Stories are composed of two main components: plot and characters. Without these, you are left with a bunch of words on the page that hold no meaning for the reader. Those words might be beautifully crafted, but if the reader doesn’t care about your character, they’ll set your book aside without a second thought. And that’s the last thing you want.
To hook your reader, and keep them invested in the story until The End, you must weave plot and character together.
The first step is understanding who your character is. It’s easy to build a character sketch to nail down whether she’s a soul destined for hell or a snarky outsider with a heart of gold, but these attributes are only scratching the surface. You’ll need to dig deep into the core of who she is by asking a few basic, but crucial, questions. What does she want? How does she plan to get it? What’s holding her back? What happens if she fails?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you build an arc for your character that creates a compelling emotional journey throughout the story.
What is a Character Arc?
Characters come into a story with certain beliefs and morals and a whole host of experiences that have shaped them. Well-written characters feel like they could step right out of the pages and exist in the real world. So, what is it that makes them seem so alive?
Let’s start with a basic fact of human nature. People change. They evolve, grow, and, yes, sometimes they backslide. No one comes into the world the same person as they leave it. Your characters shouldn’t either. For them to be relatable and believable, they must mimic real life—even if the story world you’re creating includes fantastical elements like future-telling chocolates or wishes that appear out of thin air on slips of paper, as they do in my books. This means imbuing your characters with both positive and negative traits, giving them passion (for family/friends/lovers/pets as well as hobbies/places/objects), surrounding them with supporting characters they can play off of, and using these characteristics to move them through the story.
Which brings us to the character arc. It is the emotional journey that causes your character to change in some way over the course of the story. This inner change occurs in parallel with—and because of—the plot (story arc or external change).
Types of Character Arcs
There are four main types of character arcs: transformative, growth, downfall, and flat. The first three change the character in varying degrees, while the last allows the character to end the story just as she began it. Allowing characters to grow results in the characters coming across as more compelling and dynamic. Which, in turn, keeps readers invested in the character’s life and well-being—both physical and emotional.
The transformative arc leads the character through an epic transformation from a normal, everyday person to someone extraordinary. In some cases, this change involves magic or superpowers or some “other” force that literally give them the ability to save the world. In others, the change is spurred by the character’s absolute desire for something and the need to adapt to achieve it.
This arc results in a fundamental change to the character. She ends the book as a “new and improved” version of herself.
Examples include Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Octavia Blake in The 100, and Logan Echolls in Veronica Mars.
The growth arc guides the character on a more natural progression of self-awareness. Her everyday actions and reactions teach her something new about herself and the world around her. The core of who she is as a character remains intact, but a few key traits are altered, changing her outlook on specific aspects of her life.
This arc results in a gradual change to some, but not all, of her characteristics. She ends the story as a more enlightened, confident version of herself.
Examples include Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, and Sawyer in Lost.
The downfall arc pushes the character to a fall from grace. It’s like the transformative arc but in reverse. The character usually starts the story with good intentions and redeeming qualities, but each choice she makes strips away another piece of who she is until, by the story’s end, she is no longer recognizable.
This arc results in the character losing her sense of self to the intense desire that’s driving her. She ends the book as a shadow of her former self, if she makes it out of the story at all.
Examples include Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Walter White in Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.
The flat arc follows a character who remains static from beginning to end. Sometimes a character’s beliefs are reaffirmed after a few bouts of doubt. Other times, the story is plot-driven and character growth is not expected or needed for the reader to be entertained.
This arc results in the character maintaining the same characteristics and beliefs throughout. She is neither better nor worse at the end than when the story began.
Examples include Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Sherlock Holmes of the Sherlock Holmes series, and Diana of Wonder Woman.
Check in tomorrow for Part 2: Creating Successful Character Arcs.