As you work on your story, does it have events that change your main character(s), for better or for worse? Most stories should. This change is called a character arc. There are three main kinds: positive, negative, and flat arcs.
Why Use Character Arcs?
- They make characters interesting and relatable.
- They make characters three-dimensional. A perfect character with no need to change becomes boring.
Must All Characters Change?
No, but the main characters should. There is, however, an exception to this which we’ll look at later.
Three Types of Character Arcs
Three main ingredients of a positive arc: (1) the character believes a lie, (2) circumstances, conflicts, and events bring the character to a realization of the truth, and (2) the character changes for the better.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is an excellent example of this. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is a greedy fellow who doesn’t believe in Christmas. He believes the lie about wealth’s importance and the need to constantly work and make money, even during holidays.
Then the three ghosts arrive and show him his life and its events – past, present, and future – which result in his change of heart. By the story’s end, Ebenezer Scrooge has become a pretty nice fellow!
In this arc, the character starts out good but by the story’s end, he’s changed for the worse. In other words, he doesn’t grow into a better person. Just as in the positive arc, the events and conflicts that change this character must be believable. Negative arcs do not end “happily ever after.”
Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, provides us a good example. This novel has lots of themes, but I’ll focus on one of them: adultery. In the beginning, Anna is a popular socialite, the perfect model of a Russian lady in the 1870s. But she has a fatal flaw: her passions. These drive her to commit adultery with a character named Vronsky, and she abandons her children. As the story ends, she kills herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train.
Although I don’t recommend this arc, it can and has been used successfully. In this arc, the main character doesn’t change. Sherlock Holmes, who is actually too perfect and too smart to be believable in my opinion, is a good example. From one story and novel to the next, Detective Sherlock never changes. These arcs may work in a series that features characters such as Sherlock, but the character must interesting and the stories must have an interesting plot.
Do your characters change, for better or for worse? Or are they flat, like ole Detective Sherlock?