Part of the editing process is considering how character arcs rise and fall in the course of the novel. Movement, growth and change are key.
You probably know what a character arc is; the way a character changes, develops and grows in the course of a story. These days we’re big on ‘personal growth.’ It can be the Ordinary Joe becoming a hero, or the hero’s tragic fall into villainy. Perhaps it’s the oppressed protagonist finding empowerment, or the vain, ignorant, selfish character coming to a state of wisdom, caring and sharing. These are all character arcs. We like to say this is the journey.
Type of Character Arcs
Typically character arcs break down like this:
The Heroic Arc. Exemplified by the Hero’s Journey, this is every apprentice-to-master story from Potter to Star Wars. It can even be an entire team, in the Sports Underdog mould of Pitch Perfect, Cool Runnings or the Mighty Ducks, although it’s usually the team captain or coach who gets the spotlight.
The Redemption Arc. Dickens knew how to do this; Ebenezer Scrooge is redeemed from greed to good in A Christmas Carol.
The Tragic arc. Shakespeare wrote this repeatedly; Macbeth, Coriolanus, Othello. All of them are dragged down from greatness to tragedy by some tragic flaw, triggered and amplified by some outside force.
The Transformational Arc. It’s every Zero-to-Hero story from Harry Potter to Spider Man. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. All of Jane Austen’s protagonists move from some state of powerlessness, ignorance or selfishness to become the heroines of their own stories.
You can boil this down further to a simple scale of Positive Arc and Negative Arc, with characters walking into or away from the light.
Examples of Character Arcs
Some character arcs are writ large in fiery letters across page and screen.
The Tragedy of Darth Vader sees Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side by personal loss and abuse, pushed along by Palpatine. Although this one is so badly done it’s more of a comedy.
Marvel’s Black Widow is constantly on a redemption arc that she can never quite complete. Held back by her own ability to forgive herself, it’s the core of her story from her first to last appearance. Contrast with Carol Danvers; although there’s a moment of empowerment that I quite like, the shallow arc of Captain Marvel puts the critics on Black Widow’s side. The nature of her struggle is that much more interesting. Without any superpowers at all.
We get more subtle but no less satisfying arcs from Austen and Dickens. Lizzy Bennett and Emma Woodhouse each come to an enlightened state. They undo their mistakes and seize that which they wanted all along. Pip in Great Expectations grows from child to man through acquired wisdom. Pip himself is not a proactive character, however. Stuff happens to him more than he goes into action.
Lines, Curves and Scales
Which neatly calls back to our Three Scales of Character. Part of the journey is seeing our characters move up or down those scales of Likability, Competence and Proactivity. Movement is Change, Change is an Arc. Up, down, parabolic, sine wave, we just want measurable change that we can cheer or boo, or both. But the change has to be satisfying by the end. It’s why Marvel’s Loki series worked(-ish) but Hawkeye didn’t – Clint Barton finished in pretty much the same place he started. It’s why the Elena character in the Black Widow prequel movie stole the show. She had so much more room for growth.
But what about characters who exist with Flat Arcs? Certain types of action heroes have flat arcs. From Sherlock Holmes to Superman, hyper-competence and thrilling plots cover that lack of any real development within or across serial adventures. In the books, James Bond hurtles along with his license to kill more or less untouched by events. This is why Daniel Craig’s Bond movies desperately tried to shoehorn in melodramatic family traumas. They bring the sociopath secret agent back in touch with the rest of us.
The theory is fine. We all recognise character arcs; ordinary to hero, hero to villain, villain to hero, apprentice to wise master. How do we apply it to fiction? This is what I’m finding out. Lessons learned coming soon.