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Character arcs

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A character arc – sometimes called transformation or inner journey – is what happens to the ‘inside’ of the character during the course of your story/novel.

Your character begins with one state of mind. Stuff happens, just like in real life, and – the theory is – the character evolves into a transformed character, one who has learned a lesson or too, is older and maybe wiser as a result of what life (you, the writer of the story) has thrown at him/her.

The character might change, not just in his/her perspective of the outside world, but also in his/her status or perceived role within their world. Or, having been confronted with a challenge, the character might have a wobble and then feel even more secure with his/her original core beliefs.

For characters to ‘work’, their arcs need to resonate with your reader. They shouldn’t be accidental. However you write your story – as a planner or pantser, or a combination of the two – during the editing stage, it’s worth spending time reviewing each character and making sure he/she starts somewhere, goes somewhere and ends up somewhere!

The Internet provides a wealth of background reading on character arcs:

  • Robyn DeHart offers advice on how to plot a character-driven book and her three ‘easy’ steps involve identifying your theme, your premise and then working on the character arc.
  • Veronica Sicoe argues that there are three basic character arcs: the change arc, the growth arc and the fall arc – and then provides story structures to match.
  • According to James R Hull, non-transformative growth can be a powerful means of expressing an author’s point-of-view.
  • identifies six possible dramatic pathways – the steady Freddy, the griever, the weaver, the waffler, the exception maker and the backslider – and gives advice as to how one can become a master storyteller.
  • Gabe Moura explains the importance of a character arc in screen writing, with examples of positive and negative arcs.
  • KM Weiland provides good advice in this blog post and her Creating Character Arcs Workbook provides a lengthy list of data that you might invent for a given character.

You might decide your character’s arc ahead of time – well done you! – but, while writing, especially if your draft is produced during NaNoWriMo, your character may have ‘gone their own way’.

TIP: When it’s time to edit, check the arc of each character and makes notes in your character sketch.