Writing Character Arcs
Characters grow as a result of what they experience. Relationships form and new ways of thinking replace old preconceptions. Themes arise that give new light to the story, allowing it to teach and demonstrate diverse perspectives to the reader. Whether the story chronicles the rise of a hero, the fall of a tyrant, or the courtship of a couple, characters’ growth displays power best when mapped along with the rise and fall of plot.
One of the easiest places to start crafting a character arc is at the end. Imagine the feeling the work should produce in the reader, and how they ought to see the character by the end of the work. It’s tempting to create a main character who is already bold, brave, balanced, and beautiful. Unfortunately, this does not create a satisfying story. Even in cases where a title character has already been established as “complete”, another character is put alongside them to deliver the satisfaction of character growth.
Take the latest Indiana Jones. Putting the aging action hero in an adventure by himself certainly wouldn’t work this far into the series, especially with his heroic nature already established. Thus, he gets paired with Mutt, a young rebel much like Indiana when he was young. He has to prove his mettle next to the seasoned hero, and this maintains the question for the audience “will he make it?” since Indiana (obviously) always survives.
Example character arc patterns can help narrow down the options. Change, growth, shift, and fall arcs are outlined and summarized nicely by Veronica in her post on the three main types of character arc (shift being part of growth). These are general arcs, but each demonstrates a type of resolution. Whichever resolution fits best with the character, and his/her relationship with the story at hand, should give an idea how the character will be by the end.
A growth arc, as an example, is used in the Captain America movie to great effect. Steve Rogers’ internal character doesn’t change when he becomes a super-charged hero. His unchanged loyalty to truth, justice, and the American way only grows as he sees people in positions of power abuse others with lies, deceit, and anti-American sentiment. Instead of having Steve grow into a hero, the story instead focuses on his growth from a man with values into a hero with stronger values. This focuses attention on those values as powerful thematic elements in the movie.
With a final image in mind, the starting point will set the main line for the arc. The same way it’s tempting to start with a character who’s already amazing in every way, doing the opposite drags down a story too. Having no redeeming qualities, or having the complete opposite conviction from where they need to end up, makes the character difficult to grasp for readers trying to relate. Instead, plant a seed of the future strength in them. This can be either a wish, a reward waiting for them, or a danger stalking them if they don’t progress.
Also, bear in mind that a character’s tale is about proving something to themselves, rather than the author proving something to the reader. In this case, the example of Disney’s Tangled comes to mind. Consider the first scenes with Rapunzel in them as a teen. Within a single song, the audience has an excellent idea of her current character. She’s intelligent, creative, strong, kind and funny. When Mother Gothel comes on the scene, Rapunzel’s main area for growth appears. She’s bullied, afraid of the world, sheltered, has unfulfilled dreams, and all kinds of mommy issues. So the course of the movie logically follows the path of self-discovery, building up her weaknesses into strengths in a way that allows her to actively participate in the climax of the movie when she stands up to Mother Gothel and is also brave enough to give up her chance at freedom for real love.
This last decision, whether or not to pursue the freedom she always wanted or give it up to save the life of her true love, demonstrates a third principle in picking a starting point and ending point for a character arc. The story, plot as well as character arc, should focus on something very difficult for the character. If a main character’s decision is an obvious choice, or doesn’t have serious consequences, then the tension in the climax will not hold up for the reader. The last thing an author wants at the true climax of their story is the reader to consider the options available to the character and say, “Well, duh! It’s obvious!” Some styles of story, like current fairy tales, make it clear a happy ending is in order. However, it still shouldn’t be obvious how things will work out. The decision and action of the character still have huge power when influencing how the story will come to that happy ending. This is where the thrill is in a character arc.