5 Great Quotations about the Writing Life

Create character arc for better story

For a story 000000000000000000000000zto move forward, it needs a character arc. An arc is how a three-dimensional character changes and grows through the tale.

For example, the protagonist may start the story by longing for adventure and also believing he is unable to make a difference in the world. Then he stumbles across two misfits who are caught up in an international plot of intrigue; appealing to his sense of adventure, they convince him to briefly help them. He does, but their problems only deepen. The protagonist finds he must continue to assist them just to extricate himself from the situation. When he helps, his skills actually allow the misfits achieve a major portion of their mission; he also witnesses the antagonist’s cruelty. Recognizing his abilities, the misfits plead for him to stay with them. Feeling upbeat from his success and upset at the antagonist for his atrocities, the protagonist agrees to further help but then he plans to be out. Re-engaging the antagonist, he ensures the misfits stop the evil plot and in the process realizes that he truly can make a difference for the better. As the story ends, he decides to stick with the misfits for their next adventure.

Notice how the character grew. The person he was at the story’s beginning is different from the person he is at the story’s end. This growth is the arc that the reader follows.

For a character arc to occur, the protagonist ultimately must ask if he is on the right path or not. This usually occurs just before the climax; the climax then is the point in the story in which he puts into action his newfound belief. Other times, the protagonist simply realizes during the climax that he is on the wrong path and then acts accordingly to emerge victorious.

To achieve this moment of questioning, though, during the rising action setbacks and failures must occur that incrementally lead the protagonist to question his direction. No single setback or failure is enough to make him change, but collectively he has no choice but to question himself and change direction.

Further, one end of the character arc must be anchored in the story’s opening lines. That is when the character’s personality and beliefs that will evolve are revealed to the reader. If a character ultimately comes to realize he can make a difference for the better, then the story’s beginning must show that he doesn’t believe he possesses that power.

Many writers and critics say character is more important than plot because the character arc is the story. That’s not exactly true; it’s much more intertwined than that. In a sense, the character arc and the plot – aka as the narrative arc – drive one another. An event happens, and the protagonist must react. How he responds determines what potentially can occur next. That in turn requires the character to respond and so shapes how he evolves. If he grows, he can further affect the story’s events. If he doesn’t grow, the story’s events will overwhelm him, and he becomes irrelevant; only through contrivance and luck could the protagonist then resolve the story’s central problem.

In addition, a writer cannot force a character arc upon a narrative arc, or it will ring untrue to the reader. For example, Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter couldn’t evolve to achieve a life of repentance and dignity if she suddenly were a character in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; the plot of capturing a great white whale doesn’t lend itself to Prynne’s evolution from being ostracized. In short, plot and character depend upon one another to create a more perfect story.

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