Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #10: The Character Arc

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We’ve talked a lot about plot and obstacles and even villains, but we haven’t talked very much about the protagonist. Today, let’s spend some time on the most important element of our protagonists: their character arcs.

“But what about their hobbies? What about their romance? What about their likable and well-crafted character traits?”

Yes, yes, those things matter too, but the arc (by far) is the most important. In fact, the character arc is arguably the most important element in your entire novel.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, now you’ve gone too far!”

It’s true, I value the character arc above all else. Above the obstacles. Above the goals. Above the setting and narrative style and plot twists. The truth is, a novel is about the character. It’s about his or her transformation from crippled little caterpillar to spectacular butterfly (or the other way around).

The character’s growth is what makes reading a novel satisfying.

“But what if my novel is plot driven?”

It is the rare writer who can craft an interesting and satisfying story without a character arc. In fact, novels without character arcs are pretty hard to come by (yet character arcs are still one of the most overlooked aspects of novel writing).

A connection to a main character is vital for a novel to be successful in the vast majority of cases. A novel that is plot driven still needs a character arc.

How to Tell if Your Character Has an Arc

You can determine whether a character arc is present in your novel by looking at your protagonist’s behavior and personality in the first chapter and then in the novel’s climax. Has he or she changed or grown? Does the climax involve an act the protagonist never would have been capable of before the start of the novel?

If your character has grown, can you identify exactly what type of growth took place? For example, did your character grow from being cowardly to brave? Weak to strong? Jealous to giving?

If you can identify a character arc, awesome! It may not be strong enough just yet (more on that later), but you’ve got the core of the arc and are ready to make improvements.

If you don’t have a character arc, you need to get one. Pronto.

How to Develop a Character Arc

If you don’t have a character arc, there are lots of ways you can go about finding one. Here are some good options.

Option One: Go with your character’s weakest trait. Make sure that it’s something the character will have some resistance to changing. Choose the opposite trait as their personality’s final destination. Now you just have to string a journey between those two traits.

Option Two: Go with the trait that hurts the character the most. If your character must lead a rebellion, give them a character flaw that involves being incapable of leadership. This will put pressure on their character arc and push them more forcefully toward changing.

Option Three: Go with who you want your character to become and have them start as the opposite. Are they a self-sacrificing hero at the end? Make them a greedy prick in the beginning.

How to Improve a Character Arc

If your character arc is kinda sorta present but could use a little beefing up, there are some simple ways to create a stronger arc:

  • The character or environment must resist the change. The character could resist the change because they’re scared or in denial. Or the environment could resist the change because girls aren’t supposed to fight dragons or become surgeons. The key is that there must be an obstacle in the way of the character arc. If all they have to do is just be different, it’s not very satisfying.
  • The character arc should get the character into trouble near the beginning of the book (preferably in the first chapter). In order to understand the importance of the character arc, readers need to see the character fault in action. It needs to be clear why the arc is necessary and why the bad trait is causing problems.
  • The character arc should complete at the climax of the novel. This means that the final showdown should require that the character make a decision that plummets him or her fully into their new, improved personality trait. Perhaps a character who was jealous in the beginning must sacrifice himself in order to save the girl. This one big selfless act solidifies and completes his character arc.

Identifying a Bad Character Arc

A clear sign of a bad or nonexistent character arc is a paragraph included at the end of the novel that attempts to sum up a character arc that was not apparent throughout the story. This often comes from writers who can tell that something is missing (dissatisfying) in their ending.

For some writers, this attempt at squeezing in a character arc is apparent throughout the novel. The writer seems to realize every few scenes that they need to add a bit more depth to their character. This is often done by having the character reflect on scenes that already occurred and how if only they were such-and-such way, they could have done better.

Remember that the character flaw that is central to the character arc should be identifiable throughout the events of the novel, not just in character reflection.

The last sign of a bad character arc is one that changes. One minute your character needs to be more accepting and the next she needs to learn to trust and then later she needs to be more assertive. When this happens, the writer usually senses the missing character arc and is attempting to fix it by adding moments of depth. The problem arises when these moments do not create a cohesive whole.

Homework: Identify and Strengthen Your Character’s Arc

Spend some time now working on fleshing out this vital piece of your novel. Answer the following questions:

  • Does your protagonist have a character arc? Does something change about their personality from beginning to end? If not, follow one of the methods above to develop an arc.
  • Is your protagonist’s character arc clearly defined? Would another writer be able to pick it out without you explaining it?
  • Is your protagonist’s negative trait clear in the beginning of the novel? Does it cause a conflict or prevent the solving of a conflict? If not, find a way to add this element to your novel. Without it, the character arc has not been sufficiently set up in the reader’s mind.
  • Is your protagonist’s positive trait required during the climax of the novel? If not, find a way to add this element to your novel. Without it, you’ll be missing the final moment of transformation that makes a character arc satisfying.
  • Are there other reminders of your character arc throughout the novel? Does your character clearly demonstrate how the arc affects them emotionally?

These questions should help you develop a character arc that is strong and dynamic.

Note that sometimes character arcs go the opposite direction and good characters turn into bad characters. This is okay, you simply need to demonstrate the opposite of everything listed above. How does the positive trait hurt the character in the beginning and help them in the end?

Note also that the character arc does not have to be a transformation from a universally “bad” trait to a universally “good” one. The trait at the beginning just has to be a problem in your character’s specific circumstances (at least from the character’s perspective) and the final trait has to be “good” for the circumstances (even if it’s not truly a good trait). So, for example, a character can transform from a “good girl” rule follower to a “bad girl” who stands up for herself (but neither trait was truly, objectively “bad.”).

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

9 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #10: The Character Arc

  1. Erik Conover says:

    Wow, I’m very glad I came across this post today. I am an actor by trade, but recently in the past two years started writing.

    The idea of big character arc makes for a captivating individual. An audience wants to see struggle and change. To have both these elements are key to the story. I believe that best stories are character driven.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love a good story where one of the central characters is the winter cold, or a place like New York City, but a great arc is truly entertaining.

    I know this post is intended for writers, but thank you for sharing, I can directly apply lots of your knowledge to creating a character I am currently working on for an upcoming audition!

    Thank you again

    Erik

  2. Roman says:

    Thank you for the helpful post. This is something that I am struggling with. I think, as you point out, it is because I plotted my story before I developed a character arc.

  3. jennfs10 says:

    Thank you for the post, Ellen. I’m in the prewriting stage still and I’ve been doing a lot of research for the plot and setting of my story idea. I have a vague account of who my characters are but looking at the character arc of the main character will really help the story, but also to help me really see my character.

  4. Julie Griffith says:

    This helps a lot. I can see that I need to focus on the arc much more and will definitely use these tips. What about trilogies and series? It gets confusing to me when there must be a character arc and story arc for each novel, but there also has to be another big one that carries through until the end of the trilogy/series. One more reason I’m going to try to fit my story into one book.

  5. Rebecca says:

    This is a terrific question. I’m struggling with how far to take my character arc in book one of a series. Don’t I have to leave some growth for future books? I can’t solve everything or he’ll be boring for the next 6 books. Any advice Erin you can give would be super.

  6. Chester Hendrix says:

    SET UP: A Roman Legionnaire and a British WW I soldier have found themselves in 1804 Napoleonic France with a French Lieutenant – Bayard Legard. They’ve been traveling hard for days to get to St. Omer in preparation to find Bayard’s wife in Calais – the fear is she may have been a victim of the time travel event. Upon arrival in St. Omer, they decide to go to a local park and discuss their situation. Entering the park, Bayard encounters an older veteran missing an arm selling apples at the entrance…

    Walking up to him, Bayard purchased three. “Merci, mon Captain,” offered the old grognard. “A blessing on your house, sir.”

    Bayard noted the single chevron on the empty sleeve. He looked the man in the eye and saw a pride there that belied the weariness in his voice. The man appeared to be in his mid-fifties. ‘An impressive age for a wounded veteran,’ thought Bayard. “May I inquire where you lost your arm?”

    The pride in his eyes steeled his frame as he subconsciously stood to attention. “I had the honor of being in the ranks with the First Consul until Marengo.”

    “Your wife and children live here in St. Omer?” asked Bayard.

    “Our children are all grown. My wife and I live here with our youngest son. He has a small farm outside of town.” He smiled, adding, “With a perfect apple tree in the garden. Thank you, sir.”

    Bayard returned the smile, and handed the veteran a five franc piece. As he placed it in the older man’s only hand, he gripped the calloused fingers and held on. “It is I who thank you, private, for your service. Please accept this token from a fellow serviceman who is currently separated from his sweetheart and take your good wife into town for an evening’s meal. She waited for you and raised your children. The wives must be thanked properly once in a while for supporting us. Men such as we understand these things. Agreed?”

  7. Dominic Matthew Jackson says:

    This lecture saved my story. I cannot express how grateful I am (though maybe by the end of my own arc I will be able to).

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