Have you ever had someone read your work then comment: “I love all the stuff that’s going on here but I’m having trouble seeing how your character changes” or “the character seems static” or “the character is really just an observer”? The reader might have misunderstood the story, however, those statements might be hints that your story is missing an essential ingredient that makes your story whole: the character arc.
What is the Character Arc?
A character arc is how your character changes over the course of a story/novel/play/movie/etc. In every basic story, a character wants something. A series of events occur to thwart your character from achieving what she/he wants. The magic happens when the story becomes about how the character reacts to these series of events rather than the actual goal.
For example, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games goes into the games hoping to survive as long as she can. The series of events thwarting her from her goal include other people wanting her dead (other participants and The Capital). While the novel is about her survival, it is also about how she becomes forever altered by the actions she has to take in order to survive. She can never return to the person she was at the beginning of the novel.
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” begins with the grandmother who does not want to go to Florida so she takes certain actions to try to convince her family to go elsewhere, including telling them about a serial killer in Florida called The Misfit. A series of events occurs where her desire is not met leading us to the fantastic in-the-flesh appearance of The Misfit. After her family is killed, the grandmother changes. She cannot go back to the nagging character she was at the beginning of the story because the series of events, especially her actions that led to her family’s death, has forever altered her world.
Why is Character Arc Important?
We read because we love characters. The number of people who want to read about a character going about his/her daily life with no interruptions, problems, or challenges is, most likely, non-existent. In all of our lives, something is bound to happen (a new person entering, or someone exiting) that will alter us. Readers want their characters to do the same. Character arc is linked to plot, it is what elevates a story from caricature to real.
No matter how much we love our characters and do not want anything bad to happen to them, we must find ways to challenge our characters, to have events occur in our stories that will transform our characters. Your characters will thank you and so will your readers.