Character Arc

Character arc cartoonFor a character to have an arc, he must grow and change over the course of the story. The actions he takes and the experiences he has irrevocably change who he is so that by the end of the second act, he makes a decision that propels him into the climax of the story. The height of his character arc is when he makes the decision and commits to the action. However, the arc isn’t complete until he follows through on the decision and acts in the climax.

A character arc doesn’t have to be some huge leap in growth. In fact, most arcs tend to be small, and because of that, more believable. People don’t change drastically. They may learn to be more patient, more tolerant, etc., but it’s difficult to change a character from one extreme to another. For example, it would be difficult to make a reader believe that a KKK leader could change enough to accept a mixed race marriage for his daughter.

Your character’s actions and decisions must drive the story. A passive character is one who sits back and waits for things to happen. The action in stories with passive characters feels like author manipulation because the character doesn’t have the motivation to make things happen. Readers don’t bond with passive characters because they are weak.

For a children’s book you should establish who your main character is, what he wants, and if possible, what is stopping him from achieving his heart’s desire in the first chapter. Usually the first character mentioned or the first one who speaks is the main character. If a reader gets to the end of the first chapter and then discovers the character they thought was the main character isn’t, you’ve lost their trust. Adults are more forgiving and sometimes you can start with the villain. Or in a murder mystery, it often starts with the victim. But children need to have a clear picture of the main character when the story starts.

During the course of the story, what the main character wants may change because of plot twists. He may discover what he thought he wanted isn’t really what he needs. Or, he could discover if he gets what he wants it may adversely affect another character. Or he may discover that in order to get what he wants he has to do something else first—something he doesn’t want to do or that would cost him dearly. There are a number of ways you can twist or reverse the character’s quest to get what he wants. The main thing to remember is that the character should learn something or figure something out at the end of the first act. Or he could begin to question something he believes in. Doubt creeps in. Is he doing the right thing? Is he going about this in the right way?

During the middle of the book, the character acts. Because he acts, things happen. His decisions have consequences. He may make some progress toward achieving his goal, but ultimately his actions lead to complications. Finally, he suffers a major setback and he realizes he may never get what he wants. This is the black moment. Because of this moment, the character comes to a deeper understanding of himself and what he needs to do. Going through the emotional pain of this moment helps him resolve what he needs to do. This decision propels him into the climax where he earns his victory through his action. And by victory I don’t mean a happy ending. His victory is in becoming a better, stronger character through his actions. His victory is in doing the right thing, which is the culmination of his character arc.

One thing you should generally avoid doing is trying to make the ending too happy by negating the price your character has paid.  If your character must sacrifice something to attain his victory in the climax, then you can’t manipulate the story to return the thing he sacrificed—because if you do that it negates his growth, makes his sacrifice fake, and leaves the reader feeling cheated. If, for instance, he has to sacrifice his chance of auditioning for American Idol in order to help someone in the climax, you can’t have Ryan Seacrest show up at his house with the judges to hear his song once the climax is over. If you want the reader to care about his victory and believe in his growth, then your character has to pay the price for that victory in full, for real.

Things to consider about your character:

  • Have you established your main character and his problem by the end of the first chapter?
  • Does your character’s personality play into the plot?
  • Does your character have flaws?
  • What are your character’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Is your character active or passive?
  • Does your character have sufficient motivation for his actions?
  • Do his strengths and weaknesses drive the plot?
  • Do you have enough conflict for your character?
  • Is your villain a strong opponent for your main character?
  • Does your villain and major secondary characters have their own arcs? (They don’t necessarily have to have one, but it’s a way to add depth to your characters.)
  • Do you get your character out of trouble too quickly?
  • Does he suffer the consequences of his actions?
  • Have you upped the ante for your character?
  • Does your character grow and change?
  • Does your character earn the climax?

© Anna-Maria Crum 2012

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