Sometimes, when we're very lucky, a character pops into our head fully formed and ready to go. For the rest of us mere mortals, developing a compelling character arc can help us craft a tighter more believable story. The change that your character goes through over the course of the plot can help readers stay engaged and relate more easily to your protagonist--and your antagonist too!
You may be asking: do I really have to bother? After all, James Bond and Jack Sparrow don't exactly go through deep personal change, and they are still wildly popular characters. So, do you really need a clear character arc?
The answer you've been waiting for is...yes! Here are five reasons that you should develop character arcs in your writing:
1. A character arc can help make your plot better.
The plot is a series of events that escalate toward the climax of the story. Without a clear arc, your character may bounce from situation to situation, page after page. The way your characters react to the circumstances you put them in shapes how the plot unfolds. And a character's arc will be what determines how the character acts.
In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the villain Oogie Boogie kidnaps Santa Claus and brings him to Halloween Town. That action is a fixed part of the plot. But the hero's arc determines how he reacts to this event. If Jack Skellington had been happy with the way things were, he would have sent Santa home. But because his arc deals with Jack feeling dissatisfied with his life, he sees in Santa an opportunity to change his life. The character arc then makes the plot richer, as we can see a character's journey directly impacting the way the plot unfolds.
2. A compelling character arc can hook readers and keep them reading.
Most readers pick up a book not just because they want to be entertained, but because they want to connect or relate. They want to see themselves or their experiences in a character, and that's hard to do if the character lacks interesting inner struggles. Magneto from X-Men is a great example of this. We shouldn't like him, but because of his backstory and inner struggle as a mutant living among humans who hate him, he's relatable and we can feel more than just hate/fear or any other one-dimensional emotion. Without a character arc, he would be just another villain with a cheesy laugh. With a character arc, readers can see aspects of themselves in the character and experience the story on a more immediate, personal level.
3. A good character arc can help you develop your story's theme.
A theme is the big "message" that you want your readers to walk away remembering. In X-Men, for example, one theme you might take from it is the question what is it that makes someone human?
A character arc can help you determine what your theme is. Every decision and action a character makes reflects their views on the theme. For example, let's say that The Nightmare Before Christmas' s theme is "be happy with what you have." All of Jack's disastrous decisions should highlight the message of that theme. He should have just stuck to Halloween!
4. Characters are the heart of a story.
While the story you’re writing may be plot driven or memorable because of a unique setting or universe, the entry point for most readers is character.
Consider a really successful series like the Marvel films. Sure, the plots are fun (and explosion filled). Beautiful to look at—yes! But what makes the films more than spectacle is the journey of the characters. Tony Stark transforming from billionaire playboy to someone who is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good—you know what that is? A gripping, dynamic arc. And many readers--or viewers--will come back again and again to experience not just the explosions, but that complex character.
5. The kind of character arc you choose can help you decide on genre.
The three types of character arc--positive, negative, and flat--can help you decide what genre your story fits into. For instance, if you are writing a romance where a happily ever after is guaranteed, then the positive arc is probably the way to go. A negative arc might fit a tragic literary fiction novel, while flat arcs might be better for a hard-boiled mystery. Not to say that there isn't flexibility in this, but these are helpful guideposts for considering how your character will evolve over the course of the story.
Let your characters be your guide.
Creating character arcs can make your story better for the reader and for you while writing. Don't be afraid to explore the options a character arc will open up for you. You never know where it might lead you.
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