7 tips to create engaging character arcs

Character arcs

Characters are one of the most important elements to keep readers reading. It doesn’t matter if your story is action packed with explosives going off every five minutes, readers will not connect if your story have characters who are dull or does not transform or effect transformation in others. Therefore, developing your character arcs is important to making your story into a I’m-fine-to-be-late-for-work-tomorrow page turning story.

What is character arc?

It is the growth and transformation that a character undergoes in a story. Arcs might begin with a character holding a rigid belief or having a certain personality, and over the course of the story, he / she changes as a result of external factors, inner realisation, or both – often the former preceding the latter. For example, a gambling addict gives up on life and focus everything on winning big at the casino, however, after seeing the impact it has on his family, he manages to kick his habit by the end of the story. Of course, there would be much more conflict and challenges in the story before the addict transforms!

Why is character arc important?

Character arc - important!A character arc lays out the character’s “learning” journey, therefore, it allows the reader to share their happiness, frustration, sadness, as well as empathise with the character. Without arcs, characters will be flat and one-dimensional and provides an easy excuse for the reader to put your book down.

7 tips to writing character arcs

1. Establish goals and desires

What does the character want? Without a clear goal, it would be difficult for a character to stand out as the main protagonist as he / she would simply be another person in the story. The main character should have external goals (e.g., “I want to get divorced”) but it should be fuelled by an internal drive (e.g., “because my marriage is making me unhappy”). The character’s goals and desires should be established at the start of the story and well before the second act.

2. What false beliefs does the character have?

The character tries to resolve the issue using their false belief system but fails and / or make the problem worse. Because it gets worse, the character either starts to realise they need to change or the circumstances change them. This should appear in the second third of the story. Continuing with the example above, a character’s external goal is often based on a flawed belief. E.g., “The source of my unhappiness is my wife’s inability to read my mind.” This then sets up the character’s struggle throughout the story.

3. Characters are human

Character arcs - humans

And we are not cold rational beings. We can be irrational, illogical, and our mood can go up and down. Sometimes we even make rash decisions and are less than perfect – shock horror! Make sure you incorporate a level of complexity in the character’s personality and psychology to provide more dimensions to the character however have clear reasons why their view of the world differs from anyone else in the story. For example, readers may not agree with a person’s actions but we might agree with the reasons for those actions (e.g., we don’t agree on a person killing someone but if the reason is because they are avenging the death of their 3 year old child, most will be more sympathetic). So, the world isn’t just about right or wrong. There are shades in between and it is these shades that often make a story more interesting.

4. Character realise they are wrong and start their transformation

Character arcs - transformation

Your character needs to face setbacks and failures so that their beliefs is questioned. This is what will make your character grow and transform. The transformation of a character usually appears in the latter part of the second act or the beginning of third act and should happen through the active pursuit from the character. They cannot be passive or reacting to everything around them. This will make for a boring and victimised protagonist.

The character’s actions or inactions should also have consequential stakes because if he can do anything and still “get the girl” or “save the world” in the end, the reader can probably predict what will happen and will not likely care your story.

5. Arcs can result in positive, negative, or no (flat) character transformation.

For flat arcs, the change is more on the external environment rather than the character him / herself. For example, Sherlock Holmes always knew the “truth” when investigating cases; he simply had to convince others. By the end of the story and when he is lauded for his fantastic detective skills, Sherlock’s character hasn’t changed, rather it is the world around him that has. However, it is is important not to confuse a flat arc with an under-developed arc where nothing changes for any character.

6. Character arcs should span the whole story

Character arcs - whole story

If you only include the arc in the beginning but stop developing it in the second act, your character will stop learning and / or transforming, and therefore risks becoming a flat character. Conversely, if you try to cram all the transform in the last act, it can risk becoming unbelievable / unrelatable.

7. Not all characters will have an arc

Only the ones that are important enough for readers to care about and this will depend on what your story is about. Conversely, if every single character in your story have arcs (including the waiter, passerby, or fellow train passengers), your story will become hard to follow and will likely stray from your original intent.

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