Character Arcs - The Positive, The Tragic and the Flat
Another topic that came up amongst the many conversations I've had with my fellow talented writers is character arcs. How do you [as a writer] work through them? How do you decide them in the first place? Well as per usual, I received many different answers from many different people but found enough of a pattern to try to outline the topic for anyone who' interested. So, what is a character arc and how do you write one for your uber-compelling character? Well, with any aspect of writing, and craft for that matter, the answer to that question won't be a "one size fits all" kind of solution. The guide you see below is intended more as a guideline to help you develop a process that works for you, all while factoring in what most writers, if not all, will agree must be included in developing your characters and their arcs in your story. To begin, let's start by defining what a character arc even is:
A Character Arc is the inner journey of a fictional character throughout a story. This arc generally results in change, whether the outcome of the character's fate is negative or positive; the arc encompasses the transformation of the character's internal nature.
The character arc, similarly to the Three-Act Structure, consists of three sections that outline the character's journey through the arc.
The Goal: As the title implies, every character will have a goal regardless of whether this changes throughout the story or not. Goals for a character could be as simple as proving themselves to something as complex as elevating their status in society. No matter what your character's initial goal might be, it is hindered by the following section of the arc, the lie.
The Lie: Again, as the name implies a misdirection or misconception from the world or from within has deterred your main character from achieving their goal. The lie can come from a character's underestimating of the situation and experience a significant setback, or the character can experience utter betrayal from someone they trusted and experience a much more emotional setback. This part of the character arc will ultimately explore the character's having to face and best the lie, which leads to the next step. It is important to note that this step also explores the aspect of your character's arc that keeps them from living up to their real potential.
The Truth: This is where change ultimately happens for the character, whether positive or negative. Self-improvement is always a good thing for your character but can lead to their undoing (see examples below). This section of the character arc where the character outright rejects the lie and embraces the truth. Whatever doubts their previous failures spurred are all clear now and the character is confident not only about achieving their goals but in their capabilities to do so.
Before we go into some examples of the character arc, we'll explore the various types of character arcs as there are several with varying factors. The arcs we will explore are the: positive outcome arc, the tragic outcome arc, and the flat arc.
The Positive outcome Arc
The Positive Outcome Arc can be defined as the character arc where the protagonist of a story overcomes external and internal obstacles and ultimately grows to be a better person. This specific criteria tends to act as the arc's most definitive trait. Let's use a range of media in our examples (spoiler warning):
Example 1) : Harry Potter, Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The Goal: To save the wizarding world Voldemort intends to conquer.
The Lie: Harry's only remaining family have told him that his is an ordinary and unremarkable boy and conceal his being a wizard and sole survivor of Voldemort's attack on his family. This is not the only lie Harry experienced through the journey of his arc, but it is the lie that starts off his story.
The Truth: Harry is a wizard and is the son of a witch and a wizard that once stood between Voldemort and achieving his ultimate goal. The curse intertwines Harry and Voldemort's fates Voldemort cast upon Harry that ultimately gave the protagonist their lightning-shaped scar and destroyed Voldemort's body.
Positive Outcome: Harry ultimately defeats Voldemort and lifts the curse set upon him.
Example 2): Zuko, Avatar the Last Airbender
The Goal: To capture and present the Avatar to the emperor of the Fire Nation to revoke his father's banishment and reclaim his role as prince and lost honor.
The Lie: Zuko's honor and his place as the fire emperor's heir will be restored upon capturing and delivering the avatar to the Fire Nation.
The Truth: Zuko's honor cannot be restored by delivering the Avatar as his father's banishment and refusal to offer him approval is more deeply rooted in a bloody history that involves the disappearance of his mother.
Positive Outcome: Zuko is instrumental in defeating the Fire Nation in all out war and takes the throne as the next emperor upon his father's defeat. His rule at last cements harmony among all nations.
This particular example also outlines why positive outcome arcs are often used for redemption stories where a once antagonist turns protagonist (or supporting character in this case). This example also describes how the goal, the lie, and the truth can be the root of a character arc that still is achieved in the end.
The Tragic Outcome Arc
The Tragic Outcome Arc, as the name implies, is where the protagonist overcomes external and internal obstacles but does not survive the journey to reap the fruit of their efforts. The protagonist's death at the end of this story is this arc's defining element.
Example 1): Prince Hamlet, Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Goal: Take revenge upon his uncle Claudius, who has married Hamlet's mother after murdering his father.
The Lie: Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, has died in the night. To preserve their rule over Denmark, Hamlet's uncle Claudius secures their rein by marring Hamlet's mother.
The Truth: Claudius murdered Hamlet's father to take the throne and marries his late brother's queen to take over Denmark.
The Outcome: Succumbing to the madness and obsession laced with Hamlet's revenge, he challenges his uncle to a sword fight with poisoned blades and is killed alongside the very man he swore revenge upon.
Aside from being one of the most famous examples of a character arc with a tragic outcome, it should be noted that this example serves the purpose of demonstrating a character that also succumbs to a change for the worse. Hamlet is driven mad by his obsession with avenging his father that his character changes for the worse and he embraces it.
Example 2: Walter White, Breaking Bad
The Goal: Earn enough money from selling meth with the help of Jesse Pinkman, previously Walter's student, to pay his cancer treatment without landing his family in debt.
The Lie: Walter is above the law, perfectly capable of protecting his family and running an illegal drug trade without consequence.
The Truth: Walter is testing the limits of his mortality before the end, taking high risks in the name of providing for his family.
The Outcome: Walter ultimately loses everything, his drug trade, his family and ultimately his life.
With this example, the character is aware of the lie from the very beginning, but mortality is used as a motivation that pushes at the protagonist's morality. This results in his blatant disregard for the warning signs of plunging too deeply into his double-life.
The Flat Arc
The Flat Arc is an arc where a character will overcome external and internal conflicts without experiencing a significant change to their inner self. More often flat characters are used as supporting characters that help the main character achieve their goal, but there are exceptions when the conflicts of a story are used as a plot device, and the protagonist's primary goal is not to allow the world to change them. This arc is defined more by the static character and can end with either a positive or tragic outcome.
Example 1): Maximus, Gladiator
The Goal: Rise through the ranks of the gladiators to challenge Commodus to avenge his king, Marcu Aurelius and family.
The Lie: Marcus Aurelius has been murdered by Maximus who is arrested for execution.
The Truth: Commodus smothers his father enraged that Maximus is set to take over his father's rule and proceeds to kill Maximus' family following Maxiums killing his executioners and fleeing home.
The Outcome: Maximus kills Commodus in a duel and dies of his wounds, avenging his family, Marcus Aurelius and then ultimately rejoining his family in the afterlife.
The only "change" that Maximus' character seemingly experiences through the course of the story is going from a grief-stricken man who simply wants to rejoin his family in the next life to a revenge-bent gladiator to avenge what and who he's lost. Internal growth and understanding do not evolve past this in any way. Maximus' goal depends upon his refusal to allow his life as a gladiator to change who he is and draw his motivation from what he no longer has to obtain his goal.
Example 2): Count Dracula, Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Goal: To suck the blood of mortals and convert others into bloodsucking vampires.
The Lie: The Count is a wealthy and handsome nobleman who seduces any and all who come to visit his castle.
The Truth: Dracula is a vicious vampire who uses his supernatural predatory talents to imprison Harker before converting his fiancé and friend into vampires as well.
The outcome: Harker's fiancé is rescued and Dracula slain, his plan to create an army of vampires and continue feeding on mortal blood comes to an end.
This example is for the sake of understanding that Dracula's character motivation requires less justification due to the genre of the story and that the story itself is very plot-driven rather than character-driven. That isn't to say that this is an excuse to utilize a flat (or static) protagonist in a story, but this is to say that depending on the genre and plot structure the plot itself may take precedence over the character's arc.
To be clear, and for your convenience, this should not cause confusion between a static versus a flat character in fiction:
A Static Character is a term for a character that doesn't change in terms of belief or personality as a result of the developments of the plot. Dracula is the character that fits the Static Character template more because his facade as a nobleman sheds away to reveal the plot-driven monster the rest of the characters have to overcome.
A Flat Character refers to the complexity of a character. Maximus is a one-dimensional character but experiences a minimal amount of change the Static Character does not (like Dracula). Maximus's minimal shift starts from a grief-stricken man waiting for death and ends as a revenge-bent gladiator after the king who took his life from him.
More commonly the flat and static characters tend to be supporting, and side characters in fiction and are seldom made the protagonists of any story due to their lack in complexity.