Page-turning novels feature memorable characters.
- 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
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
All spotlight lead characters whose growth—their character arc—is dramatic.
Such characters magnetize readers. Without one, your novel isn’t likely to make an impact.
The most interesting plot, filled with twists and turns, won’t matter much to readers unless they’re invested in your hero.
Memorable characters have extraordinary character arcs.
So, What is a Character Arc?
It’s simply the difference between who your character was at the beginning of the story and who he is by the end [I use he inclusively to mean he or she].
That doesn’t mean he has to move from flawed to fabulous—but he can. Yet he should face significant 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.
Resist the temptation to make his life easy. Only the toughest challenges and seemingly insurmountable odds transform characters and compel readers to care.
Types of Character Arcs
The most common and popular arc sees your main character overcome myriad challenges to become heroic. Naturally, the bigger the change, the more dramatic the arc.
- Perhaps the best known such arc is that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
So poignant 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?
- In Left Behind, my main character Rayford Steele goes from cynical, self-centered bore to a selfless person of faith, a model of servant leadership.
Done well, this arc can be every bit as compelling, though it doesn’t result in a feel-good ending.
- In the 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 dig his family out of a financial hole.
Even after 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.
- In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Voldemort—Harry’s nemesis—is a classic example of the negative character arc.
He begins as an innocent orphan named Tom Marvolo Riddle who attends Hogwarts, eventually changing his name. During his years at Hogwart, he becomes a ruthless, power-hungry killer, and meets a humiliating demise.
Too many writers reserve this wholly unacceptable approach for orbital characters or for main characters who may influence the story but remain personally unchanged.
Characters who aren’t even named and whose arcs would be irrelevant to the story fit this category But it’s otherwise unwise to assume significant secondary characters can have flat arcs.
The more readers see changes in characters, the more compelling your story.
Often superheroes appear to have flat character arcs. But this can also be a mistake. It proves much more interesting when even a superhero faces a personal crisis and makes bad choices.
Maybe he responds out of pique or jealousy and must change his ways.
A classic flat arc is Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant detective is unmatched in his ability to catch the bad guys, and he remains unchanged throughout.
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.
Begin by asking yourself:
1. What does my lead character want or need, and why?
Be sure it’s crucial enough and the stakes high enough to warrant an entire novel.
The potential danger should drive your character’s actions.
As novelist James Scott Bell puts it:
“Be clear on every character’s agenda in a scene, and the agendas in conflict. Before you write, jot down what each character in the scene wants, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut once said) it is only a glass of water.”
2. What or who is keeping him from what he wants or needs?
To keep your reader turning pages, challenge your character by 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.
Make him do without. Take away the hero’s house, car, income, maybe even his spouse or lover.
Make things appear impossible, then force your character to act. That will make his 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—even superheroes have flaws and weaknesses.
For Superman, there’s Kryptonite. For swashbucklers like Indiana Jones, there are snakes.
A lead character without human qualities is impossible to identify with. But make sure his flaws aren’t deal breakers.
They should be forgivable, understandable, and identifiable, but not irredeemable (a wimp, a scaredy cat, a slob, a dunce, or a doofus).
You want a character with whom your reader can relate, and to do that, he needs to be vulnerable.
Every 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?
What happens in your novel is one thing. Your hero needs a problem, a quest, a challenge—something that drives the story and gives him the chance to change—that’s character arc.
But just as important is your character’s internal conflict. His inner monologue often reveals more character arc than the outer story.
- How does he react when the going gets tough?
- What keeps him awake at night?
- What’s his blind spot?
- What’re his secrets?
- What embarrasses him?
- What passion drives him?
Mix and match details from yourself and people you know to create both the inner and outer person.
The best arcs reveal an inner transformation, not just a change in circumstances.
5. What will he do to accomplish his goals?
Battling increasingly difficult obstacles builds the muscle a main character needs to become heroic.
His actions will speak volumes about how he’s changed.
Resist explaining how your character is changing. Readers should be able to deduce it from the story.
Do it right and you may experience an Author Arc as well. That’s a double win: not only does your character change and grow, but so do you.
6. What heroic qualities emerge during the finale?
Your hero should be center stage at the end.
He must do more than realize the errors of his previous thoughts and actions. Everything he learned through trying to fix his terrible trouble should make him someone who rises to the occasion.
He must now be proactive and flex those new muscles and insights to become the hero he really is.
He’s gone from flawed, weak, and defeated to complete. That’s character arc.
The action must happen on stage, not just be recounted or remembered by someone. It can’t be resolved by a miracle or a coincidence or because your hero realizes something. He must act.
Great Character Arcs…
…result from conflict—the engine of fiction.
Readers love conflict.
Dianna and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and agree on almost everything. That’s a gift in real life. On the page? Boring.
The more conflict, the more interesting your story.
Man vs. man
The most common conflict, usually between the protagonist and antagonist. (Example: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Man vs. nature
The hero battles the weather or the terrain or some other force of nature, like an animal or the sea. (Example: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)
Man vs. God
The inner turmoil between the protagonist and his Creator or imaginary supernatural beings. (Example: Homer’s The Odyssey)
Man vs. self
Conflict. (Example: Shakespeare’s Hamlet)
Man vs. technology
Primarily seen in science fiction, man battles machines or science. (Example: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Just don’t make your main character perfect.
Who can identify with that? I sure can’t.
Potentially heroic, yes. Honorable, sure. Bent toward doing the right thing, yes.
But perfect? No.
In the end, your hero must overcome his obstacles, rise to the occasion, and win against all odds. But he has to grow into that from a stance of real humanity.
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, flawed characters with dramatic arcs make for the best, most memorable fiction you can imagine.
Character Arc Worksheet
Print and use it with any major character you create. Imagine you’re conducting an interview. Have fun with it.
If you’re a Pantser (like me), you won’t likely have the patience for it and might prefer to dive right into the writing. Feel free.
Use the parts that work for you, and skip the rest. It’ll provide valuable direction for your writing.