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Character Arcs

Banes at 12:00AM, March 17, 2016

A character starts in one state of being, and ends in a very different state of being.

The Character Arc in a nutshell!

Every time the subject of character arcs comes up around the site or on the Quackcast, one of the first examples that comes to my mind is the main character's arc in District 9. This is a standard character arc that takes a character from one extreme to another. It's powerfully done in District 9; that movie even shows an earlier clip of Wikus that shows us how much he's changed since the beginning of the story.

Avoiding spoilers, he's completely changed. For better, or for worse…well, the movie's worth a look if you want to decide that.


The classic arc would take a character from one state to a BETTER state. The naive character becomes mature and experienced; the timid character becomes courageous; the cynical character's heart grows three sizes.

So we have movies like Groundhog Day, Scream, Star Wars, and, well, probably the majority of movies/stories.

This does not spell CLICHE; it's the kind of arc that people respond to emotionally! It inspires us and makes us think we can do better in our own lives.

This can often run counter to the plot events or outer reality of the story, of course. The character's circumstances may seem the same or even worse than when they started. But they've become a better person in some way.

Non-Arc Arc

Sometimes there isn't an arc. The main character ends up pretty much the same as when they started. Perhaps it's the characters around them who change (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Or the story they've undergone is the most important/interesting one of their lives, which made it a story worth telling in spite of little change in the person (Chinatown, many horror stories). Or maybe it's the plot that matters, or the change is just subtle (Big Trouble in Little China, Bond, Indiana Jones).

The Downer

The opposite of the classic “improvement” arc is the downward arc, where the character ends up worse off than when they started. Did Walter White become “better” in some sense, by accepting who he really was in the end? Maybe, but I'd say his journey was kind of a downward spiral by most measures. An amazing, compelling, fantastic downward spiral!

Do you think about character arcs in your own work? Is including the “non-arc” series of examples an indicator that character arcs are not essential? And hey, what about arcs in sequels, or in series?

“Arcs in a series” might be something to discuss next week…



Ozoneocean at 9:28PM, March 17, 2016

When I read this I thought I couldn't really take part in the discussion since I don't think about arcs too much... but then I realised that the entire plot of the first real Pinky TA story was Pinky's arc and how her experiences change her, testing her idealism and loyalty.

Peipei at 6:28PM, March 17, 2016

Excellent article! I definitely do enjoy the classic character arc, where the character grows and develops in to a bigger, better person than when they first began. But I can appreciate a story where the character is already pretty grounded and therefore doesn't require much growth throughout the story. I find that the latter is pretty common with a lot of classic superhero comics. Deadfingers contains a mix of the classic and the downer arc. The main character Orn does develope for the better overall but has the occasional setback that may cause her to spiral down for a period of time.

maskdt at 5:11PM, March 17, 2016

Finally, an article about character arcs that acknowledges that characters DON'T absolutely need one for the story to be good! The very idea that every story has to follow any sort of guideline has really started to grate on me. Not every narrative needs to include character arcs in the vein of the Hero's Journey, or a three-act structure, or even a single defining plot. Sometimes snapshots into a character's life is interesting enough, or maybe the story is about a single interesting event. Sometimes your characters reveal their depth instead of growing, or maybe they work well as archetypes. As for Undead 20XX, I have some arcs in mind, but I'm more than happy to let my characters grow or settle however they wish as long they remain interesting and it feels natural. I'm in this one for the long haul, so it doesn't make much sense to me to have any one character's entire arc planned out. Once their arc is done, what would I do with them?

usedbooks at 1:51PM, March 17, 2016

Any mention of character development brings to mind James Norrington in The Pirates of the Caribbean. The writing and evolution of the character was a favorite part of that movie for me -- and the failed handling of him (and all the other characters) is why I loathed the sequels and eventually gave up on the series.

usedbooks at 1:48PM, March 17, 2016

My comic is character-driven. To be honest, I categorize each ongoing arc by the characters involved. On an individual level, nearly everyone changes. Sometimes, it's only the readers' and other characters' perceptions that change as a character's nature or history is revealed. Some of my characters are basically an end-point to a character evolution. Some are changed by forces beyond themselves and spend the story rediscovering their former natures, becoming their "true selves" again. Other characters are in what you call the non-arc. The characters are tested, things happen that could force a change, but they manage to stay true to their personal philosophies.

cdmalcolm1 at 8:09AM, March 17, 2016

Mary Poppins Is good example where she herself does Not arc but makes everyone around her arcs in their personal lives and towards each other. I'll be honest with you all. I never gave it much thought in my own stories I've developed. Now that you brought it up, my arcs towards one of my main and many others I developed are given to them by gods or was born into a great state of being. The arc becomes sort of like "how does one control this new version of me? " I always for some reason or another place a guardian to course them into the right direction to reach their maximum potential for the better good or evil. So I guess I take after Mary Poppins syndrome in my stories. Even SolarCell is going to go through this as the story goes. Nice article Banes.

PaulEberhardt at 6:49AM, March 17, 2016

Sounds like a classic "Bildungsroman" plot to me - it might be just another name for character arc, except that they make it their main focus. Character arcs are something of a must-have in a story comic, but can you really do that in a comic (e.g. mine) that use a floating timeline ( where everything always stays more or less the same on purpose? To be honest, I haven't really made up my mind about it yet. For instance, the Simpsons seem to have tried but ended up just making additions to the characters that don't actually change anything (like Lisa having become a vegetarian). Still I think it could be possible within tight limitations. There's got to be some example around, too, only I can't think of any right now.

KimLuster at 4:18AM, March 17, 2016

Great stuff again! I tend to like stories where a character changes and grows, esp. in an epic sort of way! Not always for the better (better meaning comfort and happiness) but more complete, more whole! The classic arc - the Hero's Journey!'s_journey.htm

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