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Building powerful character arcs

Building powerful character arcs Building powerful character arcs
In this article:

    Character arcs are a way of thinking structurally about the relationship between the character and the plot. You’ll often see writing advice that emphasizes “character arcs,” “character development,” or “character journeys.” This is just a way of saying that a character should change over the course of the story. That change can be positive or negative, fast or slow, permanent or prone to backsliding, depending on the story you want to tell. Character arcs are rarely linear, and a good character arc will have setbacks where the character looks like they’re going to return to their old ways, but ultimately the forward momentum of the arc wins out.

    The purpose of the character arc

    The purpose of the character arc is to further tie the inner emotional world to the events of the plot by having the character change in response to the events. 

    The Character Arc is not identical to the Character GMCS. The GMCS defines how the character acts with relation to the plot; the arc is about understanding the character holistically over the course of the story and thinking about how they relate to themselves and how that changes. GMCS is about the character’s role in the story, while character arc is about describing the shape of the character’s internal conflict over the course of the Beginning, Middle, and End phases of the story. Character arcs are about the character’s internal emotional processes, their orientation to the world, and so they flow from the character’s personal Motivation and backstory. 

    In the Beginning phase of the story, the character arc gets set up. This is where you introduce the character, their GMCS, and the Inciting Incident that puts the protagonist on the path of change. In the beginning phase of a character arc, we need to understand what the character’s current state is, why it’s bad, why it exists, and why they want to change. Rather than just telling the reader these things, use the plot to illustrate the character’s problems. 

    In the Middle phase of the story, the character arc develops through the plot conflict. We see the character attempting to change, and struggling with it. This is rarely a straightforward linear progression of change. We want setbacks and struggle in the Middle phase of the story in order to keep it interesting. This is where the protagonist really has to struggle with what was keeping them from changing in the first place. 

    In the End phase of the story, the character has experienced enough change throughout the Middle that they cannot go back to their old ways. This causes one final moment of crisis where they confront the old belief one final time before integrating their new position and completing their arc. 

    In an ongoing serial, where the story moves through multiple Beginning, Middle, and End phases in its plot, the main characters can go through multiple arcs, where they are challenged to change multiple times over the course of the story. You can even use multiple different types of arcs over each Beginning, Middle, and End cycle. 

    Types of Character Arc


    The character gets better. They become more brave, heroic, open-hearted, and loving as a result of the hardships they experience in the story and end the story as a better version of themselves. This is the hero’s journey, the redemption arc, and the promise of every romcom; these kinds of characters are easy to root for and love because they’re trying to get better. 


    The character gets worse. They give in to their worst impulses, close themselves off from other people, and can become mean or cruel. This is a corruption arc or a villain era, but it can be as relatively normal as staying trapped in a self-defeating cycle. This kind of arc is common to genres like horror and tragedy where people aren’t able to save themselves or each other, as well as to literary fiction. Star Wars I-III are a very well-known negative character arc as we watch Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. 


    The character gets worse and better. Most character arcs will have setbacks along the way, where the character briefly backslides, which still fits into either the positive or negative arcs above. A recursive arc is where a character goes on a whole journey and ultimately ends up back where they started. 

    Recursive arcs are hard to get right, and they work best in stories with a lot of characters who are at odds with each other. This kind of arc is usually about how characters are unable to fundamentally change even in the face of overwhelming circumstances. A Song of Ice and Fire and Succession are two series that make heavy use of recursive character arcs. These stories are their own kind of tragedy, where the comforts of power and familiarity win out over bravery. Recursive arcs rarely have a happy tone to them, though some sitcoms like The Office use them for cringe comedy effect. Even when a character in a recursive arc does not ultimately change their outlook or behavior, they should still act meaningfully in the story, and the story should still have a lot going on. A recursive arc requires a lot of external change and events happening, because the punch comes from the fact even in a crisis situation, the character is still unable to meaningfully internally change.   

    How to Use Character Arcs

    If you want to get started with a character arc, the first step is to set your Character GMCS; for the character arc, the Character Motivation is the most important part, since it dictates what is in view for their future. You should also start working on their backstory. You don’t need to have it all nailed down, but some idea of who this person is will help you shape where you want them to go. From there, return to the list of internal conflicts and pick one that sounds appealing. 

    Internal conflict

    • The character wants two opposing good things
    • The character is afraid of what they desire
    • The character is afraid of themselves/their own negative qualities
    • The character attains an end they’ve been striving for and doesn’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve got it
    • The character has a fundamental belief about themselves that is blocking them from happiness
    • The character loses the thing they hung their self-worth on
    • The character believes a lie about themselves

    Any of the above conflicts can be used for positive, negative, or recursive arcs. Whether you choose a positive, negative, or recursive arc depends on the kind of story you want to tell.

    For example, let’s look at “the character has a fundamental belief about themselves that is blocking them from happiness.” A positive arc would be that the character learns to let go of this belief and embrace happiness. A negative arc would be that the character doubles down on the negative belief about themselves and gets worse. A recursive arc would be that the character attempts to change, finds it too hard or scary, and goes back to being miserable in the same way they were before

    In all cases, the character should gain or lose their Goal by the end of the story. A character can achieve their Goal but still have a negative arc (e.g. the Goal is promotion to partner in their law firm, but in order to get it they sacrifice all their personal relationships to backstabbing and workaholism), or fail their Goal and have a positive arc (e.g.: the Goal is to get into an Ivy League school, but the process of failing illustrates that the character wants to go on a gap year instead). 

    Let’s look at an example.

    The walls of the club reverberated with the bass of the pulsing music. Jade crept down the alley on silent feet. Hunters were trained to move stealthily from the time they could walk, and her parents had trained her well.  She positioned herself in a pool of shadow cast by the streetlamp overhead and checked the silver knife at her hip one more time.  Werewolf senses would find her almost instantly, but that split-second almost should be enough. It would have to be. 

    She was going to make her parents proud. 

    The door creaked open halfway. Grayson Kester, alpha of the Moon’s Edge pack, paused and said something indistinct to someone behind him. His voice was deep and rumbling, full of command, but strangely pleasant. Had he sounded so pleasant when he’d given that fateful order? 

    The width of a door separated Jade from her revenge. 

    It opened the rest of the way, and Grayson stepped into the alley. Jade leapt, knife at the ready, lunging for his heart. But Grayson whirled and caught her wrist effortlessly in his huge hand. Her grey eyes met his red ones. And Jade’s world collapsed as her soul cried out in ecstasy. 

    Grayson Kester, the man who killed her parents, was her fated mate. 

    Jade’s Goal is to kill Grayson, her Motivation is because he killed her parents. Her backstory is that she’s a highly trained werewolf hunter who has lived most of her life in isolation and under a strict training regime that taught her to tamp down on her emotions. Her inner conflict is between two strong emotional drives: vengeance for her parents and love for her fated mate. 

    A positive arc for Jade would be about letting go of her grief and understanding that living with her emotions tamped down is cutting her off from love in the form of her fated mate, Grayson. A negative arc for Jade would involve her doubling down on her revenge, cutting off her emotions further, and killing Grayson. In this setup, Jade’s Goal is in conflict with her emotional need for closeness, and most of the story is going to be about her working out that tension before she finally comes to her decision. If this is a romance story, we will expect Jade to choose the positive arc and choose love and healing over vengeance. However, if this is a horror story about becoming monstrous in revenge, or a tragedy about being trapped in cycles of violence, the negative arc makes more sense.

    In all cases, the story’s GMCS remain the same. But by changing the character’s internal conflict and character arc, we have radically altered the tone, content, and direction of the story. The internal world of character growth and the external world of plot action are intertwined, and making decisions that affect one affects the other. Being clear on what kind of story you want to tell and what kind of arc you want for your main character(s) will give you the frame to shape the plot in the most dramatically appropriate direction.

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