Types of Character Arcs
In any writing, effective characters are vital to a compelling story. This is especially true if a writer finds themselves the creator of a character-driven story. Character arcs are the inner journeys experienced by a character over the course of a story. They're what establishes a connection between the reader and the world of our stories. Whether or not the character's arc is the focal point or a response to the story's plot, they're an essential piece of any author's work. Part of writing good characters involves a deeper understanding of what their journey looks like. The only problem is, there's so many arcs to choose from, how do you know which is right for your character and story? Answering this question can often stunt a writer's progress but thankfully there's an easy solution. Below are a list of character arcs, sorted by archetypes that explain each and include examples.
The Change Arcs
The fall, growth and transformation arcs are all typically used for character-driven stories. These stories prioritize the character’s growth over the story’s plot or world. The character’s rising or declining perception of the world and how it affects their motivation to act in the story is more important. This arc can appear in every genre and typically is assigned to a protagonist (or the backstory of an antagonist).
The Transformation Arc
The Hero’s journey as an arc. The underdog who starts out as the least qualified individual and becomes the most qualified individual to solve the story’s problem. This character’s journey causes them to draw from inner strength (or talent) previously unknown to them. The change experienced in this arc is substantial and the character becomes a completely different person than they were before. This arc is the most popular to appear in the fantasy and sci-fi genres because of how it goes hand in hand with the steps of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. This arc tends to be applied to a protagonist (and antagonist) of a story. Examples of characters with a transformation arc would be Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit or Arlen Bales from The Warded Man.
The Growth Arc
The growth arc is where a character’s beliefs are challenged but they do not experience a huge change by the end of the story. Their confidence will often be shaken by the events of the story but by the end, the character regains their resolve. The growth arc is best to apply to a secondary character as the level of development allows for an interesting character that doesn’t need to be the focus of substantial change. The growth arc usually implies a positive outcome of growth, contrary to the Fall arc, and a change in the character’s view of a situation, the world or themselves. A nuanced vision or understanding changes but typically for the better. Adventure stories or stories that focus heavily on commentary are also the ideal narratives that make use of this arc. Examples of characters with this arc are Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice or Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.
The Fall Arc
The fall arc is sometimes referred to as the “failure” or “tragedy” arc because of the negative outcome that occurs at its end. The character’s beliefs or opinion of the world around them worsen and spur a decline that ultimately leads the the story’s tragic end. The character in a fall arc still has a goal and a lie they believe but are in essence “ruined” by it. The journey ends in failure that can either claim the character’s life or ruin their views of the world through significant failure. Disillusionment that can lead to disaster. An example of this kind of character would be Walter White from Breaking Bad or Prince Hamlet from Shakespear’s Hamlet.
The Flat Arcs
The flat arcs are typically found in world-driven stories. The change in these stories either are changes the world inflicts upon the character or the character inflicting change in the world. The story focuses less on the character’s inner growth and more on how the world around them influences their decisions. This can equate to an incorruptible protagonist influencing secondary-characters to become the same way or an impressionable protagonist being steered by secondary-characters.
The Shift Arc
The shift arc is an arc where the character doesn’t experience a growth in character and instead experiences a change of opinion. The morals of this character don’t change but their beliefs and interests are changed by the end of the story. Usually this change occurs through the influence of other characters or the changing state of the world. The change is inevitable or unavoidable because the circumstances make it so. Sometimes this change is simply one of a character experiencing maturity or are challenged by another character to revaluate their perception of the world. This arc can be applied to a protagonist (or antagonist) but is more often applied to a secondary character. A couple of characters that demonstrate this kind of arc are Diana from the 2017 Wonder Woman film or Doctor Watson from any Sherlock Holmes series.
The Static Arc
This arc is where the character doesn’t experience change. Their beliefs, opinions and values do not change despite being challenged to do so. This character is resolute and doesn’t lose sight of their goal. They’re usually the most dependable member of any group and can be counted on to complete the task they set out to do. This arc can be applied to an antagonist, protagonist and secondary character. This character is also often a catalyst for secondary characters to change and rally behind. Aang from Avatar The Last Airbender and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games embody this arc.
Stories with No Character Arcs
Stories that lack a character arc are typical of the mystery or action/adventure genre. These stories are plot-driven and focus entirely on what the protagonist is trying to accomplish. Many “story of the day/volume” books operate this way. The character stays the same and lacks the element of a truth or lie to believe. There are only red herrings the protagonist is already suspicious of. There are few to no moral challenges the character will face as they will not be challenged by more than intellectual or physical obstacles. James Bond from the James Bond series or Nathan Drake from Uncharted series qualify as the embodiments of this character arc.
Questions to Consider When Choosing a Character Arc:
Over the course of the story, is the growth my character going to experience substantial?
What is my story’s top priority? The character’s growth? The plot? Or the World?
What influences my character to change? Another character? The World? Their past?
Does my character’s journey end in success? Failure?