The Four Types of Character Arc
A character arc is the personal journey which every character undertakes within a story. It is not literal or physical, but figurative and emotional. Whilst every character arc is different depending on the character and story, character arcs in general can be grouped into four distinct categories, each of which contain their own attributes.
A gradual character arc is a slow-burn change where the character is altered over time by their experiences and surroundings. The change should not be explicitly visible, but instead a slow adjustment that is only clear over time when comparing the earlier and later iterations of the character.
Jane Eyre begins as someone to whom things happen. She is relatively passive, young, inexperienced, and unsure of what she wants. Circumstances refine her, until eventually her resolution brings about the novel’s climax. Her change is gradual, with her willpower slowly increasing as the story progresses.
Victor Frankenstein rejects the Creature he created to absolve himself of grief. As it commits crime and murder, Frankenstein transfers his guilt onto it and it manifests as rage, and throughout the novel Frankenstein slowly transforms from a man obsessed with life and creation to one possessed with vengeance and destruction.
A sudden change is affected by a series of experiences or situations, leading to a moment of revelation within a character. This type of sudden change is often a payoff from a long period of character stubbornness, where they refuse to see what is clear to the audience. When it eventually occurs, it should satisfy the audience as it has been a long time coming.
In the original Star Wars: A New Hope, Han Solo is a reluctant ally to Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion, and only in it for the money. He helps Luke and saves Leia on the promise of payment, which he eventually receives. The audience can see he has become part of the Rebellion, but he distances himself with excuses, until finally he reappears in the Millennium Falcon at the final battle to help destroy the Death Star. Although his character change takes place offscreen, it is a sudden realisation that he is not as selfish and mercenary as he previously thought. He was always a hero, he just had to become aware of the fact.
Another example of a sudden character change is that of Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby. Throughout the novel she grows increasingly paranoid of her neighbours and terrified of losing her unborn child, then finally she is proved correct in her suspicions and the Satanic cult is revealed. Her change is not to reject them, but accept them entirely, as she is overwhelmed with love for her new-born son. This final change is in direct contrast to her previous character yet brought about by a single incident: seeing her baby for the first time.
On some occasions, characters undertake change on purpose. Whilst arcs are usually the result of experiences, a deliberate arc is one which the character chooses. They only change because they want to, not because they are naturally altered by what happens to them or around them.
For example, from the moment his image is immortalised through an artist’s painting, Dorian Gray embraces his own inner corruption and delves into depravity. He does this explicitly through choice, as he enjoys it. The more corrupt he becomes, the more he chooses to indulge himself. Finally, he considers becoming ‘good’ once again, yet he knows it would be a charade. He deliberately destroys himself; not as a result of his actions, but out of choice as an attempt to do the right thing whilst knowing he is evil.
When hunting Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is motivated by revenge, as the whale took his leg on a previous voyage. His character only changes upon spotting the whale, at which point he chooses to pursue it in a fight to the death. His murderous obsession with Moby Dick grows, along with his hatred of the whale, but it is his decision to allow that and his choice to give his life to his quest.
Some characters end where they begin, either by remaining a constant—for they do not need to change—or by undertaking a change which leads them back to where they began as an individual. The lack of change is itself their arc, the importance is how they arrived there.
In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn does not go through a character change. He is King and always was; his true nature is just slowly revealed throughout the trilogy. By gradually showing his real self over time, his character changes in the eyes of others, whilst he himself remains a constant.
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho begins as a psychopathic serial killer who is hiding in plain sight. Throughout the story he becomes more and more unhinged, giving himself away on several occasions and becoming overtly brazen with his crimes. His unravelling, combined with his recklessness, lead him to a situation where he is almost caught, and he confesses all. He then realises that his confession is ignored, as everyone is as shallow and self-serving as he is, and therefore returns to his original state of a psychopathic serial killer hiding in plain sight. He goes through change to wind up the same, allowing the story to either appear as a vignette or a perpetual loop.
Although character arcs can be categorised, their attributes need to be organic based upon their choices and surroundings, and multiple types can be used together. Arcs are a necessity in all characters, but particularly in the main cast of a narrative. Effective character arcs will ensure your story is memorable and your characters are suitably challenged.
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© 2018 Seb Reilly
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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.