Creating Character Arcs
Here’s something that my creative writing professor once told me: stories are all about the same thing. As someone who reads, writes and reviews, and also as someone who spends a lot of time playing amateur RPG Maker games, I’ve realised that this statement is very true. Sure, stories are all different in the sense that your story may have a wildly different premise than mine, or different events may happen between the beginning and the end, but at their core, all stories have the same purpose – character arcs.
Character arcs are what make stories worth experiencing. While the actual events that happen in a story may differ, the essence of a good story and good writing is seeing characters respond to conflict and watching them grow to be something different than they were at the outset. I’m not sure I can speak for everybody out there, as what constitutes good writing is subjective, but for me, the best stories I’ve read are ones with endearing, believable characters that evolve over the course of the story, and the most unsatisfying stories are the ones where the characters have stayed the same. In last week’s blog post, I reviewed Jake Elliot’s debut novel The Wrong Way Down and one of the bad points I mentioned was that the story could have benefited from more interesting character arcs (though I’m certainly not riffing on the author here, as it was still a fantastic read). In this book, the state of the characters at the resolution didn’t feel like a logical evolution from the start, and this made the ending of the novel less satisfying than it could have been.
So, what is a character arc?
I guess that I should start by defining what a character arc actually is, before telling you how to use them to make your story as good as it can be. The term “character arc” refers to the growth or progression of a given character through the events of a story. Usually, it explicitly refers to how this character deals with the conflict presented by the story and how it changes them as a person. It’s this progression that makes a good story so endearing. Stories, at their core, are all about the human condition and, as such, they’re all about learning from experience. We like good stories to show us the lives of other people, and we like to watch them react to events in their life and come out at the end as someone different.
In Star Wars, we watch a weak, naive Luke Skywalker become a hero who saves the galaxy. In Harry Potter, we watch a young boy come of age and learn to cope with death occurring all around him. Likewise, in most RPGs and video games, we follow a character’s progression from inexperienced rookie to a wise and powerful adventurer. Sometimes, the characters haven’t come out of the story’s events as a better person (in fact, a lot of writers are infamous for the downfall of their characters) and the conflict may not be entirely resolved, but the key thing is that it feels as if something has changed since the beginning. The characters have been changed somehow by their experiences, and the journey they’ve undertaken feels worthwhile because we can perceive a tangible change as a result of it.
How to construct a good character arc:
Characters in fiction and video games aren’t as complex as real people (if we did try to weave such complexity into our stories, they’d just become needlessly convoluted) but the fact that they evolve makes them seem more believable. As a reader (or viewer, listener or player) of a story, we like believable characters. They’re easier to identify with and become attached to, right?
Just about every book on writing I’ve read and every creative writing lecture I’ve ever been to divides a good character arc into three basic phases:
- We introduce the character in their “normal” environment – at the beginning of the story, we get to see how the characters are at the outset, and we establish the personality that will eventually change by the ending. Here is where the character defines who they think they are, and we learn their most prominent traits. We learn about the character and find out their beliefs, motives and flaws, which will all be challenged by the coming conflict.
- The character faces conflict – something comes along and tests the character. The term “conflict” refers to anything that acts as a catalyst for the character’s change. This can be internal conflict (such as the character coping with inner feelings or an identity crisis) or external conflict (such as the character needing to go on a quest, or having to survive a difficult ordeal). The character has to adapt to tackle the conflict, and their personality begins to change as a result of this experience.
- The character reflects on the conflict – as the story starts to wrap up and the main conflict is dealt with, we begin to see that the character’s personality has noticeably changed from when they were introduced at the start. Sometimes, the character will sit down and reflect on the experiences they’ve just had. Other times, we’ll just get to discern the change through a difference in behaviour. In either case, the character dealing with the conflict has changed them somehow. They’re in a different position than what they began in, and it’s a logical progression from the beginning.
That’s all there is to it. It sounds easy, but it’s something that you really have to pay attention to if you want your story to be a good one. An interesting premise is only half of it. Characters are the other half, and you want yours to be as interesting and realistic as possible.
So, what do you think? How do your characters change? Do they become stronger or weaker through the course of your story? What makes their journey from start to finish worthwhile?