From Point A to Point B: Understanding Character Arc, Part 1

Written by on June 9, 2011 in Writing Tips - Leave a Comment

Hilary Smith

If you’ve been in the fiction, memoir, or screenplay-writing world for a while, you’ve probably heard the term “character arc.” It sounds like an intimidatingly technical term, but what it boils down to is this: How does your character change over the course of your book?

Character arc is all about taking your main character from an emotional Point A to Point B. It’s a process of transformation. If your main character is a cautious, genial, play-by-the-rules kind of person at the start of your book, the events of the story may challenge her to take risks, stand up for what she believes in, and question authority. If your main character is a proud, headstrong bully in Chapter 1, the events of the story may transform him into a more thoughtful, empathetic type.

This is not to say that your character should be completely unrecognizable at the end of the book. But at least one or two key character traits—say, difficulty trusting, or crippling self-doubt—will change completely as your character learns and grows.

Here are some common emotional journeys characters experience as they travel along their arcs:

cautious/risk-taker

rule-follower/rule-breaker

passive/active

suspicious/trusting

dishonest/honest

faker/authentic

miserly/generous

cruel/kind

proud/humble

needy/independent

silly/wise

unforgiving/forgiving

settled/adventurous

content/ambitious

weak/strong

avoiding issues/confronting them head-on

follower/leader

believer/skeptic

conformist/rebel

Reread the first three chapters of your novel or memoir. Which adjectives would you use to describe your main character? Write them down. Next, read the last three chapters of your manuscript and ask yourself the same question.

Has your character gone from meek to brave? Has she changed from a person who’ll do anything to avoid conflict to a person who finally learns to defend herself? Or is she still the same old person she was at the start of the novel, making the same mistakes she always did?

If you can’t identify a strong and boldly defined character arc in your manuscript, don’t panic. Different types of novels and memoirs use character arc to different degrees. For example, a chicklit novel about a heroine’s journey from frumpy doormat to confident career woman will draw much more heavily on character arc than a fast-paced sci-fi novel where the world building is the main attraction. If every novel had to feature character Transformation with a capital T, readers would be bored out of their minds. On the other hand, a novel where nothing changes isn’t very satisfying either.

So how much character arc is right for your story? And how do you write one in if you’ve already drafted your book? These are questions I’ll talk about next week. In the meantime, take a look at that list of word pairs and think about which ones apply to your main character. What’s your Point A and Point B?

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