Character Arc — Is It Necessary?

Character arc — or how your character changes throughout the course of your story — is critical to developing compelling fiction. Believe it or not, I have read manuscripts where the writer seemed to ignore character arc completely and came up with an almost entirely static character.

character arc, character development, passive character, static character, active character
Are your characters changing with the events in your story, or are they a static character despite what you throw at them?

Your Character Arc Should Be a Journey

This is a huge question, with an easy answer. First, consider this quote:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee.

Without any kind of change or narrative arc, you have a passive character. They do not change, they do not learn, they do not care, and therefore, it is very difficult for the reader to care. However, your number one job as a writer is to make readers care.

More practically, you are asking readers to invest hours of their lives in your story. If your character arc goes from point A to … point A, readers may not necessarily feel like they’ve gone on a satisfying journey. Sure, there’s something in fiction called the “antihero,” who seems almost stubbornly against changing. Isn’t a passive character one of the evils of modern life, after all? But this type of characterization is a big risk, because antiheroes tend to come off as bored (and therefore boring) or too misanthropic to be truly relatable.

Character Arc in Children’s Books

The antihero tends to be more of an element in adult fiction, anyway. Since young people, young readers, and therefore young characters are living in such a dynamic period of their lives, they almost can’t help but change. Take this to heart.

A passive character might play in moody literary fiction or short story, but it’s a tough prospect in most children’s books. The obvious exception is nonfiction picture book, for example, where the character arc isn’t the main point of the story. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for putting some a dynamic protagonist on the page. Sorry! Dig deeper into¬†what makes a great character¬†here.

Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating characters that readers will connect with.

10 Replies to “Character Arc — Is It Necessary?”

  1. I mean growth emotionally. That is, does the change the character undergoes have to be a positive one that leads to greater understanding of some truth?

    1. Ah, see, maybe I wasn’t being clear in my post. For me, emotional growth is most often synonymous with change… so I really think we’ve spent the morning talking about the same thing using different words. =)

      But you do bring up a point that has many authors on either side of it: does the growth and emotional change of a character over the dramatic arc of a story have to be a positive one, or can it be a degeneration?

  2. I actually have to disagree with this. While I do think that most MC’s show some kind of growth in the emotional or spiritual sense, not all do. Probably the most notable is Holden Caulfield. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden doesn’t really experience any kind of change. In fact, he ends the book with the same kind of pessimism he began it with.

    And for a negative arc you can look to Frankenstein. Both Frankenstein and the monster “learn” a lesson but they both come to terrible ends and the lessons are lost. The lessons do not make them better people because they are either learned too late (as in the case of Frankenstein) or learned at too great an emotional cost (as in the case of the monster).

    All told though, especially in YA lit, a character progression probably should occur. I’d say as writers we should learn how to show a character changing before we attempt not to.

    1. There’s always a danger in saying something like “emphatic yes!” because people will think you mean in 127% of all cases, absolutely, positively forever and ever. But you’re right. There are characters like Holden who don’t appear to change much during the course of the story. Exceptions exist for every single thing I can think to say.

      The negative examples you mention are really interesting. There are definitely characters who end up worse off than they started. I’d even say that’s the case for Noelle in THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO TELL YOU. She’s semi-ok at the end but much lower than when she started out.

      A lot of the things I’ll talk about here, you must understand, come from reading, shall I say, not the most polished work. In fact, I think it’s the kind of writers who maybe haven’t broken through to the level they want to be and those who maybe don’t read as much as they want or maybe are stuck on a certain level of craft that I’m especially aiming for. Everyone has sticking points. A lot of the sticking points I see come from unpublished manuscripts that I read. So if it sounds like I’m making blanket statements or saying something obvious, take it with a grain of salt.

      As you so astutely put it in your comment, it’s probably best to try writing inside the box in terms of stuff like character development before attempting to bend the rules of character as we know them!

  3. You’re absolutely right and I totally get what you’re doing (I completely dig the blog by the way). I just wanted to present an example for the opposition. Writers, especially young writers, have a tendency to take everything they read to heart.

    When I was young and writing short stories, I remember reading a quote in a magazine or writing book or something that said NEVER EVER use contractions in your writing. So for the longest time I wrote stories without any contractions. It was kind of funny really.

    1. Oh no!

      I totally did that back when I was trying to write historical. I thought, in my fuzzy little newbie brain, that not using contractions automatically made something historical, right?

      Well, my agent took one look at the MS and was like… um, no. Let’s take these out.

      Now I know all the hard work that historical entails and I’ve learned I’m not particularly good at it. Onward to other genres, I say!

      Thanks for the kind words, by the way, and the lively commentary. =)

  4. Pingback: emotional growth

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