Planning a Character Arc

When speaking of fantasy and science fiction,  I feel that I would be doing a disservice to approach a story without some notion of a character arc.  Some authors don’t try at all to build one in advance—they let the character arc come out as part of the theme of the finished product.  To me, planning one adds a dimension to the overall progress of the story while I’m still in the early stages of conceptualizing the book.

Choosing who needs an arc

Let’s quickly clarify that of course not every single character and side character deserves an arc.  Some characters might have long ago experienced their arc and they’re not going to have a new one just because the camera is turned on and following the heroes with them in the background.

Side characters only get them from me when I find believable ways to alter their relationship with the main characters or the plot.  A side character might only have a single line in the book that proves that they experienced an arc that I wrote into them, and it might not have been planned for them from the beginning.

The first-come first-serve of arcs are the main characters.  These people are why the story exists in the form it does, and I want the reader to spend time with them and their motivations, and then watch how they change.

Character development in baby steps

Before there is anything said about sweeping character transformations, remember that not everything needs to be turned up to 11.  If you break the illusion of plausibility in the reader’s eyes, then the jig is up.

Small changes have the potential to be very powerful.  Characters that have behaved a certain way for decades might see or learn something profound, and yet the only change we see from our place holding the book might be that they say “thank you” a little more than usual.

Alternatively, this character might have a desire to change something about themselves.  By the end they might have finally found a reason to take a real step towards trying.

Emotional transformation

This is other end of the spectrum, and it’s often where I go first for ideas.  As the story develops around the character, I periodically go back and see how my plan for them is going to pan out.  Sometimes the answer is that it won’t, and the arc should be toned down or changed altogether.

I select an adjective to describe the character in their beginning state.  I will often take a few minutes to wordsmith just the right term because I am about to imbue this character with a nuance that I will have to work to capture.  I’m adding a dimension to them beyond their identity, and I want it to feel right.

Even though I have no idea where my story might be going yet, I try to pick a destination state and assign that an adjective too.

This pair of single words is concise, easy to remember, and hopefully evokes the same mental imagery every time I look at them.

The words don’t have to be opposites!  Why should they be?  Maybe there’s a leap which begs the question of how the person might be pushed into that change—in fact these kinds of changes can be quite interesting due to the reader’s difficulty to foresee the arc long in advance.

Some examples:

  • vengeful → protective
  • outsider → influential
  • beholden → accomplished
  • bridled → uncontrolled
  • follower → converted

These are often just statements about what the character should accomplish during their time in the spotlight, but because I don’t yet know what the story will have in store, it’s a brainstorming exercise.

The adjective you choose might turn out a little melodramatic once you see the story unfolding.  Try to envision where this character is headed, and pick a better adjective to describe some aspect of it.

Now you just have to figure out how to get your character from point A to point B.

One thought on “Planning a Character Arc

  1. Tom

    This is all probably excellent advice. Another way is to not plan. Risky, but it can work. For me, the growth in a character is easier if I allow it to emerge organically. But without a plan, it might not. Assuming it does, it just means that much of it comes in later drafts rather than as part of a planned template.

    ‘Arc’ implies growth and change. The reason ‘L.A. Confidential was such a good movie is because the MCs experienced a ton of growth. It can carry things very far.

    I also think it is good to have different levels of growth and amounts of growth in the MCs. For instance, you could have one MC that is secretive and doesn’t show a lot of growth until what growth they have is revealed later on, another MC that is naive and wears their heart on their sleeve, and we get to experience the growth along with them, and maybe a third MC that begjns in great adversity and overcomes this and flourishes, implying a whole lot of growth. What is best is if these characters can influence the growth in each other.


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