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Writing

How to Write a Captivating Character Arc

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

If you think about your favorite stories and characters from literature and film, one thing they likely all have in common is a compelling character arc. A character arc is simply a distilled summary of the journey of a character over the course of a story. Learning how to construct a strong character arc can help you turn a good character into a great character and improve your writing dramatically.

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What Is a Character Arc?

A character arc is the path a character takes over the course of a story. A character’s arc involves adversity and challenges, as well as some changes to the character, and ultimately leads to resolution. Character arcs generally progress in tandem with traditional three-act story structure. Most protagonist character arcs start with the inciting incident that sets up the stakes and central conflict facing this character. The way the arc progresses from there depends on what sort of story you are telling and how the character functions.

4 Types of Character Arcs With Examples

There are many archetypal character arcs that can be found in literature and films.
Most character arcs are change arcs. In change arcs, we watch a character change over the course of a story in either a positive or negative direction. Flat arcs are a less common form of arc in which a character remains static throughout a story. Below are descriptions of a few different types of character arcs and some corresponding character arc examples:

  1. Transformational arc: A transformational arc is a character arc in which the main character goes from being a regular person at the beginning of the story to a hero over the course of the story. This type of character arc is associated with epic stories and the archetypal hero’s journey story structure. Example: At the outset of the Harry Potter series, Harry is an orphaned young boy living with his cruel Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a servant. By the end of the story we’ve watched Harry summon his inner strength and become the savior of the wizarding world.
  2. Positive change arc: A positive change arc is similar to a transformational arc but usually not quite as dramatic. A positive arc requires that a character experience positive change over the course of a story. Characters generally start out with negative outlooks or characteristics and develop a positive worldview by the end of the story. Example: In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge starts out as a rich old miser consumed by greed. Over the course of our story, he comes to change his views and becomes a benevolent and charitable person.
  3. Negative change arc: As the name implies, a negative change arc involves a character starting out as good or benevolent and descending into evil or ill fortune over the course of a story. Example: At the beginning of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a squeaky clean army veteran who enjoys a good reputation despite being from a New York organized crime family. By the end of the story, Michael’s path has followed a negative character arc and he finds himself at the head of the crime family, consumed by a bloodthirsty need to maintain power and control. Similarly, in Breaking Bad, Walter White starts out as a down-on-his-luck public school chemistry teacher who is struggling to provide for his family. By the end of the series, Walter has betrayed his morals and become a successful drug kingpin at the expense of his happiness and family’s well being.
  4. Flat or static character arc: A flat arc is a much less common form of character arc that can mostly be found in action and thriller stories. Example: Indiana Jones remains an emotionally stoic, highly capable adventurer regardless of the danger in which he finds himself. A tendency of action-adventure screenwriting is the creation of flat protagonists who maintain a calm and cool persona under pressure.
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How to Write a Captivating Character Arc

Once you have an understanding of how character arc works and the broad categories that most character arcs fall into, it’s time to think about how you’ll chart out your own character arcs. Whether you’re writing a good character who will undergo a negative character arc or vice versa, here are some tips to consider as you plan out your character’s arc and flesh out your character development:

  • Think about genre. Genre often informs the way that your character arcs will unfold. If you’re writing a tragedy, your protagonist will most likely undergo a negative arc—ending the story at a much lower point than where they began. If you’re writing an inspirational story, you’ll probably have a character change for the better and follow a positive character arc.
  • Consider the character’s role in your story. Some characters have more elaborate character arcs than others. A good story generally has a strong set of well fleshed out characters in addition to the protagonist. Knowing what role characters play in your story will help inform what character needs they have and what shape their arc will take. For instance, if your story has a clear-cut protagonist and an antagonist, they will most likely have opposite character arcs.
  • Have a strong story outline. It’s important to have a strong outline with a clear first act, second act, and third act before you start mapping out character arcs. Characters change alongside your larger narrative. Knowing where an important plot point or turning point might be will help you map out a corresponding character arc.

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