What Exactly is a Character Arc?

We've all heard the loose definitions, "It's how the character changes during your story." Or, "It's what happens to your character to change him." Your character should travel an arc, which redefines his or her understanding of life. But, can we be more specific? We've found and isolated two specific kinds of character arc.

Change in Behavior
Usually when we talk about "character arc," we're referring to the movement a character makes from unhealthy behavior in the way they live life, to realizing they're making a mistake, to changing views and behavior. Let's see if we can create an example of this type of arc.

  • Bob has a goal. (He's looking for love.)
  • A character flaw or bad attitude keeps him from attaining the goal. (He can't open up to women.)
  • He doesn't see this as a problem, assuming his failure with women is because of other reasons. (He has no money.)
  • Either another character or the story circumstances show Bob the err of his ways. (He goes out with his dry cleaner and she points out his problem.)
  • Someone he cares about confirms it. (His sister says the woman's right.)
    Bob forces himself to change his behavior and it's a disaster. (He tries to open up to the woman but tells way too much.)
  • He realizes the reason behind the character flaw. (He's afraid of being hurt.)
  • Bob saves the relationship with the woman just in the nick of time by confessing his deepest secret.
  • This change allows him to solve the problem or complete the story goal. (Bob finds love.)

This is still fairly simplistic, but gives you an idea of what a character arc should do. There's another form of character arc where we don't see a change in behavior. The story goal remains the same, but the reason for completing it changes.

Change in Motivation
The classic example of this is Luke Skywalker. He begins his journey by joining the rebel fight against the Federation for revenge -- they killed his aunt and uncle. By the end, his motivation has changed. He's now part of the more universal fight of good vs. evil. He's also trying to impress the Princess, but mostly, he's joined the rebels in heart and action. His actions are the same, but his motivations have become noble. Let's see how this would outline:

  • Luke starts off a farm kid with farm-kid ideas about what's out there.
  • His aunt and uncle are murdered, inspiring him to join the rebel fight.
  • Obi warns him against revenge as a motivation.
  • He rescues the Princess, gaining confidence and a love interest.
  • Through the Princess, he comes to understand the larger battle.
  • He joins the fight to destroy the Death Star and uses his inner strength to do it.

The bottom line with character arc is that some established characteristic in a person changes. By the way, this is not always for the better. In a villain's world, he may become more desperate and dangerous. He slips down the slope towards a less healthy position. But, in the hero's world, she becomes a better person in the process with a new and improved view of the world.