What Is The Character Arc In A Novel?

How To Write A Novel Character ArcLike the Story Arc, the Character Arc is an evolution, with a stated beginning and an end that coincides with the story ending to provide a satisfactory conclusion for the reader. In all my research about writing, I don’t have a satisfying reason why this character change process should be called an ‘Arc’.

When considering the Story Arc, the Rising Action phase is often represented as an uphill slope, or rounded arc. I can see this, but it’s not clear why the Character Arc should be depicted in this way.

The simplest way to define it is by saying it describes the internal change that the main character(s) go through as the story develops. Indeed, the success of the hero’s quest actually depends on the these changes.

What Is The Character Arc In Relation To the Story Arc?

The story arc is carefully designed to build intrigue and tension in the reader by introducing conflictual challenge involving the protagonist. Often (but not always), these challenges come from the antagonist and are intended to block the hero from reaching his goal.

The hero has two major goals in a novel – an external one expressed in the story arc, and an internal one, where her or she has to correct their own personality flaws in order to succeed. Can you see how the two arcs are not only related, but a symbiotic part of each other?

The strongest stories have carefully designed arcs that depend upon each other, if the story is to grab the readers. They identify with the hero and want to know what happens to him. If this is to work, then this main character must be likable. Of course, to maximize tension, the villain must be absolutely evil and nasty!

Not Every Character In The Story Gets An Arc

Defining the character's arcThere are two broad categories of characters in any novel or story; main (complex or three-dimensional) and support (flat and two-dimensional). The most complex personality in the whole bunch will surely be the hero or heroes.

These guys are going to be changing internally a lot, so their traits have to be well-detailed and thought out to the finest detail. These complex characters are often called three-dimensional, indicating that they have a depth.

On the other hand, support characters come in different flavors. The hero may have a partner who acts as a foil to accentuate the hero’s brilliance. Although this partner may be of less value in terms of telling the story, he may also have a character arc and undergo emotional changes as the novel unfolds.

Much lesser characters are flat and strictly two-dimensional. We have no indication of their lives or personalities. They are a swiftly painted generalizations rather than people. So who they, these shadowy characters that come and go, and what are they there for?

Examples are the taxi driver taking the hero to an address, the postman delivering an important letter, a beggar the villain kicks out of the way. We know nothing about them, their suffering or problems, except that they are there to assist in driving the plot forward by supporting the actions, reactions of the main characters, or play a part in the events involving them.

A villain may well be a complex character, but may not (and usually doesn’t) display any of the internal changes indicating a character arc. His or her evil may stem from a complex family or social background, and it would assist the story greatly if the reader was aware of this.

In this way the reader can partially understand the forces making this character evil, even if they can’t relate to it. Normally though, evil stays evil and doesn’t change for the better – a golden rule of great fiction!

Writing Character A ArcIs A Character Arc Absolutely Necessary In All Stories?

Good point, audience. No, it isn’t, but it’s hugely satisfying when used and done well. An example of a very popular antagonist who undergoes almost no internal changes during the story is James Bond. The Bond novels are strictly plot driven and his character traits are set in stone.

Other heroes come to mind, such as Indiana Jones, but in the last story his father shows him that there are more important things than chasing archaeological artifacts all over the planet.

This is a huge internal change in Jones’ perspective so is obviously a manifestation of his character arc. It’s a fundamental life-change that cannot be undone, a realization that his views in his previous life were wrong, or at least off-target.

This is the key to defining character arc. It is essential that the hero corrects his flawed personality traits as the story unfolds, and in correcting them, he gathers the fortitude and insight that allows him to overcome the villain. The villain may be the main character’s biggest fear, an arch-criminal set on destroying the world, or catastrophic climate change, but the hero’s internal changes will defeat it.

How To Create Complex Characters

The key to complexity is depth, an element encapsulated by the term ‘three-dimensional character’. It just isn’t enough to know that our hero is six feet four, with a beard, and immensely strong. It could be anybody, and anybody won’t do for our novel. We need someone extraordinary for sure, but what fun is a superman?

Creating Character Arcs

A real human being isn’t all good or infallible. Naturally he has great potential and an array of skills, some of which he can’t apply effectively because his personality flaws – negative aspects of his personality that inhibit him or her. These flaws need to be explore and described thoroughly for the simple reason that the hero will correct these one by one until he overcomes the challenges put in his way by the force of nature or the big, bad villain.

An author has to get to know his main characters. If he can’t see them as real, then neither will his readers. Every facet of their lives must be created, even if some of it isn’t used in the novel His personality should be transparent to the writer so that he knows how the hero would react in any situation, either social, familial or threatening.

Joyce Carol Oates talks about characters of her book, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in the video below:


Video transcript:

When I begin a novel with characters I always begin with people. I’m not like a poet, for instance, who doesn’t necessarily have any characters, and in poetry, maybe poets in the room? Parts tend to begin with a sense of form and maybe hear a rhythm or feel a rhythm without any words you know.

It’s a very musical thing but a novelist and a short story writer, or prose fiction writer, almost always begins with people. So the people are the first and for me the setting and the people are always together and the setting is somehow a part or like a character. I think of the settings of my prose fiction as characters too and they exude a certain personality.

Well, I guess I just like, I like people very much I’m very enraptured by people’s personalities. I must confess I also like animals and I think dogs and cats, and I’m sure horses, I don’t know horses that well, but that they have personalities too, and they’re very distinct.

We all know, if you who live with animals, you know they’re very strong personalities but how do you character that? I’ve tried to write about animals to some extent and in my children’s books I do have animals who basically can think and see my people.

But people can express themselves and so if you allow people, if you’re a writer, if you allow your people to talk, they will express themselves in a way that the writer herself might not have thought of.

I give an assignment to my students to create a character to people talking. Not talking to one another and they say “well we don’t know these people” and I said “well, you have to listen and what you write in the first five minutes is just the beginning”.

If you stay with it for two hours and really work at it, at the end of those two hours you’ll have something, but you won’t know what it is in the beginning. A young writer thinks ‘well, I can’t do that’ and they sometimes they want to give up.

But a writer who’s been training for quite a while doesn’t give up. Like, I know the first six weeks of writing a novel for me are like hell. I’m very unhappy and very frustrated and actually very miserable but I keep on going.

But I think a lot of new writers, they you know, facing this first six weeks or so when nothing seems to be coming together and and you were so frustrated you read over what you have you don’t like it. You keep on reading it over and you don’t like it, finally give up. I think a lot of people give up, but the writer who’s the seasoned veteran, you know, he’s got all these scars and somewhere the seasoned veteran knows that the terrain is really rough in the beginning but stays with it.

Rebecca was someone that I imagined very strongly, would be a fairly plausible early version of my grandmother whom I knew in a very different way because she had to be strong. This is a girl who is not a very feminine person. She had to be strong to survive and a brother like Herschel had to be strong.

He survives, also the father was a person who could have been very effective and wonderful , fat and very cultured person back in the small town near Munich in Germany where he had an identity. It was in a residential neighborhood. He had a family. He had relatives. He was known. He was transplanted and thrust across into this new world in a horrible situation. He gets a radio. It’s up at one point in the novel he’s listening to the war news.

It’s all he wants to hear, about what’s happening back in Germany and what the Nazis are doing. What the Allies are doing. He’s completely obsessed and he never really, he can’t possibly get over it. It comes to a tragic end but obviously his children don’t have that same feeling and they do survive, they move on the novel.

Actually it has many things in it after the initial trauma. Rebekah becomes Hazel Jones. She makes herself into a very pretty, popular girl, sort of like June Allyson in the movies. You know, our Doris Day. A really nice upbeat person who will become a wonderful mother and she’s moving toward the grandmother whom I knew who was such a wonderful person but obviously had made herself that way. She wasn’t naturally that way. She acquired that personality.

How To Create The Protagonist – It’s All In the Detail

Create Character Profile AnalysisCharacter analysis is an essential part of novel structure and planning. The protagonist must live and breath for the author, if the is to seem real for readers.

The best way is to build a character profile in the form of a list or table. Think about any person that you know and jot down facets of their lives that you know about, and then facets that you don’t know about.

Try to create about 100 questions about your main character that can be expanded as required to increase his or her complexity. Some sample questions may be:

  • Marital status – happy or not?
  • Rich or poor?
  • Past family history – happy or troubled?
  • Current employment?
  • Where does he live?
  • Greatest desire?
  • Greatest fear?
  • Social life – sociable or lonely?
  • Who are his friends?
  • Most appealing personality traits?
  • Biggest personality flaws?
  • How does he or she dress?
  • Religion, spirituality?
  • Physical appearance?
  • Sunny disposition or gloomy?
  • Optimist or pessimist?
  • Greatest fantasy or dream?

Expanding even this short list will create quite a rounded character and help to make the hero real and believable.

How To Make Your Hero Likable

Some novels start with a completely useless main hero, who seems to have nothing going for him at all. Of course, fate hasn’t been very kind to them, built their personality has also gone off the rails. The complete and utter turnaround in this type of character’s fortunes and overall outlook makes for a powerful novel.

Character Flaw DefinitionWho doesn’t like reading about a wreck of a human being with a nasty disposition who turns himself around and wins in the end? The question is ‘How to get the reader to like and relate to this obnoxious character?’

A method used in the movie world can also be used when writing novels. It’s a technique called ‘Save The Cat’ and is the brain-child of Blake Snyder, a professional movie script writer.

Within the first ten pages of your story, the main character should commit an act of gratuitous kindness, with no thought of reward or any motivation other than to help. Blake gives the example of a man walking past a tree with a distressed kitten stuck in the top branches. Our hero climbs the tree at some risk to himself to Save The Cat.

This act endears him to us and we want to follow him. However he seems to be, we have been shown he’s a good man deep down and we immediately relate to him. It doesn’t have to be cat up a tree. Any act of kindness will do – give a beggar his last dollar, pick up a fallen child crying in the road or remove a bird from a trap – it all works!

Paradoxically, an author can use the same device to show how bad a person really is. Picture this: A man leaves an expensive restaurant and a beggar approaches him with his hand out. Our well-dressed friend pushes him out of the way without even looking at him. An incident such as this paints an instant picture and we don’t need too much description to explain what this man is like deep down.

Character Arc Definiton and examples of heroes and villains

3 Replies to “What Is The Character Arc In A Novel?”

  1. Pete Towner says:

    I’ve been searching around for the reason for the term ‘arc’ and I too can’t find a satisfactory explanation. most illustrations use a flat timeline kind of thing, often superimposed over a traditional mountain-shaped story arc. Good article – food for thought. I’ll be back – Arnie said that (Was Terminator a book before it was a movie??)

    1. As you said, why is it called an arc? Food for thought indeed. Anyone has an answer, please feel free to comment.

  2. Great article, Dereck. Very detailed.
    I have learned a lot about what and how is a character arc transformed over the course of a story.
    Thank you & Best Regards

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