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Growth arc, fall arc, or flat arc: Which character transformation is right for your story? 

 July 24, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

Character transformation is the life force of romantic fiction

It guides your plot decisions. It sets up the reader's emotional journey. And it creates the framework for delivering the story's message.

There are three different types of character transformations you can harness, and each one opens up unique story opportunities.

Character Transformation: What is a transformation

What is a character transformation?

Before we look at the three 3 types of transformations, let's first talk about what a character transformation is. (Already know? Skip on down to the 3 types.)

A character transformation is the change from their original self to their final self in a story. This change is usually drastic enough that their newly evolved self embraces a totally different set of core values than they started their journey with.

4 lattes on a wood stool (representing the 4 crucial hero characteristics that will make or break your story)

What the heck are Core Values? Learn more about a character's Fear, Need, Desire, and Void here (+ why these are essential for every character you write).

In my article on character arcs, I gave an example of a caterpillar who transforms into a butterfly. The young grub has completely different needs, fears, and desires from its future butterfly self. Becoming a butterfly is the caterpillar's transformation.

Character Transformation: Examples of transformation

Character transformation examples

Character transformations aren't always positive, and they're not always big and flashy. We'll talk more about positive vs. negative transformations a little later, but let's first look at some extreme examples.

In the Star Wars prequel movies, young Anakin Skywalker starts out as a sweet, naïve boy who only wants to protect his mother, then slowly begins to walk a darker path after he fails that early goal. He eventually lets his grief and need for revenge dominate his choices, until he becomes a hate-filled shell of a person that even his closest friends don't recognize and won't accept.

Young Anakin Skywalker projecting a shadow of Darth Vader

But in Episode 6: Return of the Jedi, Anakin (now acting as his transformed persona, Darth Vader) chooses to sacrifice himself to save his son. Through that action, and through his son Luke's example and influence in the movie's events, Anakin transforms himself again. This time, his motivation is love, not hate or revenge, and he dies at peace, as a better version of his previous self.

Vader next to ghost-Anakin in Return of the Jedi

Anakin's journey in the first three movies is a negative transformation, illustrated through scenes that capture the five character-arc stages in a fall arc.

His evolution from homicidal overlord to protective father during Return of the Jedi is a positive transformation. The specific set of plot moments that enables his positive evolution is an example of a growth arc

Now that we understand more about what character transformations can look and feel like, let's talk about the writing frameworks that will help you craft powerful character arcs. 

Character Transformation: Character arcs vs transformation

Character arcs vs character transformations

In my editing work, I often interchange the terms character "transformation" and character "arc", but there is a difference.

The character arc is the 5-stage framework that defines how the character evolves from their original self to their fully transformed self. The arc is the set of specific stages the character must pass through in order to start and finish the change.

The transformation is the change itself and its scope of personal evolution.

No matter whether your character becomes a better or worse version of themself, they must go through each of the five stages in the character arc framework to become fully transformed.

What is a character arc: Green stepped rice fields

Learn the 5 stages of crafting a character arc and download a worksheet to help you map out your main character's transformation.

In today's article, we're focusing on the 3 most important types of character transformations you can tap into as a storyteller and what the stages of those character arcs look like.

Character Transformation: The 3 types of transformations

Growth arcs, fall arcs, and flat character arcs

Every character transformation is powered by one of these three types of character arcs:

  1. 1
    A growth arc
  2. 2
    A fall arc
  3. 3
    A flat arc

What's the difference? And when should you use each type of character arc?

Character Transformation: Growth arcs

1. Growth arcs

Most main characters in romantic fiction experience a positive transformation during their story, so their character arc is a growth arc

In a growth arc, the character realizes they are hiding from a fear and takes steps to face and overcome that fear. 

If you mapped out the plot points on a graph, with their emotional journey as the Y-axis, their character arc might look something like this:

Example of a character growth arc in a story

Notice how the character's emotional health ends at a higher place on the graph than it started, even though there are some bobbles along the way. 

In my Return of the Jedi example above, Vader experiences a positive growth arc even though he is an antagonist in the story. Growth arcs aren't just for the "hero" characters. 

Here are the five stages of a growth arc:

  1. 1
    Begins the journey unaware of a threat, fear, or need that is holding them back
  2. 2
    Has a moment of realization about a specific fear or need that could bring change
  3. 3
    Considers making the change or facing the fear but doesn't immediately act
  4. 4
    Acts in a way that demonstrates their commitment to facing the fear
  5. 5
    Lives fully committed to the change and no longer lets the fear control them

Viewed in order, the stages of the character's transformation may seem easy. All they have to do is progress from one stage to the next, right?

But in reality, there are temptations and failures between each of the steps above. That's why the example graph above isn't a simple, straight line.

You can craft your character's growth arc as a roller coaster of highs and lows or weave it into a warm-sweater hug of a story. The way you connect the 5 stages in the character's transformation arc to the 6 steps on their Emotional Transformation Ladder determines the intensity of the transformation journey.

doors lining a wall with one in yellow (how to unstick your story)

Discover the 6 steps on the Emotional Transformation Ladder and outline the micro-steps of your hero's personal growth.

Character Transformation: Fall arcs

2. Fall arcs

In romantic fiction, fall arcs are usually reserved for the antagonist of the story.

In a fall arc, the character starts out with good intentions but begins making compromises that erode their ethical foundations. Over the course of their transformation, they sacrifice the pillars of their moral compass to gain power, wealth, control, or some specific out-of-reach goal. 

On a plot-point map, the emotional journey of the fall arc could look something like this:

Example of a character fall arc in a story

The five stages of a fall arc are similar to those of a growth arc, but the first and final stages are reversed.

  1. 1
    Begins the journey with a stable, healthy mindset. They may be aware or unaware of their fear, but it does not tempt them from their path.
  2. 2
    Has a moment of realization about a specific fear or need that could erode their stability
  3. 3
    Considers making the change or giving in to the fear but doesn't immediately act
  4. 4
    Acts in a way that protects them from the fear and begins changing their moral belief system to justify their new path
  5. 5
    Lives fully committed to the change and embraces being controlled by the fear by convincing themself it was the best or only way

Anakin Skywalker's journey from Jedi to Sith is a fall arc.

In the movie Leaving Las Vegas, lead character Ben Sanderson starts the movie in the middle of a fall arc (and continues on that path until he dies). 

Belief System: hand holding rosary in front of sunset

Learn more about the 3 sets of opposing beliefs that make up a character's belief system (+ a simple template to help you map them out

Character Transformation: Flat arcs

3. Flat arcs

Flat arcs are as prevalent in romantic fiction as growth arcs, but because they don't depict a significant change from the character's starting self, they're often overlooked as a storytelling tool.

The two main ways romance writers use flat arcs for the protagonists of their stories are:

  • A lead romantic partner who acts as a support system for the other lead character(s) but does not experience their own noteworthy transformation in the story. 
  • The protagonist of a multi-book series that focuses more on external conflicts than internal ones, like in action-heavy urban fantasy. 

In both examples above, the character may have already transformed. Or the story may be establishing their pre-transformed self.

A hero with a flat arc might experience temptations and have on-page highs and lows, but they end their character arc in the story in roughly the same psychological, emotional, and/or physical state as they started: untransformed.

Character Transformation: Comments and questions

Questions and comments

Which of these character-arc types is right for the most prominent three characters in your WIP

What we covered in this article is just a starting point to guide your storytelling decisions, so think about ways you can use the framework of a character arc to craft a truly transformative story.

Leave a comment below and tell me what's tripping you up in your current WIP's character arc. 

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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