Seven Strategies for Strong Character Arcs
by Jason Black
If you haven't heard by now the
advice to work some sort of character arc into your novel,
chances are you haven't been listening. A character arc is no
great mystery. It is nothing more than the process by which a
character becomes a better person. You get to decide what
"better" means in the context of your book, and how the process
of achieving it plays out within your plot.
Readers love character arcs because
when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of
personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the book
meant something. We are left with the sense that the story held
value above and beyond whatever the plot held at stake. Writers
love them, too, because the resolution of the character arc—the
moment when the character finally achieves the growth he or she
has been striving toward—can also serve as the lynchpin of the
So what might you do for your
character arcs? Here are seven character arc strategies that
work very well across a wide variety of storylines and genres.
Get active. Start with a
character who is a passive lump, a slacker-type who floats
through an unfocused, undirected life. Then give the character
direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Give him a meaningful
goal to pursue, a purpose to his life. Hit the character with
some kind of life event which leaves him with a strong reason to
get out of bed in the morning. For example, he may witness an
accident while walking down the street but lack the skills to be
of any useful assistance. That feeling of powerlessness could
drive him to become an EMT.
Get assertive. Start with a
character who is a pushover, and let her start taking charge of
her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by
all means, taking actions. I see too many manuscripts with
characters who don't even try to affect situations that clearly
impact them. Show us a character who becomes fed up with life
pushing her around, then show her pushing back.
Shake up the routine.
Routines can be comforting, but they can also be confining.
Start with a character who rankles against the limitations of
his routine, and let him break out of it. Show him trying new
things, embracing the world, and making mistakes. Let him
travel, meet new friends, get his heart broken. This can be a
great lead-in to any of the other arcs, too, because new
experiences force a person to learn things about themselves.
Shaking up the routine can be how the character discovers he has
something about himself with which he's not too happy.
Expand her mind. Let the
character learn something. Show her finding a new interest,
pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back
to school? Or perhaps stay in her garage to experiment,
inventing something? Who knows, but if her chosen interest turns
out to have some bearing on the rest of the storyline—especially
if it's something that will be useful in the book's
Lose the ego. Start with a
very self-centered character, then do something that starts him
thinking about other people for a change. For example, maybe a
high-powered executive gets arrested on some misdemeanor charge
and is ordered to perform
a thousand hours of community service at
a soup kitchen. This can be a very effective strategy for stories
that involve the haves getting involved in the lives of the
have-nots. It also works quite well for arcs in which the character
comes to learn empathy, respect for others, and similar
Remove the blinders. Start with a
character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up.
Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own
assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed
she was right when she wasn’t, landing her in embarrassing
situations. From that, let her learn a lesson in humility: after
all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget
to let her new self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or
lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are
Refocus on the basics. One
well-worn technique—well-worn because it's so effective –is to show
a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a
slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. Show us a guy who is
overweight, who drinks and smokes, whose apartment hasn't been
vacuumed since his wife walked out on him. Outwardly, he is ignoring
his responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Whatever specific arc you've put the character on, you can reflect
his progress along that arc by showing him taking a newfound
interest in his physical needs. Let him start eating right,
exercising, and occasionally even ironing his laundry.
Each of these strategies involves
meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life: in attitude,
behavior, outlook, beliefs, or priorities. These are all substantive
inner changes that affect a character’s personality. They are more
than a mere costume change. Character arcs are deep changes which
then affect the surface levels of a character’s actions.
Just remember, it is not enough to
include a character arc for its own sake, simply because your
critique group calls your characters one-dimensional. The wise
novelist, in search of a character arc, examines the storyline for
situations that would be exacerbated by some kind of flaw in the
character's personality and chooses to blight the character with
that very flaw. In this way, the novelist adds an extra dimension
to both the character and the novel's conflict, because the
character has now been put in opposition to herself along with
whatever other forces are opposing her in the storyline.
A well-planned character arc adds
another layer to every aspect of the story. And that is why the
advice to use character arcs is so common.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at