by Renea Guenther @ReneaGuenther
Creating a character arc on top of a plot and possibly subplots can seem like more work than is needed.
But the purpose of a character arc is to help your readers form an emotional connection with the character.
If your readers can’t relate to your protagonist’s struggles, they won’t care about the plot or the stakes, and the story will seem boring to them.
Each plot point should trigger or impact the character arc, which in turn, gives the plot a much stronger emotional impact on your readers and keeps them reading to figure out how the character gets themselves out of the mess they’re in.
These emotional trials force the character to become a stronger person and give them the tools necessary to survive the story’s climax.
Anyone who has faced difficult times in their lives knows you have to adapt to survive the trials that come at you and in the end, we come out a changed person.
We learn new skills, learn from our mistakes, and make changes to our lives that reflect this.
Whether we come out better or worse depends on the person and how they handled the situation.
When we read, we expect the characters to face the same trial by fire the rest of us do.
We can form an emotional connection with them because we understand what it is to go through hard times and struggle to reach the calm after the storm where we can look back in relief that is finally over and once again look toward the future.
As a note, while you’ll find character arcs in most stories, there are some that don’t require one to make a strong story.
Some detective novels and superhero stories apply a flat character arc where the character stays the same throughout the book.
This works especially well where the focus is not on the character but, for example, on a search for a killer or clues to a mystery.
In these types of novels, they are merely along for the ride, and the plot twists and reveals are what holds the reader’s attention.
I will demonstrate the most common type of character arc where the character changes for the better.
However, if you would like them to end up worse off than they started, you need only change the last step to suit your needs.
There are five steps to the character arc:
The Introduction of the Protagonist’s Flaw
This usually appears in the opening scene or within the first few chapters.
Whether the protagonist is aware of it or not, they have a flaw that makes their life difficult and possibly affects their happiness.
This flaw usually appears as part of the opening conflict and forces them toward the inciting event.
It makes their existing problems worse or causes further trouble for them.
The character’s internal conflict becomes apparent for the first time, which serves as a starting point for their character arc.
The introduction of the protagonist’s flaw allows the readers to emotionally relate to the character’s struggles, so they keep reading.
The Flaw Gets Them in Trouble
This occurs about the same time as the inciting event and is usually the cause.
The character makes a bad decision or is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they begin to realize their flaw is only making things worse.
This is where the stakes become personal, and they must face the consequences their flaw brings them.
The Protagonist Attempts to Change
At around the midpoint, the protagonist realizes they’re the reason for all their troubles and attempts to change.
But they don’t put any real effort into it and try to take the easy way out of their problems.
As most of us know, change is hard, and it’s easy to fall back on what’s familiar or just give up. They need outside forces to intervene and make them change.
This is where the antagonist steps in and takes the upper hand, raising the stakes for the second half of the novel.
The Protagonist Rejects Change
By the end of the second act, all attempts to change have failed.
The protagonist finds themselves in a tough situation and falls back on old behaviors to get out it but ends up only making things worse.
They see how their actions are responsible for the situation they find themselves in, realize they brought it on themselves, and decide to face the consequences.
The character now has a reason to fight back, and we lead into the climax.
The Protagonist Embraces Change
During or just before the climax, the protagonist must decide how they will defeat the antagonist.
They discard their old behaviors and resolve to do what needs to be done.
When it is all said and done, the protagonist has fought for their victory and showed they earned it, as well as any rewards that come as a result of their actions, and the readers leave satisfied.
Whether you choose to apply a character arc or not is ultimately up to you as the writer, but you should be aware readers have come to expect character arcs, even from detectives and superheroes.
As time changes, the market changes and as writers, we need to be prepared to change with it.
How do you apply character arcs to your stories?