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What the heck is a character arc? Here are the 5 stages every story needs. 

 July 17, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

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 storylike a romancethe 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.

Bonus download

Don't miss your free Build-A-Character-Arc Worksheet! You can download it at the end of this article.

What is a character arc: 1 what is it

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. 

What is a character arc: The transformation of 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).

Character Transformation: silhouette of a boy on a mountaintop

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.

What is a character arc: 2 story length

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. 

road with story and character arc boundaries

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.   

road with story and character arc boundaries

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.

What is a character arc: 3 designing them

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:

  1. 1
    Unaware of fear/need (mired in fear)
  2. 2
    Aware of fear/need (but resistant to change)
  3. 3
    Considering change
  4. 4
    Committed to change
  5. 5

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 is a character arc: 4 different from character development

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.)

Else, you'll be guessing at your character's needs, fears, and motivations, and readers will spot the emotional gaps

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.

What is a character arc: 5 visualize the 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.

clean workspace with workbook cover - Story Snapshot Method

The on-demand version of the Story Snapshot Masterclass workshop gives you replayable access to the full workshop recording from a live event. In it, I 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 you get to watch a hot seat consultation where I work one-on-one with an author to tweak and improve their Story Snapshot from the session. It's a great way to learn by watching me troubleshoot someone else's story. 

In the 2-day live version of the workshop, I walk you through the full The Story Snapshot Method and give you hands-on help. 

Workbook and course: The Story Snapshot Method by Sue Brown-Moore

Join my on-demand course version of the Story Snapshot workshop or schedule a workshop for your entire writing group here:

What is a character arc: 6 comment

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?

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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