How important is a character arc to your story? Does it need one? What even is a character arc?
If you're writing a character-driven fiction story—like a romance—the character arc for your main protagonist is the backbone of the story. It's the reason readers stick around until the end.
So let's talk about what a character arc is and how you can design one that tells an engaging story, one readers that takes readers on a satisfying journey.
What is a character arc?
A character arc is a transformation map. It is the character's five-stage journey from a state of blissful unawareness to a transformed version of themself.
Consider a caterpillar. It spends its days scooting along branches and munching on tasty leaves.
But that little dude won't live the same life forever. Everything about its daily routines will soon change in drastic ways. The caterpillar doesn't even know what it's missing out on until it undergoes the traumatic (and vulnerable) transformation into a butterfly.
But transformations require sacrifice. The caterpillar gives up its legs to gain wings. And it's not just gaining wings; it's gaining a whole new world. A caterpillar trades its grounded life for one of freedom in the sky as a butterfly.
In the stories we tell, every character sees themself as that butterfly, even when their choices are leading them right back down into the dirt.
All characters who change, whether in positive or negative ways, must transform on a physical, mental, or emotional level. (Sometimes all three at once.)
There are three primary types of character arcs you can harness to power your story's momentum. That's a pretty deep discussion, so I've explained all 3 types of character arcs in a separate article (click below to read it).
Learn the stages of Growth, Fall, and Flat arcs and how each type of transformation affects your story (and characters) differently.
For now, let's look at the critical role these change arcs play in different lengths of stories.
How character arcs fit into different lengths of stories
When you're working within a limited word count for your manuscript, you must make strategic storytelling decisions. One of those decisions is when to start the story.
In an epic adventure, like The Lord of the Rings saga, you have enough page space to let the full story unfold in the book (or series) itself. Readers can get to know the heroes before they begin their change arcs, then watch those transformations play out from start to end.
But when you're writing a shorter story, you have to get right to the point. Which means some of your character's change arc must become backstory.
But ultimately, how much of the change arc is shown in your story itself doesn't matter from a workload perspective. You, as the storyteller, still have to design the whole transformation, even if it's modest, and even if most of it will happen off-page.
So how do we design a character arc?
Every compelling character transformation includes five distinct stages. This topic is important enough to talk about in detail in its own article, but here's a quick overview of the 5 character arc stages:
- 1Unaware of fear/need
- 2Aware of fear/need
- 3Considering change
- 4Committed to change
Regardless of whether each of the 5 stages above will be shown on-page in your story, you still need to understand what they are for your character and map out that character journey. This is an ultra-important step in the character development stage of your writing process.
These 5 stages of the character arc (above), combined with the 6 steps on the Emotional Transformation Ladder and the 9 essential plot milestones create the story arc.
What's the difference between character development and a character arc?
Character development is everything you write that establishes who the character is and why they make choices. A character arc is the specific 5-step journey from old self to new self.
Some character development happens on page—during the story arc itself—but some of it needs to be created before you write the plot milestones in the story. (Revisit the Full and Partial Character Arc diagrams above if you need a visual.)
This is why character backstory is so important and why you should focus on fleshing out your character's formative moments before writing their change arc.
How to visualize a character arc (download your worksheet here!)
Now that you know exactly what the purpose of a character arc is and the 5 phases each hero and villain experience, take some time to apply what you've learned today to your work-in-progress.
If you're a visual learner, having something you can print out and pin up next to your desk can be a lifesaver (or plot-saver!). Grab my quick and easy Character Arc Worksheet here:
If you want to dive right into the theorycrafting and learn all-the-things, K.M. Weiland has a massively comprehensive book called Creating Character Arcs. I highly recommend it for writers who love to deep-dive into the technical parts of storytelling. There's also a companion workbook that walks you through every step of the character-arc design phase.
BUT! That book can feel overwhelming, and some writers find it too technical. So if you're not ready for the motherlode of information or if your brain works in less structured ways, check out this workshop that will map out your story's character arc in a single afternoon.
In this 2.5-hour live session, I teach a technique called The Story Snapshot Method and use examples from the movie The Proposal to illustrate each phase of the story's main character arc. I also give you a focused downloadable workbook that walks you step by step through each character arc decision. And I do hot seats to work one-on-one with a few brave writers to tweak their Story Snapshot so you can learn from watching.
Join one of my Story Snapshot webinars or schedule a workshop for your entire writing group here:
Questions or comments?
Leave me a comment and let's chat! I'd love to hear which parts of this article made the most sense and which bits are still confusing. Does your WIP have a strong character arc that guides the hero through all 5 stages?