member, who acts as a sounding board for the protagonist and offers support, but who can also accidentally cause trouble for the lead due to well-intentioned meddling. This is something we sometimes see in chick lit, where the boozy best mate might tell the lead’s love interest they’re seeing someone else to create jealousy and supposedly add to the dreamy guy’s interest, but it just leads to a misunderstanding between the would-be couple and scares him off.
Indeed, terrible weather, a rough environment or even disasters can also be ways of preventing the lead from going after their goal, but they can also show their mettle too as often they will carry on anyway.
In terms of external conflicts, things get much more interesting when we put our leads in situations which are utterly hellish based on their past traumas or personal phobias or fears and make them face them! Say, in the simplest terms, someone hates spiders (like me!) and then our protagonist has to crawl through a web of poisonous arachnids to save the kidnapped girl which has been the goal of his or her story arc – not only will the reader be sat on the edge of their seat, wondering if the lead will finally overcome their terror for the sake of their bigger plot aim, but we’ll also be privy to the inner world of the lead and the immense inner pressure NOT to do this scary thing and this is called internal conflict.
It can feel mean to us writers, as we’re often so attached to our characters, but the best thing you can do to create a compelling character and story arc is to put your protagonist in the midst of an external situation that makes them quiver (public speaking is more scary to more people than death, believe it or not!) and ensure that you’re also showing the internal monologue of your lead as they fight against their fears.
You can even make them self-sabotage en route to their goals as humans are often wont to do. For example, a detective character could be out to make a big break in a case and then he’ll go out on an alcoholic bender which makes him lose the trail of the villain.
What If You’re Writing A Series?
Generally, I tell author clients that if they’re new writers and want to write a series that they should keep this quiet in their submission package and make their first book as self-contained in terms of its character and story arc as possible so agents and editors can sell it as a standalone novel. This is because taking on a rookie is always a risk and the burden of having to sell multiple books may put some publishing personnel off.
In this case then, the character arc needs to be pretty complete by the end, with the story goal attained or near enough so, although you may want to allow a little wiggle room for a future sequel by not providing complete closure.
However, this is good advice across the board as a too sugary ending can seem unrealistic, but this also depends on the genre you’re writing in as certainly chick lit allows for more happy ever afters.
Obviously though, if you are intending to self-publish, you have carte blanche and often writing a series is a good idea as a way to develop a following, so your character and story arcs can be left more loose at the end, but with important questions left to be answered, despite the lead’s obvious growth, in order to intrigue a reader enough to buy the next book.
What Is A Flat Character Arc?
Flat character arcs are exactly as they sound – they stay on a flat line, with the character neither growing in strength and awareness or falling from grace, as in Shakespearean tragedies. They mostly appear in genre fiction, like action writing – James Bond doesn’t change much for all his enemies and situational struggles, for instance – but, more and more, even genre writing is moving towards the emotionally shifting character arc of the protagonist playing a key role in the plot and the book’s overall interest.
If you think of most crime leads now, there’s often a wounded detective figure at the centre (something noted by James Frey in his books on thriller and mystery writing) who finds personal healing by solving the crime and Scandi Noir has brought the victims of the killed characters’ families to the fore so that these figures finding peace and moving on is a key part of the murder plot.
Hence whilst you can pull off a flat character arc by writing in a genre where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or add much nuance to your main figure, it often helps if there’s a sense of inner doubt about their ability to pull off the huge goal before them which adds something of Joseph Campbells’ ‘Hero’s Journey’ (which deeply influenced Star Wars) into play in which the hero hesitates in their confidence to pull off the story arc aim and this adds some important tension – even if, say, Frodo, is good at the start and good at the end of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and so, arguably, for all his struggles, a flat arc character.
How Do You Work Character Arcs Into Your Story Structure?
One thing my first writing teacher, Leone Ross, taught me was to really get to learn about my main characters before I started planning my plot, let alone writing my book. She showed us how to create a template for discovering our protagonists in depth.
Hence I create a list now that includes the character’s name, age, strengths and weaknesses, their goals etc. Editor’s note: we’ve compiled Sharon’s full list on this Character Arc Worksheet, free for you to download, keep and re-use as often as you need to!
A Basic Example Of A Character Arc: Cinderella
Her nasty stepfamily (the opposition figures) are treating her like dirt when a handsome prince comes looking for his ideal dame (the trigger or inciting incident).
The mean girl stepsisters try to force Cinderella aside, but she’s determined to catch her man (the lead sets her story goal and her character arc flows from here).
She may be getting grubby scrubbing floors, but she schemes her way to the ball (character takes dogged action to get her goal and grows in defiance and strength).
She gets to the ball and catches the eye of the prince, only to have to return before her carriage turns into a pumpkin at 12 (darn external obstacle!).
However, she leaves her glass slipper behind and the prince is now so infatuated with Cinders that he scours town looking for its wearer – and, bam, as much as the mean stepsisters may try to force their feet in, only Cinderella’s dainty foot is a match (she gets her story goal and her character has grown from subservience to power and from loneliness and contempt to love).
Does Every Character Need An Arc?
Minor players who don’t play a fundamental role like the lead, love interest, confidant(e) or opposition figure certainly don’t need a character arc as their role in your story arc is tangential.
These other key players though should have clear goals too which they pursue and which develop their character over the course of the story arc. The love interest’s aim should always be to win the lead’s love, the opposition figure fights to stop the lead getting their story goal and a confidant(e) is there to support the lead and let them talk about their main plot issues and inner turmoils, but they can also accidentally get in the way of the protagonist’s aims by causing mistaken mix ups and so on.
Hence we need to see the love interest growing as s/he strives to become the person the lead can adore and the opposition figure may grow in strength through conflict, but also face their own fears and weaknesses in this process so perhaps become changed by the end of the plot. A confidant(e) might well also develop in the process of supporting the lead through their journey, realising their own needs.
A character’s arc or development involves their proactive pursuit of their story goal which is established when their life is changed by the inciting incident at the start. This helps create a lead readers will identify with and cheer for, but also makes a compelling plot.
The way your lead deals with external challenges, such as conflict with your opposition figure, extreme weather or terrain or natural disasters, as well as facing their inner demons, will all change them as the course of the novel goes on, usually bringing to the fore strengths they never knew they had, as well as some flaws and even possible tendencies to self-sabotage which all add realism to protagonists and make them three-dimensional.
Although some genres have flat character arcs without much, if any, development in the lead, generally it’s a good idea to show the evolution of your protagonist over the course of the book towards a positive end, such as healing grief, as well as getting their external goal, such as catching a killer.
Indeed, in most plots, there’s the main one – say, solving a murder – and a subplot perhaps involving romance, so it could be that both story arcs bring out different parts of the protagonist they didn’t know existed at the start.
However, it’s also important to remember to give character arcs and a sense of personal change to your other main players too, such as the opposition figure, love interest and confidant(e). The latter two don’t always need to be included in a story arc, but I’d argue that a lead without a villain has less chance of becoming all they can be as the enemy figure forces the protagonist to grow in strength and resourcefulness and confront their inner fears and traumas. Plus, without a concrete opposition figure, there’s less conflict, which is the lifeblood of fiction, and you risk your story arc losing drama and impact.
Get to know your lead and other key players well then, preferably by filling in a character questionnaire like the one above before you start work on your book or even short story. Keep asking yourself why, say, a character buys underwear from a certain place and on and on as this will reveal more and more of their values and beliefs and, even if you never directly use this material in your novel, it will give you a confidence as you write these characters.
After this, imagine the world through their eyes – not yours – considering the language or diction they would use as fits their education, interests and background, as this is key to establishing a convincing narrative voice and viewpoint, as well as creating distinctive dialogue – all on top of making a great character arc.
It’s worth every moment that you put into knowing your main characters and especially your lead, so you can convincingly show how they act to get their plot goal and react to the obstacles the villain and other external and internal elements which stand in the way of them getting their story arc aim.
It may be painful to see your treasured protagonist suffer as you make them face their worst fears, but it’s what will guarantee your book is gripping and up its chances of publication or be successful when you self-publish.
And, mostly, by the end, you get to give the lead their dream or a form of closure which life often doesn’t offer, so it’s not all bad news, but just being cruel to be kind to make them figures your reader never forgets.
Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of Welcome to Sharonville (Unthank Books, 2014), which was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award.
She is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats.
She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.