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So, What's a Character Arc?

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve likely heard the term “character arc.” But what, exactly, does that mean? Well, in fiction, a character’s arc is the inner journey or the transformation a character goes through from the beginning until the end of a short story, novella, or novel. This journey includes the challenges and adversity our character faces, or the hurdles, and how our character “changes” over the course of that journey based on how she reacts or “transforms,” which leads to our resolution. If you’ve ever watched the television show “Breaking Bad,” you witnessed Walter White transform from a terminally ill high-school chemistry teacher into a manufacturer of methamphetamines and a powerful drug lord known as Heisenberg. Now that’s a character arc, and one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever seen.

Character arcs tend to be used mostly in the three-act structure, which includes a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, our hero or protagonist is a certain type of person. Let’s say they’re miserly, mean, and just not a nice person all around. But one day they’re forced to witness who they are and who they’ve been all their lives and what their future might look like if they continue down the same path. Throw some ghosts in and have your miserly protagonist change into a kind and generous man, now that his eyes are open. Sound familiar? That’s the character arc of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Because Scrooge has “changed” from the beginning to the end, he has a character arc. If he would have remained a miserable, stingy old man, he still could still be considered to have an arc, just more of a flat one than your typical character arc.

Character arcs make readers care about the characters. Readers can relate in some way to what a character is going through, and so they understand why and how a character changes based on the trials and tribulations they face throughout the story. As mentioned, characters don’t need to change—a character not going through a pronounced transformation is completely plausible. It just may not be as interesting a character to the reader, and so the reader may not enjoy the narrative of your story or novel as much. Now, while I write this, I feel the need to edit that last part out, because there are plenty of flat character arcs that work, not only in literature but in the movies.

That said, you’re the writer—have whatever character arc you want for you hero. Anyway, with flat character arcs, the writer is using the flat character arc for a specific purpose, which is to show their hero as already cognizant of their inner truth. So, if our hero isn’t going to change or transform, what happens? Well, our hero will face hurdles just like any other protagonist might, and at the end or resolution of the narrative, he or she may have not changed themselves, but they’ve changed the world around them somehow. Their truth remains.

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