How to Write a Character Arc in Fiction
  • 6-minute read
  • 17th June 2020

How to Write a Character Arc in Fiction

The term “character arc” describes a character’s development throughout a story. And when you’re writing fiction, giving your characters a clear arc can help make them more believable and make the story more compelling. But how exactly do character arcs work? And how do you write one?

Why Use a Character Arc?

In a good story, characters will change as a result of their experiences. This process of change is known as a “character arc.” And how characters respond to challenging situations and what they learn about themselves or the world around them can be a powerful part of your story telling.

For instance, your characters’ development can give you opportunities to build dramatic tension and conflict or to create an emotional response in your readers. And if your readers can relate to your character’s feelings and experiences, they’ll be more engaged with your story.

Types of Character Arcs

Character arcs can be positive or negative. In other words, a character can become a better or worse person, or end up in a better or worse situation, because of what they experience as a story unfolds.

Positive arcs lead to happy endings. The character grows and develops because of what happens to them and they end up better off because of it.

Negative arcs involve characters who fail to learn from what happens to them or develop in a negative way, which leads to their downfall.

We will look at examples of positive and negative arcs below (spoilers ahoy!).

Positive Character Arc: Inigo Montoya

If we want to see how a positive character arc works, we can look to the 1987 movie The Princess Bride and the character Inigo Montoya. At the start of the film, his life goal is to avenge his father’s death. However, his failure to do so has left him a miserable alcoholic.

Positive Character Arc
Still from The Princess Bride (20th Century Fox/Interaccess Film Distribution)

When Montoya meets the main character, Westley, they initially fight, with Montoya losing and lapsing into drunkenness. But as the story goes on, he both gets help from friends and helps them in return. And by helping Westley, he finds the man who killed his father and exacts his revenge.

Inigo Montoya’s character arc, then, begins with him desperate and hopeless. But by moving past his self-pity and helping others instead, he ends up growing as a person and ultimately achieving his goal.

Negative Character Arc: Walter White

For a negative character arc, on the other hand, we can look to Walter White, the lead character from the TV show Breaking Bad. When we first meet Walter White, he is a high school chemistry teacher. But after he finds out he has cancer, he starts making drugs to earn money for his family.

At this point, Walter is still a sympathetic character. He is doing bad things, but he is doing it because he wants his family to be secure if he dies. As the show continues, though, he is drawn deeper into the criminal underworld and finds himself doing terrible things to prosper.

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Negative Character Arc
Bryan Cranston as Walter White (Sony Pictures Television)

Eventually, he even embraces his criminal persona, Heisenberg, reveling in the power he gains. But this turn to the dark side ultimately leads to his downfall and demise (as well as the deaths of people he cares about).

Walter White’s character arc, then, sees him change from someone who only wants to protect his family to someone seduced by power and criminality, thus losing sight of the things that once mattered to him.

How to Write a Character Arc

Now that we’ve established what character arcs are and how they work, we should look at how to write one. This will usually include three stages.

1. Your Characters Are Introduced

Introducing your character involves letting the reader see their personality, including their feelings and flaws. This sets up how your character deals with conflict and tension, and what (and how) they will learn from it.

Usually, some kind of incident occurs that sets your story in motion. How your character reacts to this event shows who they are at the beginning of their story. This is the start of their character arc.

2. Your Characters Have a Goal but Face Obstacles

Whatever story you’re telling, the characters are likely to have a goal or something they are compelled to do. But they will also face obstacles, meaning they have to overcome challenges to reach their objectives. This process forms the plot of the story and creates dramatic tension.

As the story progresses, though, the characters will react to what happens to them. Their personalities or motivations may change (e.g., a selfish character may become kinder). Or they may be confronted with their flaws and limitations if they fail to overcome an obstacle, forcing them to reflect on their situation. Their views of the world might also change, or they might gain friends or resources that help them to meet their goal.

This is where the “arc” of the character arc unfolds. In a positive character arc, the characters will learn and grow. And in a negative character arc, they may change for the worse. In either case, each event in the story should tell us something about the characters and how they are changing. 

3. The Climax!

Eventually, your story will build to its climax and your characters will meet their fates. In a positive arc, they will have changed or grown in a way that allows them to achieve their goal. In a negative arc, the characters may have changed for the worse, or not changed at all, leading to failure.

For both, though, a good character arc will give the characters’ efforts and actions meaning (e.g., we see why they had to go through what they did to reach the conclusion). This helps to create a satisfying ending, which is why thinking about character development is a key part of writing a story!

Hopefully, this has explained enough about character arcs for you to give writing one a try yourself. And if you do and you’d like some help with your writing, our expert editors can help. So if you’d like to see what we can do for you, why not submit a free sample document today?

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