As I mentioned earlier, I like analyzing things. One aspect of stories I enjoy picking apart is the character arc. I’ll ponder what a character’s unconscious or unconscious goal and path of growth is. I’ll look at how their actions and the actions of those around them contribute and/or detract from that arc. Then I’ll use their progress to predict their eventual fate. I’ve gotten quite good at guessing the actions and demises of fictional characters, although I’m not 100% reliable.
Anyone with an eye for detail can track these arcs in contemporary fiction and utilize them in their own work.
What are character arcs?
In a nutshell, a character’s arc is his/her path through the story, typically achieving some shift in characterization. Actions done by or to them affect the way the arc progresses. The characterization shift can be positive or negative. Also, the hinted transformation may go to completion or fail to finish.
A classic example – and one that envelops almost all stories – is the hero’s journey. Someone must leave the life s/he knows behind, mature, and succeed in the face of adversity. Challenges will befall him/her, but s/he will continue.
A more specific example is Tony Stark in Iron Man. His experiences make him shift from a narcissist to (occasional) altruist. A failed example might be a boy who’s constantly encouraged to step up and take a leading role, who instead allows others to order him around and dies for it. However, these ‘failures’ are usually foreshadowed earlier and may contribute to the success of other characters’ arcs. It all becomes a tangled web of interactions.
Working out a character’s arc isn’t hard. It just requires paying attention. I look at his/her mannerisms, what s/he says and doesn’t say, back story, how s/he reacts to certain things… I guessed Harry Potter would die (albeit only temporarily) by noting his history of self-sacrifice, lack of foresight/self-preservation, and various comments made about him throughout the series. His eventual fate has a certain poetic quality and displays a character shift toward maturity and clear-headedness (relatively speaking). In previous books, he charged into danger because he wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t care. Every time, he hoped to come out alive. It’s only fitting that in the last book he knowingly walks to his death, planning not to defend himself.
Why does this matter?
After gleefully dissecting arcs from a comic (and slightly less gleefully learning most of my favorite characters will die) I realized something depressing. I might spend hours working out arcs for other stories, but I have no clue what mine are. I couldn’t summarize my MCs’ arcs if I tried. My characters don’t follow a clear shift or line of development. That’s perfectly normal in real life, but in stories you ought to put some effort into it. My next project is to start painstakingly mapping out arcs – for my main characters at least. It’s going to be great.
Why include arcs?
Arcs are important because your characters ought to go somewhere. The story is a journey. At journey’s end they should have changed somehow. A clear arc gives readers something to invest in and root for. It gives them an idea of what to expect. (Contrarily, you can play with an expected or traditional arc. In Star Wars, everyone in-universe expects Annakin Skywalker to be the hero they need. Instead he falls to the dark side. Later, the key to his downfall – caring too much about his loved ones and family – prove an asset.)
Overall, arcs help shape the story as much as the plot does. People who don’t change are boring. Don’t be boring. Take a look at arcs in works around you, and start mapping!