Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters?
But here’s the thing about character arcs: they’re way too easy to take for granted. On the surface, character arcs seem to boil down to nothing more than a simple three-step process:
1. The protagonist starts one way.
2. The protagonist learns some lessons throughout the story.
3. The protagonist ends in a (probably) better place.
That’s character arc in a nutshell. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. What’s to learn?
The Link Between Character Arcs and Story Structure
Too often, character and plot are viewed as separate entities—to the point that we often pit them against each other, trying to determine which is more important. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Plot and character are integral to one another. Remove either one from the equation, or even just try to approach them as if they were independent of one another, and you risk creating a story that may have awesome parts, but which will not be an awesome whole.
We often think of plot as being about structure, but our notions of character and character arc tend toward the more airy-fairy. Surely, character arc is something that must evolve organically from the characters themselves. Surely, we can’t structure our character arcs without making them formulaic or robbing them of life and spontaneity.
Wrong, actually. When we say plot and character are integral to one another, what we’re really saying is that plot structure and character arc are integral to one another. In his classic Story, Robert McKee says:
We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.
If you’re familiar with the basics of story structure (such as I talk about in my book Structuring Your Novel), then you can probably already see some of this structuring of character arc in action (click to a see a visual chart summarizing a story’s structure). The Major Plot Points all revolve around the character’s actions and reactions. As Michael Hauge says in Writing Screenplays That Sell:
The three acts of the [story] correspond to the three stages of the hero’s outer motivation. Each change in the hero’s motivation signals the arrival of the next act.
The character drives the plot, and the plot molds the character’s arc. They cannot work independently.
The Link Between Character Arcs and Theme
But it gets better! Not only does character arc directly influence story structure, it is also a direct influence on theme. In some respects, we might even go so far as to say that character arc=theme.
On even just a surface level, the discovery of the integrality of these three most important of all story elements is thrilling. None of them lives in a vacuum. They are all symbiotic.
This makes the creation of all three both a little more complicated and, at the same time, a whole lot easier. It’s more complicated for the obvious reason that we have three times as many story elements to keep track of at once. But it simplifies the overall process by rolling all three into a cohesive whole. Once we understand how plot, character, and theme all work together, chances are good that, if we get one of them right, we’ll get all three right.
The Three Basic Character Arcs
Although the variations of character arcs are as endless as the vagaries of human nature, we can narrow character arcs down to three basic types, with a few primary variations upon each:
The Change Arc
This is the most popular and often the most resonant character arc. The protagonist will start out with varying levels of personal unfulfillment and denial. Over the course of the story, he will be forced to challenge his beliefs about himself and the world, until finally he conquers his inner demons (and, as a result, probably his outer antagonists as well) and ends his arc having changed in a positive way.
The Flat Arc
Many popular stories feature characters who are already essentially complete unto themselves. They’re already heroes and don’t require any noticeable personal growth to gain the inner strength to defeat the external antagonists. These characters experience little to no change over the course of the story, making their arcs static or “flat.” Sometimes these characters are the catalysts for change in the story world around them, so that we find more prominent growth arcs in the minor characters.
The Negative Arc
Negative character arcs offer, arguably, more variations that either of the other arcs. However, at their most basic level, the Negative Arc is just a Change Arc flipped on its head. Instead of a character who grows out of his faults into a better person, the Negative Arc presents a character who ends up in a worse state than that in which he began the story.