The Four Different Types of Character Arc
If you’re writing a novel and simply want to focus on telling a decent story, learning about character arcs will help you create the emotional heft you need to make a more memorable impact on your readers. There’s no denying it, readers come preloaded with all kinds of expectations, so being aware of tried and true formulae can—if done well—help you create character journeys which resonate.
As a writer, no doubt you’ll already have a central protagonist in mind, but if you’re a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ type of writer, you may have no idea where they’ll end up by your novel’s end. Either way, it’s important you have a good sense of what defines your character’s personality so that you can identify what trajectory they appear to be on.
There are four types of character arcs. With any luck, they will help you identify certain hallmarks:
Even if you’ve never really noticed it before, you’ve probably seen the ‘hero’s journey’ a thousand times—it’s a character arc as old as the hills. Essentially, the ‘hero’s journey’ utilises an often-mystical ‘transformation’ arc to follow a protagonist who undergoes a significant change in their personality from an unlikely underdog into a lauded and successful individual.
This is often due to some hidden strengths or talents, qualities initially unbeknownst or suppressed by your character at the beginning of the story, which surface over the course of the narrative. What marks this arc out as distinct from the others is the change the character undergoes tends to be quite radical, to the point where they may change beyond all recognition.
A ‘maturity’ arc is ultimately defined by personal growth in the face of external factors, as opposed to the radical transformative change stemming from inner qualities in the previous arc. A novel which uses a ‘maturity’ arc will depict a protagonist facing challenges in their environment which force them to overcome their demons/disadvantages to, ultimately, become a better person.
By addressing personal faults or hang-ups, for example, a protagonist in a ‘maturity’ arc will not tend to evolve into a significantly different character whatsoever. In fact, they’ll more or less remain the same by the end of story, albeit benefiting from a realisation that they’ve learned from their earlier challenges and grown and matured as a result.
An ‘alteration’ arc is perhaps the most subtle of character arcs, similar to a ‘maturity’ arc in the sense that it focuses on telling a story where a protagonist undergoes only a modest shift in their attitudes by the novel’s closure. However, an ‘alteration’ arc is somewhat different in that it is more about a character changing their perspective than it is about making wholesale changes to their behaviour or personality.
Therefore, whereas a ‘maturity’ arc is about a character making physical, emotional or spiritual improvements to themselves, an ‘alteration’ arc is more about them seeing or interpreting things differently. By and large, they remain the same as they started, it’s just their view on things will have changed as a result of the events in the novel. This makes it the most neutral of character arcs.
A ‘decline’ arc does exactly what it says on the tin—it follows a character (who may or may not possess flaws and/or personal failings) who makes poor choices which ultimately dooms them, jeopardising either themselves or others in due process. Stories like this tend to be tragedies, following a character as they fall from grace, either by way of madness, or death.
Obviously then, it’s often the case that ‘decline’ arcs can take on a more transgressive and pessimistic flavour than other tales, often dabbling in moral ambiguity and conveying the sense that a character is being punished for immoral misdeeds or subjected to divine punishment due to factors beyond their control. As far as character arcs go, this is the weightiest and the hardest to pull off without depressing the hell out of your readers.
With those four different types of character arc in mind, you should be able to see which category your protagonist falls into and, as if by magic, you’ll soon find yourself gravitating one way or the other. In fact, many writers do this unintentionally, as we’ve all heard tales like the above for a millennia already so we’re hard-wired to tell stories this way.
However, it’s still important for writers to be aware of character arcs such as the above. After all, by identifying the correct arc for your protagonist, this will ensure writers make the appropriate choices for the story you want to tell. It may not seem so important, but your readers will thank you for it.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.