Creating a Satisfying Character Arc

Hi all! Julie here! Today I’d like to talk about character arc—what it is and why it matters. I’d also like to share my own personal approach to creating an arc for a character.

A character arc is the change that happens to a character in response to the events of the plot. A cowardly character might become brave, a stingy character might become generous, or a timid character might become confident.

Those are broad examples, of course. In practice, the change in your character over the course of your story may be more subtle or internalized. For instance, a character might believe in herself at the beginning of a story but be untested, so she may seem to be tentative and reserved. The obstacles she faces may not change her as much as reveal what was inside her all along. This is still a character arc! As long as a character changes and evolves in response to the plot—externally, internally, or both—there is an arc.

Character arcs matter because they lend significance to the plot of your story. Your character might face one life-or-death situation after the other, but if he emerges unchanged at the end of it all, it’s difficult for the reader to feel the magnitude of everything that happened. As readers, we may have very little in common with the characters we are rooting for, but we can relate to a character’s growth and development. We will feel more empathy and become more engaged with a character who shares our challenges and vulnerabilities, and who finds a way to overcome them or succeed in spite of them.

Turning to one of my favorite examples, I have never been in Luke Skywalker’s shoes. I’ve never lost my whole family to a murderous evil Empire and then immediately gone off with complete strangers in order to learn to be a Jedi.  But I have been scared and angry and alone, and I know what it feels like to hope that I can rise to the challenges I face and handle everything that’s coming my way. When I take Luke’s journey with him, I feel satisfied because he develops and grows. The character arc makes the story satisfying.

So how do you create this type of growth in the characters you write? There are probably just as many answers to this question as there are writers, and you will need to experiment and find the one that works best for you. I was hesitant to share my method until I talked about character arc with fellow PubCrawl contributor Stephanie Garber, and learned that she did something very similar to what I do. This confirmation convinced me to share my method. BUT… please keep in mind that no one way fits all writers and all stories (I will probably use many different methods as I write different stories,) but this is one way that has worked for me.

First, I know my character’s strengths and flaws. Before I begin to write, I try to have as thorough an understanding of my characters as possible. This is where pre-writing really matters. As I outline the plot, I try to know as much as I can about my characters’ strengths and weaknesses. I also learn a lot about the characters as the story unfolds, so my understanding only grows as the book develops.

As the story unfolds, I learn more and more about my character’s true obstacles. I may have thought that my character’s main weakness was his self-doubt, but I may learn as I write that it’s his lack of trust in others that is causing him the most difficulty. Even though I am a “plotter” and write from an outline, when it comes to character growth I am a bit of a “pantser.” I let my characters surprise me.

As the character faces obstacles, I look for the big moments—the places where she digs deep and expands beyond herself—and I notice her character arc unfolding. This may seem backwards (and maybe it is,) but I have always found that there are unplanned epiphanies and “A-ha!” moments where the character changes. I don’t plan for them, but they always happen. Perhaps it’s because I know my character so well to start out with, and I place the right obstacles in her path. I’m sure all the pre-writing and character work I do plays a large role in creating those moments.

Once I see those moments and begin to recognize the character arc taking place on the page, I let those moments resonate. I let scenes expand to fill the measure of the moment they hold. Don’t rush the moment where your character overcomes his fear for the first time. Don’t hurry through the scene when your hero finally lets go of the past and takes a risk. Once you know where the moments of growth are, let them shine.

That’s it! It all comes together by the end, as long as I do the pre-writing character work and keep my eyes open as I write. Remember, this is one way of creating a character arc. All, some, or none of this method might work for you! Experiment with different ways to reveal your character’s growth and use what works best for you and your story.

What are your thoughts on character arc? Do you have an approach that works for you? Please share your ideas in the comments!


7 Responses to Creating a Satisfying Character Arc

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 10 2016 at 6:16 am #

    I agree so much I think you have actually understated the case. The character arc is the story. Everything in the story is there to make that change happen, no matter who it’s happening to. Without the character arc, the plot is just a lot of boring activity. A perfectly executed raid by a bunch of highly-trained operatives on a terrorist base may be exciting, but without the personal bits it can be relegated to backstory for all the good it does.
    My technique is very simply to follow the characters and see what they do. I could never plot out a story, without writing it first. Serendipitous moments are everywhere, every tossed off bit I come up with in chapter 2 can become a major, albeit unplanned, plot and character arc by chapter 8, and they turn a story upside-down at times. Most of my stories are like that. What the character logic does when faced with one of them is where the action is. By following the logic of the character, or multiple characters at once, the story is less a series of random unconnected events and more of a causal chain.

    • Julie Aug 10 2016 at 4:37 pm #

      I love what you said: “The character arc is the story.” And yes to following the characters! I definitely agree.

  2. Janice Hampton Aug 10 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Great topic Julie! I usually do a lot of character development before I write a story. For my current story, I’ve been interviewing characters on my long commute to work. I use a voice recording app I got for my Smartphone. Then on the drive home, I listen to what I’ve written. Sometimes I get epiphany about a character when I do that.

    • Julie Aug 10 2016 at 4:39 pm #

      I also use a recording app when I’m drafting, but I’ve never used it for interviewing characters! That’s a great idea–I’ll have to try it!

  3. Tinthia Clemant Author Aug 10 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    Great article. I’ve hit a stumbling block with my characters and, although I followed the advice of creating profiles for my first book’s characters, I thought I could get away with it for the second. Nope. I need to step back and build them from the inside out.

    • Julie Aug 10 2016 at 4:41 pm #

      Glad this was helpful Tinthia! I’ve also tried to write without really fleshing out the characters first, and like you I always come back to the beginning and do it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Alexa S. Aug 16 2016 at 11:39 am #

    I love reading stories with excellent character arcs! I think it’s so very important for the reader to be able to trace that journey for the character; it definitely makes things more relatable. Personally, it’s something I have to definitely work on in my own writing 🙂

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