What are they? Why are they important?
January 16, 2019
B.C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Oh, look. Another article about character arcs. They aren’t hard to find online, so why did I write one? Because they’re too important not to discuss! A character arc gone wrong can destroy an otherwise interesting story. So let’s do something a little different. For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at disappointing character arcs from famous movies and compare them to well-done examples.
If this sounds a little cruel, fear not. This won’t be character bashing time. All these characters are otherwise beloved or well-written. For one, the goal is to learn, not mock. And two, while it’s easy to pick apart a bad character, it won’t tell us much about their arc as a specific story component.
But for today, let’s define what a character arc is and what it does.
Defining the Journey (or Lack Thereof)
Most people are familiar with plot, the external journey and sequence of events that the characters go through. A character arc is like the internal version of a plot. It charts the emotion and personality of a character over the course of a story. There may be some twists and turns along the way, and the journey is different for every character, but when looking at the overall trend, there are four types of arcs. Each of these will be explored deeper over the next few weeks, but here are the basics:
This is the most common arc in most fiction. The character has glaring flaw at the start of the story, and by the end, they’ve overcome or softened that flaw. They’re a little less selfish or angry, or maybe they’re more optimistic. In children’s fiction, this will be pointed out as the obvious moral of the story, but complex narratives use this arc as well, usually for a more subtle shift.
While it’s seen everywhere, it’s almost a requirement for women’s fiction and romance, where the stories are character-driven and typically positive.
Here, the character must fundamentally change to become someone else by the end. This is very similar to a growth arc, and some people might argue that they’re the same thing, however, there are two good reasons to separate them. First, a transformation arc is, by necessity, a massive change, while a growth arc can be slight. A person can grow without completely changing who they are. Second, a transformation isn’t always about a flaw. A character may be a perfectly lovely person at the start of a story but need to become someone else to fill their new role in life.
Transformation arcs are a staple of young adult (YA) fiction and “chosen one” stories. In YA, as the characters come of age and transition into adulthood, they obviously can no longer be who they were as children, a character who is “the chosen one” usually isn’t ready for the responsibility at the start and must transform into someone else to complete their goal.
This is the arc seen with villains or with the protagonist in tragic tales. It is the opposite of a growth arc. The character may start off not-so-bad or even good, but their fatal flaw, instead of being overcome, overcomes them. They may climb to lofty heights over the course of the story and can seem to prosper up until the end, but they will lose it all. It could be friends, family, money, or even their life, but something will be lost.
Horror and crime use fall arcs frequently. Gothic literature features them almost exclusively. A strong fall arc can demonstrate a moral even more effectively than a growth one.
Yes, it’s an oxymoron, but flat arcs have a purpose, and it’s not just a way of saying a character lacks an arc. A character without an arc is inconsistent, and where they end up has little or no relation to where they started. A character with a flat arc ends up where they started, and there are two ways this can happen.
The most common flat arcs are with static characters. A static character is steadfast in their personality. They are resistant to change. These are common in mystery or adventure because the plot is the most important thing, and a static character provides the constancy to let that shine.
There are also complex flat arcs with dynamic characters. A dynamic character is one who changes, and all the other arcs require one by nature, but occasionally, a dynamic character can have a flat arc. They may step off the path at moments and seem to start one of the other three arcs, but they ultimately stay who they are. This can be positive or negative, depending on what is tempting them to change.
A Note on Spoilers
One thing to keep in mind with any character arc, but especially fall versus growth, is that where the character ends up is the key. A character may hit rock bottom, but if they learn and change their ways at the end, it’s a growth arc, no matter how far they initially fall. And the reverse is true: no matter how much a character attains, it’s a fall arc if they lose it at the end.
You cannot tell what an arc is until it’s finished. Because the end is so crucial to defining an arc, any character arc analysis will always have spoilers. So that nobody is caught unawares, I will post a list of discussed works at the start of each post for this series.
Why are arcs so important? As I said in the beginning, an arc can make or break a story. We rarely notice good arcs unless they’re heavy-handed, but a bad arc will leave readers and audiences dissatisfied, even if they can’t pinpoint why. As we look at what works and what doesn’t, the rest of this series will demonstrate that.
Next week, we’re going to start with growth arcs, analyzing Han Solo from the Star Wars franchise. Which movies did well with his arc, and which ones didn’t?
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