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Types of Character Arcs By Meg LaTorre

One of the biggest draws to stories—of any medium—are characters. So many of us want to follow the journeys of individual characters whose personalities or situations we find compelling. The biggest disappointment I often have at the end of a book, television show, or movie is a lack of character growth or change at the end of the story. In other words, the protagonist or main cast of characters lack a proper character arc.

A character arc is the inner journey of a character over the course of a story. In this case, we will talk about novels. It isn’t the complete change of a character, but rather their growth. If the principal characters don’t grow and adapt to the changes happening as the plot unfolds, a story can’t develop organically.

The plot is the sequence of events in a story that draws the reader into the characters’ lives and gives context for the choices they make. Within this sequence of events is where the character arc needs to/should happen. In my opinion, in order to understand character arcs, we must first understand plot development.

Most stories follow a similar sequence of events:

  • Exposition: Principal characters are introduced and the setting and central conflict are established.

  • Rising Action: A series of events create tension, suspense, and/or general interest. According to Literary Devices, the rising action includes “all decisions, characters’ flaws, and background circumstances that together create turns and twists leading to a climax.”

  • Climax/Turning Point: The story moves from building conflict to resolving the conflict. This is when the protagonist faces a conflict head-on or decides how to resolve a conflict.

  • Falling Action: When the main problem of the story is resolved.

  • Resolution/Denouement: The unfolding or solution to the main conflict of the story. The narrative is wrapped up and loose ends are resolved.

According to the article, How to Write a Compelling Character Arc, in Reedsy: “A character arc maps the evolution of a [character’s] personality through a story. . . . Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story—so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person. These changes might not be monumental, but they will have made a significant impact on the character, either positively or negatively.”

 

Character Arcs: Positive vs. Negative Change

The same article in Reedsy distinguishes a character arc with positive vs. negative change.

  • Positive Change: “When the protagonist overcomes external obstacles and internal flaws in order to become a better person, we can describe this as a positive arc. It’s often used in story structures such as the Hero’s Journey.”

  • Negative Change: Sometimes, the struggle gets the better of people. Characters are no exception, as they are equally impacted by their circumstances. In a negative change, we see a character’s downward spiral.

A character arc with a positive change consists of 1) the goal, 2) the lie (a deeply-rooted misconception about themselves or the world that keeps them from reaching their true potential), and 3) the truth (when the character rejects the lie and embraces the truth, which leads to self-improvement). Consider carefully the thing your character wants vs. what they actually need for the goal and the lie. An example of a character arc with a positive change is Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.

On the other hand, a character arc with a negative change consists of 1) the goal, 2) the lie (“[t]he belief that achieving a certain goal will bring about a positive outcome”), and 3) the truth (the lie was self-destructive and brings about the negative change). An example of a character arc with a negative change is Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.

 

Character Arcs: Change, Growth, Shift, and Fall

While I enjoyed the simplicity of character arcs from the Reedsy article, I found myself wanting to dig deeper. That’s where the change, growth, shift, and fall arcs come in.

In the article, The 3 Types of Character Arcs – Change, Growth and Fall, Veronica Sico details a few different types of character arcs.

  1. The Change Arc: This is our hero’s journey, where the protagonist starts off the book as an unlikely hero. They are called from their normal lives to some adventure, there’s a supernatural aide or mentor, after which comes a series of trials and adventures, victory, and return. The character’s change is radical, despite often always possessing an inner strength. An example of a change arc is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series.

  2. The Growth Arc: “The protagonist overcomes an internal opposition (weakness, fear, the past etc.) while he faces an external opposition, and as a result he becomes a fuller, better person. He’s still pretty much who he was, just upgraded to Protagonist 2.0.” An example of a growth arc is Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings series.

  3. The Shift Arc: “The protagonist changes his perspective, learns different skills, or gains a different role. The end result is not ‘better’ or more than the starting point, just different.”

  4. The Fall Arc: (Also known as a “tragedy.”) The protagonist dooms themself and/or others, and “declines into insanity, immorality, or death.” An example of a fall arc is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the Star Wars series.

 

Flat Character Arcs vs. No Character Arcs

Not all characters need to undergo a transformative change.

Flat character arcs involve no change or growth within the character. The protagonist (or character) is the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.

According to the Writer’s Edit article, Create Compelling Characters With These 3 Types of Character Arcs, “[f]lat character arcs are most often found within certain genres, such as mystery (e.g. Sherlock Holmes), adventure (e.g. Indiana Jones), and spy thriller (e.g. Jack Reacher, James Bond).”

Often, minor characters experience flat arcs, while the protagonist or principle characters experience more defined, noticeable character arcs. However, flat character arcs aren’t the same as a lack of character arc. If the character’s arc appears static, it may mean the character is underdeveloped, which can be remedied by addressing their journey or characterization.

In K.M. Weiland’s article, What if Your Story Has No Character Arc?, she defines character arcs and the lack of one as follows:

Character Arc = Story, No Character Arc = Situation.”

Using the following criteria, Jeff Lyons differentiates a story from a situation (which Weiland dives into in her article):

  1. “A situation is a problem or predicament with an obvious and direct solution.

  2. A situation does not reveal character; it tests problem-solving skills.

  3. A situation has no (or few) subplots, twists, or complications.

  4. A situation begins and ends in the same emotional space that it started in.”

According to Weiland, “[t]he key is that flat arc stories still incorporate a Lie/Truth. But unlike in change arcs, the protagonist already possesses the Truth and is able to use it to change the characters and world around him. By contrast, in stories with no arc, there will be no battle between a Truth and a Lie.”

There are more variations to the types of characters arcs our protagonists, principle characters, or minor characters can undergo. However, these are a few examples of the various arcs you can utilize for characters in your own stories.

 

Additional resources on character arcs:

 

About Meg:

Meg LaTorre is a writer of adult SFF, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and former literary agent with a background in magazine publishing, medical/technical writing, and journalism. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, sign up for her monthly newsletter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.

Meg LaTorre is a writer of adult SFF, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and...