Character Arcs Rise and Fall

Character Arcs Rise and FallPart of the editing process is considering how character arcs rise and fall in the course of the novel. Movement, growth and change are key.

There’s sage advice aplenty from the writing community; Masterclass  gives you the highlights, KM Weiland has written the book on it. Thing is, how do you apply it?

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, undoing their mistakes and seizing that which they wanted all along. Pip in Great Expectations grows from child to man through acquired wisdom. You can argue how much is down to Pip himself, as 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 satsifying 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 the cinematic outings of Daniel Craig’s Bond desperately tried to shoehorn melodramatic family traumas to bring the sociopath secret agent back in touch with the rest of us.

Application

The theory is fine. We can all recognise a character arc; low to high, high to low, 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.

7 thoughts on “Character Arcs Rise and Fall”

  1. Ah! I’d been wondering just what occasion that video was from, and which troupe was performing! Thanks so much! Mystery solved!

    Though, isn’t it the 350th anniversary of the fire? The Meireki Fire destroyed Edo in 1657; I’m not sure of any famous fire in 1757, but I could simply be unaware..

  2. Hello, Robin!
    It`s a good fortune to find your post! I`m looking for this song in a good sound quality. Could you, please, give me some advice where to find it or some links to it. Thank you very-very much.
    Yulia from Russia

    1. Yulia: I have only found this on an old YouTube video so far, in a couple of versions (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1A9rYIVHyM, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASsyGWa3TPE&feature=related) although a better recording must exist since the BBC broadcast it on the Radcliffe and MacConie show about four years ago. Anyone with a decent audio editor could take the sound off the YouTube copy and get something playable, although it’s not the greatest and I wouldn’t like to answer on copyright issues!
      Thanks. RC

  3. Thanks! Good news about BBC. Look, what I`ve found http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006wr8d/episodes
    Unfortunately there are not the records themselves, but may be if we find the date of that one, it will be easier to find the programme.. Don`t worry about copyright, I need it for my student work as a sound director at VGIK, so no copyright exists for student work, but the quality of youtube`s sound is awful, I can`t use it.
    May be do you remember at least approximately in what programme it might be?
    Thank you, Yulia.

    1. Yulia,
      I believe the broadcast was 2008 I could be wrong. I am unable to find any better audio of the track over the public Internet as all the entries seem to point back to those two YouTube clips. Good hunting. RC

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