A character arc is the process through which a character changes. Joe Bob starts off as some guy, things happen, which force him to change into a different guy.
There are two main types of character arcs: positive and negative. In a positive character arc, there’s a transition from a bad situation to a better one. A negative character arc is the opposite. It deals with a character’s situation worsening. Negative character arcs lead to tragic endings, whereas positive ones have happier endings.
Positive Character Arcs:
- Change- the typical “hero’s journey,” where the protagonist transforms from the average Joe to a hero. The protagonist tends to have some inner strength within him that allows him to rise up and become the savior. During this arc, the protagonist’s beliefs are challenged and he must overcome both external and internal demons. However, the external problems are focused on more than internal ones. This is the most popular and resonant type of arc.
- Flat- stories where characters are already fundamentally complete and don’t go through any substantial personal growth. These characters already have the inner strength to defeat the antagonist (Think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes). In this type of arc, the protagonist acts as a catalyst for change in supporting characters and the world surrounding them, as well as providing knowledge throughout the story.
- Growth- the protagonist overcomes internal struggles, while facing external ones. This arc is similar to the change arc, however, with the growth arc, at the end of the story the protagonist is still pretty much who he was at the beginning of the book. Think of the growth arc as the protagonist being upgraded, where the protagonist may not get a better end result but something different than before. For example, he may have started the novel working for a law firm he loathed. He was miserable. By the end of the book, he’s at a new firm. He’s not yet happy, but there’s the potential because things are different. He’s made a change.
Negative Character Arcs:
- Disillusionment- the character believes in something, discovers what he believes in is a lie and overcomes it, only to find out that the truth is worse than the lie. It’s like believing your father was dead for fifteen years, finding out he’s alive and successful, going to meet him, and learning he’s got another family and wants nothing to do with you. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a disillusionment character arc.
- Fall- the “tragedy,” where the protagonist dooms himself, and usually takes others with him. This “doom” could be falling into insanity, immorality, or death. Sometimes the protagonist will survive, but destroy a ton of other people along the way. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is an example.
- Corruption- the protagonist recognizes the truth, but rejects it and embraces the lie. The protagonist is lured away from the truth by the lie. He doesn’t cling to the lie like a life raft. He consciously chooses it, and the decisions that drag him into the darkness. Think of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader from Star Wars.
As stories progress, characters change. That’s part of life. It’s the way in which these characters move that defines what type of character arc they’re on.
What type of character arc do you like?