character arc 1: What is it?

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I haven’t done a craft of writing post in ages so I was really pleased when a writer who was on one of my courses some time ago wrote to me, asking if I’d talk about character arc on my blog.

As I’m in the planning stages of my next book, character arc is something I’m thinking about a lot right now. So I’m going to try to break it down a little bit, and talk about how I’ve been using it lately.

What is character arc?

It’s also known as “emotional journey”, or you could think of it as the resolution of the inner conflict of the character. Put most simply, it’s the way that a character grows and changes from the beginning to the end of the book. So if we look at a simple story, such as Cinderella, the heroine starts off as a victim, helpless and lowly, and by the end of the story, she’s gained confidence and learned about her true identity.

Character arc is different from plot, though they reflect each other closely; the plot usually is instrumental in helping the character go through her arc. So Cinderella has her fairy godmother, and the ball and the prince (the things that happen to her, ie the plot)—all of these things help her to grow and to change (ie the character arc).

Some books or stories don’t have a noticeable character arc. For example, Tom and Jerry, the cartoons, don’t have character arcs. They might learn something every now and then, but by the next cartoon, they’re always trying to beat each other up again. On the other hand, some writers weave in very subtle character arcs; Sherlock Holmes doesn’t change much from one story to another, but he does learn a few things about respect for others as the stories go on, and becomes more humanised.

Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last.

Who has a character arc?

Always your heroine, in women’s commercial fiction. If you’re writing a romance, generally your hero will have his own character arc, too. Secondary characters might, or might not, depending on the type of book you’re writing, and the type of character they are. And how much of a character arc you’ve got for each character—that is, how much they change—depends on your vision of the book.

In my shorter Mills & Boon novels, I usually had two main character arcs for the heroine, the hero. I might throw in some mini-arcs for secondary characters, probably two maximum per book. The other secondaries tended not to change that much over the course of the story. For example, my first book, Featured Attraction, had major character arcs for Jack and Kitty, the hero and heroine. Nobody else really changed very much. But I was interested in Jack’s best friend, Oz, and Kitty’s brother, Nick, so I wrote separate books about them, giving them their own arcs.

As I’ve written more books, I’ve become more confident in weaving secondary arcs into the story. So my later M&B books had two or three secondary character arcs, and my Little Black Dress books have several.

For example, in Girl from Mars, I felt that the heroine was the most important person in the book. So her character arc is by far the greatest—she changes the most. But I had arcs, too, for the hero, and for her three best friends, and also smaller ones for her parents and for the fictional cartoon character Girl from Mars.

Usually these secondary arcs are related to the main characters’ arcs in some way. And adding more, related arcs to the story is one way to make a simple plot into a “bigger” book, not just in word count, but in depth—because the secondary characters’ arcs look at the main character’s arc from a different perspective, or in a different way.

I’ve got to go out now, but I’ll continue this tomorrow, by talking about how I design a character arc. Questions and comments are very very welcome!

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  1. Oooh Julie thank whoever asked you to discuss this… I can’t wait to hear more!


  2. Thanks for this, Julie–it’s one of the things I find difficult to define or articulate, and so I’m never entirely sure if I’m doing it right!


  3. I just think the “Girl from Mars” having her own character arc is so cool.


  4. Great topic. I really, really hate reading about characters who don’t progress. I can think of a few series books that fall into this trap. Plot is great, and I think it’s absolutely necessary, but at the same time, it rings false to read about a character who has all this plot stuff being done to her, and not grow or change as a result of it. It doesn’t have to be a huge change, like never making another mistake ever again, but if the heroine gets sick every time she eats pizza, yet keeps going back for more, it’s only a matter of time before I start questioning her intelligence…as well as the author’s.


  5. Hey, Rachael and Kate, no problem. I love talking about craft and I haven’t done it on the blog for a very long time. I don’t want to be going on about something everyone already knows, but I guess everyone has a different approach, so maybe it’s helpful or interesting.

    Anyway, character arc is one of these things that a lot of people do instinctively, I think. Though it can be useful to look at if you’re having problems with a story.

    Please do jump in and correct me if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, or if you see or do it a different way.


  6. Jan, writing the comic-book Girl from Mars’s character arc was the most fun thing about writing the book!


  7. Ehle, I’m with you in generally wanting the characters to progress in some way. They don’t need to solve all their problems, but I like movement in a story. Tragic movement, if it needs to be; people can go backwards as well as forwards.

    Though it doesn’t have to be permanent; I’m thinking something like The Simpsons where in every episode, Homer or Bart or someone learns an important life-lesson which they have totally forgotten by the next episode. Nothin’ wrong with that.


  8. Great post Julie! I’m looking forward to your next 🙂


  9. I agree with you that moving backwards can be as beneficial to a character as moving forwards. In fact, it’s kind of an essential part of the “black moment”. Like when Cinderella, after she’s danced with the prince, has lost her glass slipper and gone home to her old life of being a servant. The only time this rubs me the wrong way is when the character (and author by proxy) refuse to acknowledge this as a bad move. You can’t show me a castle and a prince, and then let on like living with a drunken, pot-bellied are in a shack somewhere is totally cool, too, because now you don’t have to clean floors ’cause you don’t have one. And that prince? Yeah, he was a nice guy, but not a very realistic in terms of life goals. Talk about irritating.

    I see your point about TV, too, and in a way, I agree with you. But I think in series fiction, it does have to carry over. It doesn’t have to carry over in its exact form, but it can’t be swept under the rug, if you will. For example, starting a diet at the end of one book, and having fallen of the wagon by the start of the second one is OK; starting a diet at the end of book one and then pretending book 1 never happened is not. If it never happened, why the hell did I buy it/read it? Series fiction, whether it’s focused on one character or group of characters (like Harry Potter), or on a handful of individuals who are connected somehow (like… any of Nora Roberts’ trilogies), is one story in and of itself. You can’t just write part of it off ’cause “I’m the author and I said so!” You have a kid; you know it never works that way!

    I also think comparing TV shows to books is a double-edged sword. There’s a lot books can learn from TV when it comes to plotting and dialogue. If you’re writing a series, TV is a good example of how to build arcs and sustain tension over a period of time. That said, it’s the differences between the two mediums that make certain characters and their behaviors succeed on TV and fail in books.

    Time, I think, is the biggest difference between the two. In the US (I know it’s different elsewhere), TV programs are usually 30-60 minutes long. They air 22 episodes per season on average. Books, on the other hand, come out four times a year, at best, and at worst, once every 2-3 years. And they take about 2-4 hours to read. So while I’m willing to wait 22 weeks for a TV character to show progression, I’m not at all willing to wait 10 years for a book character to show that same progression, even in the same number of installments.

    Cartoons and sitcoms are different, too, because (a) they’re very, very short, and (b) while I like to watch them, I don’t necessarily want to read them. And I wonder if the lack of character progression would be a factor if Tom & Jerry and The Simpsons were books and not TV shows. I think the new would wear off them very quickly if I had to put forth any effort and/or pay-per-installment like I do a book.


  10. Agh, I wrote two long comments and the @£$&ing machine ate them.

    Will come back later.


  11. Moving backwards is totally necessary, Ehle. In commercial fiction, the protagonist will always end up forwards, but if there’s no struggle, there’s no point. In literary fiction, the movement can be more backwards and can end in tragedy. So I guess you can have positive character arc or negative character arc (though I’m not sure if these are the correct terms).


  12. Yeah, I agree that TV has different expectations and rules, especially cartoons and sit-coms—or soap operas, where the character arc is never-ending and can change abruptly without logic.

    I was mostly using T&J and The Simpsons as easy examples. But they were lazy ones. You’re right, the same rules don’t apply.

    I would get annoyed, too, if I expected a continuity of character arc that seemed to be ignored. That would make me give up on a series.

    I’ve recently read the first two parts of two trilogies where it’s the character arc that pulls me through. The best is The Hunger Games trilogy (book 3 not out yet) by Suzanne Collins, which could totally act as a lesson on HOW TO CREATE CHARACTER ARC. It’s astounding—not least because the plot is also kick-ass. But always, in my opinion, serving the character arc.

    I’m also enjoying Steig Larsson’s crime trilogy, though I haven’t read the last book, The Girl Who Kicked The Wasp’s Nest, yet. In these, I’m not actually that blown away by the plots, nor the main male character, but I really like the main female lead and I’ll read the third book just to see how her arc turns out.


  13. But. I do think there are some exceptions to the need-a-character-arc rule. Some books you just don’t read for the character arc, or you read because of the difference of continuity. For example, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and there isn’t a lot of character arc over the 60 stories. Holmes stays, essentially, the same, which is cool, because he’s just great as he is, and dude, I don’t want him to settle down and have kids or succumb to an unhappy love affair or become a warm fuzzy philanthropist. I want him to shoot his living room walls and act bizarre and superior and solve the damn mystery way before I do. However, in the later stories, he does mellow, and every now and then you get a glimpse of him learning something about emotions, particularly friendship. Those moments are just wonderful. But not the primary reason for reading the stories.

    Another one I was thinking about was the franchise stories, like Batman. Within set parameters of backstory and world, every author/artist gives Batman a different character arc, so that Tim Burton’s Batman is pretty different from Frank Miller’s. I like this potential for endless riffs on a theme.


  14. One of my favorites when it comes to literary fiction is The Virgin Suicides, and I think it encompasses most of what you’ve said about character arcs sometimes ending in tragedy. Through the eyes of the narrator, a local boy, you get to see a firsthand account of how these girls devolved after the death of their sister. But what’s more, you get to see how their deaths affected not only the narrator, but also the girls’ parents, their peers, even their town. There wasn’t a character in that book left unchanged by the events that unfolded; everyone had their own arc.

    I don’t think The Simpsons and Tom & Jerry are bad examples at all. Just that sometimes the time and emotional energy spent watching TV vs. reading a book are vastly different, which tips the scales, depending on what it is you’re looking for in both.

    I like what you said about franchises, but even then, it’s more of an interpretation of character arc that varies, and not the arc, itself. No matter which Batman you favor, Bruce Wayne is still an orphan protecting his father’s house, which is in this case the entirety of Gotham City. He’s still a guy who has every reason to not do what he’s doing, yet does it anyway. HIs motivations for doing so may be deeper and more complex, depending on the storyteller, but the arc itself hasn’t changed all that much over the years. (I love Batman, can you tell?)

    I have a theory that different people are wired to accept story in different ways. Some people enjoy the characters, others the plot, and then others who are all about action. And this is a good example of where TV is comparable. There are shows, like CSI:Whatever-you-like, that are focused on action, but not so much the characters. And there are shows like Coupling, which are all about the characters, with little emphasis on the plot. But where TV and books differ is that books often have to strike a balance between the three, whereas TV can get away with just one or two.

    I’m loving this thread, by the way. It reminds me of an essay I read years ago but can’t find on the internet. In this essay, which was a fan essay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think, it talks about the core of a character. How characters can grow and change and evolve, but at their core, they are who they are, and messing with that core is like messing with a house’s foundation. You can add as many walls as you like, change up the rooms however you want, but if you mess with the foundation, everything you’ve built up will fall. I think sometimes authors, in an effort to create a character arc, fall into that trap – they change the character to fit a particular circumstance, when it should be the other way around.


  15. Ohhh! Great blog. I’ve just had a “kerching” moment on character arc’s. Thanks ever so much. Caroline x


  16. I don’t know, Ehle. I’m not sure Batman’s character arc is always the same. It starts out the same, but it goes pretty wildly different places. Tortured to the brink of insanity, and possibly beyond (Arkham Asylum)? Right-wing military genius (Dark Knight Returns)? Camp dude in tights (60s TV show)?

    He does stay recognisably Batman, though, so it’s an interesting example of how “core” character can stay the same when arcs really do vary. I guess in all of them, he’s struggling to reconcile being a “hero” with being dark and violent, so maybe the outcomes are structurally the same, if different in their particulars.


  17. Caroline, hooray! I’m so glad I gave you a ker-ching! 🙂


  18. […] huge number of articles online about to create character arc, including excellent notes from my pal Julie Cohen, but for me, some of my light bulb moments have come from studying screenwriting, where character […]


  19. […] extra ammunition my pal Julie Cohen who writes contemporary romance, has two great posts on Story Craft over on her blog this week. […]


  20. […] huge number of articles online about to create character arc, including excellent notes from my pal Julie Cohen, but for me, some of my light bulb moments have come from studying screenwriting, where character […]


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