Character arcs are one of the most important aspects of writing a great novel. When done right, they can take your story from good to amazing by making your readers feel like they've been on a journey right alongside your protagonist.
So, how do you go about creating a believable and relatable character arc for your novel? Keep reading to find out!
What is a character arc?
A character arc is the development and transformation that a character undergoes throughout a story. There are three main types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat.
Positive character arcs explained
In a positive character arc, the character starts out in a negative place. They’re missing something that would make them whole and happy or they are struggling with a personal challenge or flaw. This could be something major, such as addiction or trauma, or something smaller if you’re writing a lighter story, such as a connection with another person.
Throughout the story, the character grows and changes for the better. To pull off a positive character arc, it's important to show both the low points and the high points of your character's journey.
The appeal of a positive character arc
Readers enjoy this type of arc because it shows someone overcoming adversity and growing as a person. This is something we struggle with in our lives, so seeing it on the page (or screen) gives us hope and inspiration for ourselves. It also allows readers to root for the underdog because the characters will struggle throughout the story. We get to celebrate triumphs alongside them.
A positive character arc includes
- A negative starting point
- Growth and change
- An eventual triumph
Examples of positive character arcs
- The young protagonist who starts out with a sense of self-doubt but learns to believe in their own skills and capabilities by the end of the story.
- The "scrappy underdog" who struggles against all odds to achieve their goals.
- A person who begins with a selfish or closed-off worldview but gradually learns to care about others and becomes more compassionate over the course of the story.
For example, Ebenezer Scrooge begins A Christmas Carol as a cold-hearted miser but is transformed by the end of the story into a kind and generous man.
Positive character arcs are often about personal growth or overcoming adversity. They can be inspiring and motivational, reminding readers that it's never too late to learn and grow as a person.
Negative character arcs explained
A negative character arc is the opposite of a positive one. The character starts out in a good place—or at least a neutral place-- but becomes a worse person over time. This type of arc is often used in tragedies or cautionary tales.
To make a negative character arc work, it's important to show your main character's positive traits so the reader will feel for them when things go downhill. It's also important to hint at your character's fault lines or weaknesses early on; these are the aspects of their personality that will cause them to fall and become a worse person.
The appeal of a negative character arc
We're all tempted by the dark side. Negative character arcs allow readers to experience what happens when they embrace the worst aspects of themselves without actually ruining their lives and relationships. It also provides a reminder of why we choose, day after day, not to follow the darker paths available to us.
Negative character arcs can also break a reader's heart. Sometimes, that's what we want when reading or watching a story; to feel the pain of life in a safe, controlled way that doesn't actually harm us.
A negative character arc includes
- A positive starting point
- A decline
- An eventual downfall
Examples of negative character arcs
- The Gothic anti-heroine who starts off innocent and naïve but is gradually corrupted by her dark surroundings.
- The idealistic young politician who gets caught up in the machinations of power and ends up cynical and jaded.
- The ordinary person who is thrust into a nightmarish situation and becomes a shell of their former self.
One well-known example is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from the Star Wars franchise. Anakin begins the series as a skilled Jedi Knight but falls to the dark side after he is seduced by the evil Emperor Palpatine. He becomes a cruel and tyrannical ruler, and although he briefly returns to the light side near the end of his arc, he ultimately dies as a result of his actions.
While negative character arcs can be difficult to read, they can also be deeply powerful and nuanced, giving readers a glimpse into the human capacity for both good and evil.
Flat character arcs explained
A flat character arc is one in which the character doesn't change much throughout the story. They might have some ups and downs and their external situation will change, but their personality and worldview remain the same.
This type of arc is often used in action stories, comedies, or long-running mystery series (though you can use positive and negative arcs with all of these stories as well). You might also use it to show a character who stubbornly refuses to change.
The appeal of a flat character arc
One of the main appeals of a flat character arc is watching a character you love (or love to hate) deal with increasingly weird or particularly tricky external circumstances.
The question for the reader is not, "will this person make the right decision to become a better person?" but "how will Columbo solve this seemingly impossible crime?" "How will Arthur Dent handle this strange and frustrating alien?"
The focus is on external circumstances and watching someone cleverly overcome them (or hilariously fail to overcome them).
Another appeal is seeing someone who refuses to change no matter what. Change is hard, and sometimes, we'd like to stay exactly as we are, even if it's not always working for us. A flat character arc allows readers to experience the fun of a character being their imperfect self while they go on adventures.
A flat character arc includes
- A compelling character who enters a strange, dangerous, or weird situation.
- No major changes in the character’s personality or worldview. Their outer world will change and the character will face challenges, but their personality will remain the same.
- The character achieves some goal or completes some kind of quest, but remains largely the same person as they were at the start of the story.
Examples of flat character arcs
- The detective who solves crimes but remains largely the same across all their books.
- The action hero whose focus is on defeating an enemy rather than grappling with their own issues (note, that an action story can still have a positive arc, Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, or a negative arc, such as Darth Vader in Star Wars).
- Side characters who are important to the story and the protagonist but who don't have their own arc.
- Villains who remain the same throughout the story (though villains can have both positive and negative arcs too).
- Main characters in long-running series are often flat because there are only so many ways someone can change!
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one example of a novel with flat character arcs. The main characters are essentially unchanged by the end of the story, despite all that they have been through.
How to choose the right type of character arc for your novel
Now that you know about the different types of character arcs, how do you choose which one is right for your story? It all depends on what kind of story you're trying to tell. That said, here are a few things to keep in mind when making your decision:
- What kind of tone are you going for? Positive or negative? Upbeat or somber? Serious or lighthearted?
- What kind of ending are you hoping for? Happy or sad? How do you want readers to feel when they read your book?
- What sort of journey are you taking your characters on? Are you breaking them down and helping them grow? Are you breaking them and leaving them broken? Are you hoping they'll stay more or less the same?
Keep all of these factors in mind as you decide which type of character arc is right for your novel.
A novel can also have multiple types of arcs. Perhaps the hero experiences a positive arc while the side kick experiences a flat arc, and the villain experiences a negative one.
So there you have it—a crash course on everything you need to know about character arcs!