What exactly is a Character arc?

C is for Character Arc

Several years ago, I attended what was called a master class for writers. A respected and successful author from a nearby community was the teacher. How better to learn – right?

I showed up with my trusty notebook ready to absorb all the writing tips I possibly could. I’m sure I stared at him with my stars in my eyes and a look on my face that said, ‘I want to be like you’.

He opened it up for questions at the end. And I asked about character arc. With my pencil posed to scribble down the magical answer, I waited for his answer.

He couldn’t give me one. Gasp! He was one of those authors that did everything naturally. #whateverIhatethosekindofpeople

So here are my thoughts on character arc:

It’s the growth of a character from a place of emotional instability and flaws – known as internal conflict – to a place of confidence and acceptance of those flaws.

Through his/her actions and paying the consequences – known as external conflict – the character’s beliefs are tested and he/she learns new truths and changes accordingly for an emotional and satisfying end.

Was there a concept when you were starting out that you didn’t quite understand?


44 Responses to What exactly is a Character arc?

  1. Sheri Larsen April 4, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    I love mapping out my character’s arc. I usually use three points: beginning, middle, and end. The in between grows gradually, flowing through the experience and scenes of the story.

  2. Terri Tffany April 4, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    This one! Not until a few years ago and I started to really study fiction. When I think back to some of my earlier attempts I cringe!

  3. Angela Felsted April 4, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    I love your A-Z posts. So informative. So to the point. Character Arc, it’s one thing I’m working on now in my present WIP.

  4. Jen Daiker April 4, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Sadly I had no idea what this was two weeks ago. Then someone explained it to me and now I’m seeing it everywhere! Luckily I was already making what I called the ‘character wall’ that worked the same way. So I just got the name wrong!

    Great C word! I am loving all the creative juices flowing in the air!

    • Laura April 4, 2011 at 11:45 am #

      Sadly, it took me a while to figure this out. And now applying it to my writing is a whole ‘nother story!

  5. Talei Loto April 4, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Hmm, I’m still working on it! Like my MC, it could be sometime… 😉 #becauseIkeepeditingtheARCkeepschangingsortof

  6. Jackee April 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    How interesting that he couldn’t give you a definition. :o) I think I would have been the same way. But only I don’t do it naturally, character development and internal conflict creation is something I struggle with.

    Thanks for sharing, Laura! Good luck with the A to Z project!

    • Laura April 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

      Talei – LoL That can be a problem too. When it keeps changing!

      Jackee – I was surprised to, but probably a lot of published writers – the naturals – do what they do naturally and can’t always explain it. That’s not me. I work for everything.

  7. Meredith April 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Oh how I hate those “It just comes to me and it’s perfect and I don’t understand it” people. And by hate them, I mean I’m totally jealous of them.

    For the longest time, I could not understand the difference between show and tell. I think it was one of those things that just took time to sink in.

  8. Kris Yankee April 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    This is something that we teach in our writers’ workshops. Some writers get it right away, while others have a bit more of a struggle. We explain it pretty much the same way you did. I completely understood it, but I think it’s because I’m such a visual person – I map out how the story is proceed (as well as how the characters are going to change) in a linear fashion. But I totally get how it can be very confusing. Great post!

  9. Creepy Query Girl April 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    pacing. My biggest concept was trying to figure out how to keep the reader on their toes and keep lagging parts out of my ms.

  10. Kelly Polark April 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    I was very much a newbie at the submission process. I submitted pbs directly to editors before they were ready.
    But I want to add that I am a lifelong learner. I always learn great tips about writing from blogs and conferences.

  11. Eileen Astels April 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Great description. I always look it as growth, just how the character develops and grows, just as we do in real life with every experience that comes our way, or that we run from.

    The Writer’s Voice is one that I’m still trying to understand. Some say you develop it, others say it’s just how you write. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if it has a connection with personal growth. Perhaps as you grow as a writer your voice gets stronger and thus your voice is more distinct as you mature as a writer. Just typing as thinking here. Sorry!

  12. Lydia K April 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    I’m shocked that he didn’t talk about it either!
    For me the hardest thing was show vs tell. You just don’t get it until you…get it, you know?

  13. Susan Sipal April 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    At the beginning of my writer’s journey, I didn’t understand most any concept. 🙂 Now, at least I get a few.

    But what surprised me the most was a situation somewhat similar to yours. Years ago I edited for a small press. I’d just finished reading this wonderful MG fantasy for a debut author and commented to him on his wonderful use of the Hero’s Journey. He had no idea what it was! So I charted for him point by point how he had used each step of that journey…by instinct.

    • Laura April 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

      Thanks everyone! And yes, certain writing concepts, you just don’t get – until you get it. When it finally sinks in.

  14. Joyce Shor Johnson April 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Character arc can be a tough one to get the hang of. I think it’s important to remember that nothing is ever set in stone, including this. As long as your character grows and changes.

    Even if you think you know where you want your character to end up, you may be surprised how they get you there.

  15. Lisa Green April 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    *snort* try EVERYTHING. I started writing by feel, which worked out pretty well considering it could have been an ABSOLUTE disaster. But from there I went forth and researched, soaking up whatever I could like a sponge. SO these strange terms like plot and character arc and so on became clearer. If I were starting out now, I’d just read your blog!!

  16. Abby Annis April 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    A concept I didn’t understand when I was first starting out? That would be a long list. 😉 I still feel like I’m fumbling around in the dark most of the time. Great post! 🙂

  17. Susan Kaye Quinn April 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    So much of what writers do is intuitive (I think) – even when we think we know what we’re doing. For me it’s a constant iterative process, between intuition and study and more intuition and more study.

    I think of character arc much as you describe it – but then in Emotional Structure Dunne described it as the healing of the character’s past injuries, where plot (external conflict) is used to force the character out of their place of comfort into a new place where they must grow or die.

    Similar…yet different.

    Still learning…

  18. Jenny Lundquist April 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I love this post. I can’t wait to see what ‘D’ stands for. When I first started out I had a hard time with internal monologue. My first novel (which has been condemned to molder away in a desk drawer) was third person POV and it came out pretty flat because I had very little internal monologue in it. Once I started writing journal entries from my character’s pov and interviewing them my writing improved.

    Great post, as usual!

  19. Patti April 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I was one of those people who thought it was just a natural thing, now I’m paying more attention to it and trying to develop it more before I start.

  20. Laura Josephsen April 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    It’s always so fascinating to see the arcs that my characters go through. There are those characters who start out with a happy, stable life and only when it’s torn to shreds do they have to struggle to really find their strength and only then do they find out insecure they really are in some things.

    Thank you for the post! 😀

  21. Hannah Kincade April 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    You would hate me then because i do mine naturally as well.

    I was having a problem with the show vs tell concept. Everyone was telling me not to do it but not one person would give an example. Finally, win the brilliance of Justine Dell, Lola Sharp and Summer Frey, I understand completely now. I sometimes have to be SHOWN things before I can really get it. Great post!

  22. shelley April 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    I won’t say that I am one of those natural writers…but I don’t really think too much about this until I am done. I try to tell the story, to let it unfold as it needs to, and then I look back and see about character arcs and plot holes and such..


  23. Benoit Lelievre April 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I took a lot of time to understand the concept of character arc, and as of today, I still think it’s extremely rigid. I don’t think a “complete” character arc is required in order to complete a story. It’s pre-Joycian thinking in its most classic form right there.

    Not all the questions are asked to be answered. Characters are sometimes livelier if incomplete.

  24. MG Higgins April 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    What a perfect, succinct description of character arc! I’m going to print this and save it. When I started out, one of my favorite comments from crit partners was disembodied body parts. Heh. It still cracks me up.

  25. Laura Marcella April 4, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I’m sure there were things I wasn’t sure about in the beginning but I can’t remember them now. I’ve read so many fantastic books on plot and character development and applied it to my writing. I’m still learning new things all the time though!

    • Laura April 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

      Thanks everyone for the awesome comments. And no, I promise, I won’t really hate if you character arc comes naturally to you! And sometimes it’s okay if everything isn’t answered. I agree with Benoit. I just like it when some of the important ones are answered. 🙂

  26. Shelli April 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    I just finished reading “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks, and although he’s one of those guys who loves to hear himself speak (on paper), embedded in all that is some excellent information. His chapters on Character were awesome. He describes character arc as “It begins with the introduction of inner demons, and it concludes with showing how those inner demons have been conquered.” I thought it was very helpful. Now if I can just put it into practice!

  27. Jennifer Hoffine April 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    Since you’re not naming names, was the author someone who did character arcs naturally or didn’t do them at all? It seems like there can be little or at least less of a character arc in adult fiction compared to YA.

  28. Elle Strauss April 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Terrific definition of character arc–thanks!

  29. Ansha Kotyk April 4, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    Laura, can I borrow your brain just for an hour or so… say during my writing time?

  30. Leigh Moore April 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    Hey, that’s a great definition. And an even better hashtag! LOL!!! 😀

    I don’t know if I didn’t really understand it, but I do know that I wasn’t very good at it, and that’s Pacing. I tend to underwrite and rush. I’m working on it, though~

    Thanks, Laura! <3

  31. Kat Harris April 4, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    There were a ton of concepts that were completely new to me when I began my journey as a writer. It’s amazing how much I thought I knew but didn’t when I started seriously pursuing my goals as a fiction writer.

  32. Sherrie Petersen April 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    Character arc is one that I struggled with for a long time. One of the things I learned early on was not to use “filter words.” Obviously, it was one I had difficulty with or nobody would have pointed it out to me!

  33. Kris April 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    Character Arc. Hmm. I’m still trying to get that one right.

    I think my biggest “aha” was the old “show vs. tell” concept. When I was first starting out someone said it to me and I was like, “oh yeah!”

    I love the learning curve! And you learn so much from peers!

  34. Lynn April 4, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    I’m also still trying to wrap my mind around character arc. I like to think of it as putting my character in a situation that causes internal struggle, then forced to make a choice that causes change for either the better or the worse. I still have lots of learning to do!

  35. Sophia Chang April 5, 2011 at 12:18 am #

    Holy cow that is concise. Ever thought about a writing a non-fiction book on craft? 😉

  36. Margo April 5, 2011 at 1:58 am #

    My crit partner is like that author – it all comes like 90% naturally to her. Drives me crazy 🙂

    I’ve REALLY struggled with voice – understanding what it is. It wasn’t until I started reading YA that I started to “hear” it. Now I find it all over the place! What, was I deaf to it before? oblivious? it’s a mystery.

  37. Lynda Young April 5, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    Don’t ya just hate those people who do marvellous things without knowing the theory behind it? Hehehe. Oh to be one of those people 😉

  38. Ellie April 6, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    How strange he couldn’t give you a definition. I wonder if he’d been writing for so long that the process of creating a character arc was just second nature to him?

    When I started writing the phrase that confused me the most was, Write about what you know. I convinced myself I needed to be an expert in something to be successful writer i.e. if I wanted to write science fiction I needed to know about science. Now I realise the phrase isn’t meant to be taken literally. My experienes and interests inform my writing, and I can always do research or ask an experts opinion.

    Great post!

    Ellie Garratt

  39. Patti Mallett April 6, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Short, sweet, and so right on! (And perfect for a “Character Arc” notecard!) Thanks, Laura! : D

  40. Maria Toth April 7, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

    I’m all for short explanations, too! Eleven years ago at a writer’s schmooze, I asked if someone could explain PLOT in one sentence. One writer blurted out, “What happens.” Another writer jumped in, “What happens next.” Ahhh…. okay. Got it!

    BTW… you have a ‘lovely’ blog awards waiting for you at my blog. So, hop on over and take a gander. Congrats! 🙂

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