How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
Bestselling novels and memoirs have believable and memorable characters who carry the reader through the story. Think of your favorite books. Consider the main characters. They probably followed a compelling character arc, which encouraged you to follow them loyally and happily on their adventures.
What is a character arc?
A character arc is the journey the character follows through the story. This path usually parallels a traditional three-act structure. As you develop the first act, your reader is introduced to your main character. The stage is set, a conflict is established, and the character’s goals are revealed. Then the character encounters an incident that incites her to begin her journey. This catapults her into the second act, where she follows her personal call to action. Then in the third act, she encounters the climactic confrontation and has her triumphant victory.
There are four main kinds of character arcs used in literature:
Transformational and Positive arcs are somewhat similar. At the start of the story the character is in an unfavorable situation, but, by the end of the story he winds up in a far better position. Flat character arcs have no change. The character stays the same throughout the story. This type of arc is usually reserved for superhero-type protagonists, who have no need to change. They start out good and end up good. It’s worth noting that often minor characters don’t change much. In a negative arc the character ends up in a worse position than when he started.
As a ghostwriter, I specialize in transformational or positive character arcs because I feel strongly that these make for a better reading experience. Although stories like Breaking Bad, where the main character becomes a meth dealer to solve his problems, can be very popular with viewers, they aren’t my cup of tea. I prefer to stick with uplifting plot lines.
Positive character arcs
If your story has a happy ending, this is probably the character arc you’ll want to choose. A popular example of this would be Harry Potter. He starts his journey as an abused boy, confused by his special abilities. Along the way he blossoms into a confident hero of both the magical and muggle worlds. It’s worth noting that many of the other major characters go through their own arcs. For instance, by the end of the series, Hermione and Ron are quite different, because their personal stories are very different.
If you’re writing a memoir, you are the protagonist of your piece, and your experiences will determine your character arc. Most likely it will be a positive one, otherwise why would you write your book?
Over the last twenty years I’ve worked on seventeen memoirs. Each one told the story of my client’s fierce battle to overcome nearly impossible odds. The reason these books were successful was that the reader believed the characters’ journeys and could identify with the authors on some level.
One client shared his story of growing up in an impoverished community which lacked running water and electricity. He had a happy childhood, but there were many challenges and a lot of conflict. As he grew up, he overcame many obstacles. By the end of the book, he found his way to America and became a successful entrepreneur. The story is powerful, riveting, and relatable to many. Not surprisingly, this book is currently being made into a movie.
A few tips for a successful character arc
Tip #1: Conflict is key
Any story worth reading will start off with a bang (ie: it will throw the protagonist into a heap of trouble early on). Honestly, I always do my best to drop my readers into the deep end of the pool so that they have to tread water to keep up.
Now, in order to produce this kind of an effect on your reader, you need to create conflict throughout your book. Your main character needs to struggle and fight his way through whatever circumstance life throws at him. Sometimes this conflict can be quiet; perhaps it comes in the form of a disagreement. Or it can be splashy, like the beginning of a war or an invasion. A story without conflict will become a book that collects dust in a forgotten thrift store.
Tip #2: Develop strong characters
Your goal is to create a main character your reader will want to follow. This can be difficult if she isn’t well developed. You must introduce your main character to the reader early on and make her intriguing and captivating. Give her strong characteristics. Be clear and certain in your presentation of her attributes and personality.
I recommend that before you begin writing your first draft, you create bios for each of your major characters. Flesh out their back stories, work out their motivations, and make sure their behaviors are believable. Really understand who they are. Know them just as well as you know your real-life best friends. Once you have realistic three-dimensional characters, you can create compelling arcs for them to follow.
Tip #3: Show, don’t tell
Show, don’t tell is a popular phrase among writers. It means that you need to show elements of your story through action rather than through narrative. Keep this in mind as you create your lead character’s transformational arc.
For instance, how boring would it be if your protagonist announced out of the blue that he planned to turn over a new leaf and stop selling drugs. Where is the conflict and drama? Your character needs a reason to make a change. And you must show that to the reader.
Tip #4: Determine the correct character arc for your story
By choice I have never written a book with a negative or flat character arc. But that doesn’t mean that these are not viable options. You will determine the correct path for your character based on your story and the message you wish to impart.
For instance, if you’re writing a high-action adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones, it might not work to have your main character undergo too many changes. A flat arc could work. In addition, it’s possible to tell a powerful story with a positive message through a negative arc illustration. The Godfather comes to mind as a good example. Michael Corleone starts out as a good guy, but by the time the door closes at the end of the first movie, you can see that he’s undergone a transformation for the worse.
Not every character arc needs to see the protagonist through from complete failure to complete success or have a complete one hundred-eighty degree shift in viewpoint. Not every protagonist needs to be an Ebenezer Scrooge who turns from a miserly grump into a philanthropic benefactor by the end. No, the change might be a bit more subtle.
As you work on outlining your book and creating the protagonist for your novel, consider the arc he or she will follow. Choose one that works for the story and the message you wish to write. Create an engaging character and a compelling arc, keeping in mind that you want your readers to relate to and understand them. Using these tips, you will find your readers rooting for your main characters and happily and loyally following them on their adventures.