How to Write a Compelling Character Arc
[Last updated 12/13/2018]
A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It's a term that writers use to describe their protagonist's journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc.
While main characters might face big challenges (Hungarian Horntails and evil Dark Lords), character arcs have to do with internal, personal change. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story's end, they are a changed person. These changes might not be monumental, but they will have made a significant impact on the character, either positively or negatively.
In this post, we'll look at how a writer can plot a compelling, believable arc — starting with a classic story of good triumphing over evil.
How to write a character arc with a positive change
When the protagonist overcomes external obstacles and internal flaws in order to become a better person, we can describe this as a positive arc. It’s often used in story structures such as the Hero’s Journey.
At its core, this arc is made up of three points:
- The Goal: Every character needs to have a goal. It might be to fall in love. Or it might be to make as much money as possible. Either way, their journey will be hindered by...
- The Lie: A deeply-rooted misconception they have about themselves or the world that keeps them from reaching their true potential. In order to reach their goal, they’ll need to acknowledge and overcome the Lie, by facing…
- The Truth: While the character may have their own plans, the positive change arc has its own goal: self-improvement. This is achieved when they learn to reject The Lie and embrace The Truth.
To see this arc in action, let’s map it onto a few classic protagonists.
Example The Hobbit
Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet life in his hole in the ground, which he likes. To begin, all he wants is to continue living a life of simplicity. Until the inciting incident introduces...
- The Goal: To help the dwarves reclaim the treasure stolen and guarded by Smaug.
- The Lie: Hobbits belong in the Shire, surrounded by their creature comforts. The outside world is dangerous and for braver men — the kind who know how to sword fight and take on goblins.
- The Truth: Heroism is just as much about the inner strength to follow your own moral compass in the face of adversity than it is about facing down danger.
Along the journey, Bilbo does start winning sword fights and gets the gang out of sticky situations — proving there’s more to him than just a nice pot of tea and a pipe. But these skills aren’t the point of Bilbo’s arc: they’re merely vehicles that drive him to the climax of his arc: the moment he steals the treasure which has begun to corrupt the dwarves. Finally, the Truth about the heroic qualities he possessed all along take the stage, and he returns home a better man for it.
Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they’re unworthy of journey → They are overcome by obstacles on the journey because they continue to cling to Lie → They are forced to confront the Truth about their inner strength → They believe the Truth and they win.
A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge lives an isolated life as a surly, old miser. To begin, his life is consumed by earning as much money as possible. Until the inciting incident introduces...
- The Goal: To not meet the same bitter end as his deceased business partner, Marley.
- The Lie: A person’s value is measured by their wealth.
- The Truth: A life surrounded only by one’s riches is a miserable one, no matter how many you may count.
Scrooge starts the story entrenched in the lie, with no desire to look beyond it — not until Marley appears to as a ghost trapped by his own greed and warns Scrooge he may follow the same fate. His arc begins as he confronts his painful past: his boyhood when the Lie started to take shape. As A Christmas Carol is very much an allegory, the rest of his transformation takes place in fairly straightforward fashion: each new vision presented by the Ghost chips away at the Lie until the height of his transformation — the vision of his own lonely tombstone.
Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they need a certain thing to be happy → They set out on a journey to achieve this Lie →Their journey shows them the Truth, and that they’ve been chasing a false goal → They believe the Truth and they wins.
This particular model of creating an arc is particularly compelling because it always grounds the story in something plausible. It doesn’t rely on a series of fantastical coincidences to drive the protagonist’s development — it simply requires them to realize something that was true all along.
Think of your favorite story that has a happy ending: it might be a fairy tale, a Pixar film or even The Matrix. Chances are that the protagonist will have a goal, believe in a lie and eventually find enlightenment with the truth.
Of course, not all protagonists change for the better. Which is why there’s also such a thing as a negative change character arc. Let’s find out what that’s all about.
How to write a character arc with a negative change
Not everyone always comes out on top after they fall on hard times. Humans are susceptible beings, heavily impacted by the circumstances around us. That means that struggle can get the better of us, and fiction that accurately portrays a person’s downward spiral can be extremely moving and compelling. Characters don’t always necessarily change internally for the worse in this kind of arc — sometimes, it’s just their world that is negatively impacted.
A negative character arc contains the same three basic elements as the positive one:
- The Goal: The same as with the positive arc, they will have a goal. However, instead of being hindered by it, the goal will become driven by…
- The Lie: The belief that achieving a certain goal will bring about a positive outcome. In order to reach their goal, the character either knowingly or unknowingly embraces the Lie, bringing them further away from...
- The Truth: Whether or not the goal was born out of ill intentions, the truth of the matter is that it was self-destructive: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Now, let’s see the negative change arc in action.
Example: The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway lives a restless life in Minnesota after completing school at Yale and fighting in World War I. To begin, his purpose in traveling to New York City is to learn the bond business. Until the inciting incident introduces...
- The Goal: To get a taste of the excitement of high society life, without succumbing to it entirely.
- The Lie: The belief that the rich and beautiful are the picture of happiness — and moreover, that you can take people at face value: they say they are.
- The Truth: All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold.
Nick’s lie is an optimistic and innocuous one that life thus far hasn’t forced him to challenge, and that East Egg initially supports in spades. Just as in the positive arcs, Nick starts the story believing the Lie — though this Lie is an optimistic and innocuous one that life thus far hasn’t forced him to challenge, and that East Egg initially supports in spades. Also like the positive arcs, Nick engages in a push-and-pull relationship between the Lie and the Truth for much of the story, until the Truth finally wins out in the end and Nick is able to see new “friends” for what they really are. Unfortunately, this new Truth does not strengthen Nick’s character but leaves him totally disillusioned with life. The climax of his arc occurs when Gatsby is murdered and none of the hundreds of people who eagerly attended his extravagant parties is there to mourn his passing.
Character Arc Map: The believe a Lie about the world → They leave their normal life and enter world that reinforces the Lie → They are confronted with the Truth and the world is not what they thought → They are disillusioned by Truth and they lose.
Example: Breaking Bad
Walter White is in a happy marriage and lives an honest life working as a science teacher and as a father to his teenage son — but then he receives news of his advanced lung cancer. To begin, he’s concerned with the sudden confrontation with his own mortality. Until the inciting incident introduces...
- The Goal: Sell enough meth with ex-student-turned-drug-dealer Jesse Pinkman so that he can pay for cancer treatment and to secure the future of his family.
- The Lie: Arrogance. Walter believes he has the power to avoid the hand of the law, avoid corruption, and avoid bringing danger upon his family while entering the drug trade.
- The Truth: Walter believes he’s on a noble journey to provide for his family. In reality, he’s rebelling against his mortality — and playing with fire usually results in burns.
This arc is different from the others we’ve examined because Walter starts his arc already aware of the Truth: cooking meth is risky business and is not the solution to his problems. But faced with impending death, the boundaries of his morals have been suddenly pushed, leaving him vulnerable to the Lie: the belief that he is immune corruption. His arc sees Walter continuously rejecting the red flags and embracing the Lie, until any distinction is lost and he’s so far gone he has no choice but to embrace the Lie completely. In the end, it consumes him and he loses everything, turning into a full-fledged anti-hero.
Character Arc Map: They know the Truth about the world → They pursue a goal believing they can hold onto Truth → They succumb to the Lie and reject the Truth → They embrace (or are defeated by the Lie) and lose.
These three steps, while being universal elements of all arcs, can take countless forms depending on the specificities of your character. Sometimes, the arc doesn’t involve substantial internal change, and is more about the change they effect on the world around them — something often called a “flat arc.”
When planning the arc of your central personalities, always look for the lie they believe, the truth they may or may not believe, and the goal that drives them. We recommend downloading this free character profile template to help. If you find that you're still struggling, try using these character development exercises. Ultimately, breaking arcs down this way should help you emphasize cause and effect and keep your characters anchored in ways that will make it so much easier for your readers to empathize with.