By David Flin
Things happen, and because things happen, things change. That’s pretty much what a story is, and it’s as true for the characters as it is for the plot. An arc is, of course, far more than just a change over the course of a story.
First, some of the basics. If there is one rule in fiction, it is that every effect must have a cause. Things don’t “just happen”, otherwise there is no point in including it in the story. It is instructive to tell a story to young children. You’ll frequently get interrupted with the question: “Why?” during the telling of the story. Pay attention to this. If you don’t have a good answer to that question, it’s a sign that there’s a problem with the story. It’s a good habit to get into, constantly asking yourself why you’re including something.
There can be many reasons to include something: it helps develop a secondary character; it helps set the scene; it provides a contrast with something earlier or later in the story; and so on. Whatever the reason, it needs a place. Including something simply because it seems like a good idea is rarely a good idea.
A plot arc is the way the story develops, and how the events change. A character arc is the way the character develops and changes in response to the things that happen to them. The two are inextricably linked.
The difference between a character and a character arc It’s an important distinction. A great character without a character arc is eventually unsatisfying, and most readers will end up finding the character dull.
The difference is that a character is what the person is at any given moment, and the character arc is how the character changes, be it for good or ill. Macbeth starts as a respected thane, a great leader in battle, and a loyal supporter of the King. The Fates intervene, literally, and ambition takes over, driving him to increasingly despicable deeds. These deeds destroy everything else about his life; he loses friends and allies, he loses joy in everything, he loses honour, the sense of achievement. Eventually, he reaches the point where he says:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
He’s gone from a vibrant, loyal thane to a despised monarch filled with nihilistic thoughts. That’s a character arc.
A character arc is simple, isn’t it? The character starts one way. The character learns lessons. The character changes. It’s that simple, isn’t it?
Well, no. Sorry to disappoint, but there’s more to it than that. Character arc will affect and be affected by both the story structure and the theme. All of these are symbiotic; they feed off of each other. This makes creation of all three a little more complicated, and also a lot easier. It simplifies the creation process by rolling all three elements into a unified whole. Once you understand how they all work together in your story, the story becomes a lot easier to write.
However, in its simplest form, the character arc is how the character changes over the course of the tale. Let’s take a few examples.
Firstly, one from the greatest film ever made, Casablanca. Rick starts off bitter after a failed love affair, and determined not to get involved in other people’s problems. He can help people, but he frequently doesn’t. He doesn’t want to get involved. During the first act of the film, he fights against getting involved, and slowly, almost against his will, he gets dragged in. Then there is the pivot point in the film, La Marseillaise. A single nod from Rick, the band plays Laszlo’s request for the French national anthem, and everything changes. Rick is now willing to commit himself to a greater cause.
It’s a pivot point for other characters; Captain Renault, Major Strasser, Laszlo, Ilsa, and Yvonne. Yvonne is a particularly interesting case of economy in story-telling. She appears in just three short scenes, and yet she has a complete character arc within these. In her first scene, she is drinking alone at the bar, desperate for Rick to show her affection, a weak and helpless figure in need of support. In her second scene, she is drinking with a German soldier, clutching at any straw for support. Rick’s abandonment has caused her to sink to this level. From first scene to second scene, she has sunk. In her third and final scene, she is alone at a table, when Laszlo instructs the band to play La Marseillaise. This stirs her from her depths, and the final words she speaks are “Vive la France.” We have no idea what the future holds for her, but we know from the final image we see of her that she will become active in the fight against Nazism, a participant, and not a mere victim.
It’s a classic character arc in microcosm.
More typically, a character arc will be longer. An example of how to generate a character arc, linking it with the theme and with the plot, is in order. I’ll use the example of Ken Barrington, from Six East End Boys . He starts off as an opportunistic politician, one who mangles metaphors (“You have to put your nose to the grindstone when your back is against the wall.”) He appears to be self-interested and self-obsessed, viewing events in London as a chance to further his career. He goes to London, where he starts to see what is going on there. He tries to maintain his façade, coming up with reasons of cynical self-interest why he is remaining.
He comes into contact with the central characters, and the lengths they are prepared to go to in order to achieve justice and a London free from fear and oppression. His excuses for staying become increasingly flimsy, but he attempts to pretend that he remains out of pure self-interest. He is involved as the sacrifices for the cause mount up. He sees the depth of belief in the cause in the people around him. Each time we see him, he is closer to committing himself fully to the cause, all the while pretending that this isn’t what he’s doing.
Finally, everything seems lost. The cause is on the verge of defeat. He has the opportunity to leave and save himself, and he doesn’t take it, and prepares to stay to the end. Inevitably, he explains that this is for reasons of self-interest, but no-one is fooled. He’s still got an image to maintain, but he’s grown from being self-centred to working for the good of all.
How does that turn out? Well, that’s a detail explained in the book.
Do all characters need an arc? A character without an arc of some description is, in the final analysis, boring. A character that doesn’t change as a consequence of what goes on around them is unrealistic and, since nothing has impacted them, they may as well not be there.
Every character who appears more than once should have an arc of some description. Clearly, a spear-carrier, who comes on, does one thing, and then never reappears, won’t have an arc, because one can’t see a change from a single appearance. Other than that, it’s simple. Major characters should have major arcs; minor characters should have minor arcs. The example of Yvonne from Casablanca, quoted above, is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. It’s a minor character, it’s a minor arc, and it gives the character substance.
Isn’t it difficult to do a character arc for every character? Not at all. A character will have motivation, and will have a purpose in the plot. If they don’t have a purpose, there is no reason for them to be there, and they should be unceremoniously dumped. When they have an arc, they start to get depth, and the reader starts to get invested in the supporting cast.
How do I create a character arc? Take the time to identify the character’s guiding principles. In each scene, have these in mind. Use stick and carrot for the character. Yvonne fell into self-pity, becoming inward-looking, and going against the theme of Casablanca. That had a negative impact on her, and her arc took a downward turn. Then she responds to La Marseillaise, and her arc takes an upward turn.
Carrot and stick. Works every time.
In essence, it’s simple. Devise an interesting character. Give them motivations. Have them respond to events, and ensure that these events have an effect on them. Piece of cake.