Page-turning novels have plausible, believable, memorable characters.
Consider these classics:
- Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur C. Doyle
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
All have unforgettable lead characters.
Those characters’ growth, their character arcs, makes all the difference.
So, What is Character Arc?
It’s simply the difference between who your character is at the beginning and who he is by the end [I use he inclusively to mean he or she] .
That doesn’t mean he has to go from flawed to fabulous. It just means he faces obstacles—both internal and external—that fundamentally change him..
In the most memorable classics—especially those with happy endings—the character develops skills and strengths that transform him.
The more challenges he faces, the better for your story and for his arc. Bestselling novelist Dean Koontz recommends “plunging your character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.”
Resist the temptation to make his life easy. Only the toughest challenges transform characters.
Click here to download my character arc worksheet.
Types of Character Arcs
The most common and popular arc sees your main character face myriad obstacles and challenges, which—in the end—he overcomes and becomes heroic. Naturally, the bigger the change from beginning to end, the more dramatic the arc.
Example: Perhaps the best known such arc is that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. So specific was the author’s portrayal that the very name Scrooge has become synonymous with a selfish, miserly, miserable curmudgeon.
Yet what reader can fail to thrill at the character arc that sees him become an entirely new man, joyful, generous, and loving?
Done well, this arc can be every bit as compelling, though it doesn’t result in a feel-good ending.
The character makes bad decisions and dangerous choices and ends far worse off than when the story began.
Example: In the popular binge worthy TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White begins as a nerdy, naïve, kind, and thoughtful high school science teacher who learns he has cancer.
Out of desperation, because his insurance won’t cover enough of his treatment to keep from bankrupting him, he uses his skills to develop and sell quality methamphetamine, which allows him to afford the treatments and dig his family out of a financial hole.
Even after he finds his cancer is in remission, he embraces the illegal drug culture and in the end destroys his own life, his family, and many other lives.
Too many writers reserve this wholly unacceptable approach for orbital characters or for main characters who may influence the world but remain personally unchanged.
Of course you will often have big part characters that aren’t even named and whose arcs would be irrelevant to the story and to the reader. But it’s otherwise unwise to assume significant secondary characters can have flat arcs. The more readers recognize changes in characters, the more compelling your story.
Examples: Often superheroes appear to have flat character arcs. But this is also a mistake. It proves much more interesting when even a lead character with superpowers faces a personal crisis and initially makes bad choices.
Maybe he responds out of pique or jealousy and must change his ways before succeeding.
How to Create a Powerful Character Arc
To maintain the all-important page-turning energy of your novel, your characters must be credible and believable.
Your lead must grow inwardly throughout.
Begin by asking yourself these questions:
#1 — What does your lead character want or need, and why?
Be sure it’s crucial enough and the stakes high enough to warrant an entire novel.
#2 — What or who is keeping him from what he wants or needs?
To keep your reader engaged and turning pages, you must challenge your character at every turn, removing every support and convenience. Thrust him into the most difficult predicaments you can imagine.
It’s tempting to equip our characters with whatever they need, because that’s the way we’d like our lives to be. But as authors, we should do the opposite. Take away the hero’s house, car, income, maybe even his spouse or lover.
Force your character to act in spite of it all. That will make his character arc the most dramatic.
#3 — What personal flaws and weaknesses emerge during his ordeal, and how do they keep him from his goals?
Readers relate to flawed characters. And every obstacle and challenge your character faces builds new muscles in him (inwardly and outwardly) that equip him to change in the end.
#4 — What inner struggles keep him from achieving his ultimate goal?
How does your character react when the going gets tough?
The best character arc reveals inner transformation, not just a change in circumstances.
#5 — What will he do to accomplish his goals?
Whatever you do, resist the temptation to explain to readers how your character is changing. Make sure they can deduce it from the story by what you show them. Do it right and you should experience an Author Arc as well. That’s a double win: you change and grow too.
That’s a double win: you change and grow too.
#6 — What heroic qualities emerge during the finale?
Your character must do more than realize the errors of his previous thoughts and actions. He must be proactive and flex those new muscles and insights to become the hero he really is.
His change must make sense and result from taking action, doing something.
Get this right and readers will remember your story forever.
Great Character Arcs…
…result from conflict:
- Man vs. man
- Man vs. nature
- Man vs. God
- Man vs. self
Give your hero flaws that aren’t repulsive or irredeemable. And imbue him with a foundation of kindness. A hero who shows respect to those who might be considered beneath him—say a doorman or wait staff—endear him to your reader.
Credible, believable characters with dramatic arcs make for the best, most memorable fiction you can imagine.
Character Arc Worksheet
This character arc worksheet can help Outliners get to know their hero.
But Pantsers (like me) will not likely have the patience for it and might rather dive right into the writing. So, don’t feel obligated to use it. Some Pantsers find it helpful to fill in missing pieces as they write.