What is a Character Arc?

compelling character arc is the emotional journey your character takes throughout your story that engages your reader. A character arc can also be referred to the emotional arc of a character.

Why is a Compelling Character Arc Important?

A reader wants to experience emotion. If a character doesn’t experience emotion, then the reader won’t either. This is a simple concept to understand but a hard concept to implement in a story.

If a character experiences emotion, then the emotional journey can be shown from the beginning of a story to the end.

What’s the Starting Point?

A character arc starts the moment your character enters the story.

Scene-by-Scene Character Arcs

If you pay attention to the impact every scene has on a character, you’ll develop a compelling character arc.

Let’s look at what that means.

There will be a point of view (POV) character for every scene. This means the character whose eye’s the reader will experience the scene from. There will also be a protagonist in your story. The story is mostly about this character. A good way to test who is your protagonist is to write a blurb (back cover text) and see which character you write about.

Make a list of your key characters.

  1. All POV characters
  2. the protagonist

Now, at the end of every scene, ask yourself:

  1. What is the impact on the POV character?
  2. What is the impact on the protagonist (if different from the POV character)?

When answering, all you need to know is it positive, neutral or negative compared to the beginning of the scene.

Let’s look at an example of how to evaluate character arcs for important characters.

Did you notice I said important characters instead of main characters?

This is because any character who is the point or view character is important. They may not be a main character, but if you have chosen them for a point of view character, they are important.

Here’s an example from the Fictionary Story Map insight.  Whatever method you use, it’s important to not only keep track of the character arc, but also keep track of the related story elements.  To dig deeper into the Story Elements, check out our video series.

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Fictionary Story Map
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In the Story Map example, there are three point of view characters shown. Shannon, Jake, and The Boy.

  • Shannon is the protagonist.
  • Jake is the love interest.
  • The Boy is the antagonist.

Using the Story Map,  I see all three characters and the impact the scene had on each character. I like to select the scene name along with the Purpose, so I remember what the scene is about and why it’s in the story.

In the first three scenes, Shannon ends each scene in an emotional state that is negative to how she started the scene.

The first scene shows Shannon’s ordinary world, so I’ve marked the purpose of the scene as The Setup.

The second scene introduces a key character, so I’ve marked the purpose of that scene as Character Introduction.

And the third scene is the Inciting Incident.  The inciting incident is the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way. In this scene, Shannon’s is hurt enough that she is going to change her life.

At the beginning of the story, Shannon starts out in a positive emotional state. Scene 1 knocks that down a notch, scene 2 even further, and scene 3 is even harder on Shannon. The start of Shannon’s arc takes a big drop.

When Jake is introduced in scene 3, he receives a phone call that upsets him. He goes from a positive mental state to a negative mental state. In scene 4, Jake starts the scene unhappy, but moves to a positive frame of mind when he meets Shannon.

The Boy has the opposite emotional start in the story than Jake does. His first scene ends with him in a happy place. The start of the next scene, he’s happy but by the end his beloved father is dead. Most definitely not happy.

Neutral is Bad

To create a compelling character arc, it’s important write scenes where the emotional state changes. If the point of view character is happy at the beginning of a scene and in the same state of happiness as the end of the scene, what was the purpose of the scene? It may mean the goal was not strong enough to make it meaningful.  There are definitely issues.

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The Story Arc and Compelling Character Arcs

The protagonist’s emotional state must change dramatically in the key story arc scenes. The key scenes have a big impact on the story, so they must have a big impact on the protagonist.  The impact should be stronger than in the other scenes. And in the climax scene, it must be the strongest.

The inciting incident is the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way.

If the protagonist’s emotional state does not change in a dramatic way when their world changes in a dramatic way, then there is a problem. Perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong protagonist, or perhaps the inciting incident isn’t related to the plot. Whatever the reason, the scene needs to be rewritten.

Plot Point 1 is the point of no return. The character can’t back out of the central conflict. This is the moment when the setup of the story ends and Act I is over.

Let’s face it. If anyone one of us changes our lives and can’t return to our previous life, we are going to feel differently when that happens. Your protagonist must too.

The midpoint is when the protagonist changes from reactive to proactive.

Here again, the protagonist is going to change their behaviour, and the only was that happens is if their emotional state changes.

Plot Point 2 will be a low point for your protagonist. Her actions since the middle have caused disaster. At PP2, she becomes more determined to reach her goal.

Note the word disaster in the description. That pretty much tells you to go from a positive to a negative emotional state in this key scene.

You’ve built your story up to the climax with rising action, and now the climax scene (or scenes) will have the highest level of conflict, the greatest tension, or the most devastating emotional upheaval.

Depending on the type of story you’re writing, the protagonist either wins or loses. They achieve the main story goal or they don’t. And that must impact their emotional state. Let me repeat that. The climax scene MUST impact the protagonist’s emotional state.

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Story Structure

Too Many Negative Endings

For a compelling character arc, the scene can’t end with the protagonist in a negative emotional state compared to the beginning of the scene for too many scenes in a row. The reader will start to believe the protagonist will never reach their plot goal and what’s the point of reading the story. There has to be a hint that the protagonist can succeed.

Too Many Positive Endings

Too many scenes in a row where the protagonist’s emotional state is better at the end of the scene than at the beginning will bore the reader. If the character reaches every goal too easily, the story will lack tension.

Scene-by-Scene Character Arcs

There’s no way around it. To create a compelling character arc, you’ll evaluate every scene and keep track of whether the emotional state goes from positive to negative or negative to positive.Separator

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