A character arc is the status of a character as it unfolds throughout a narrative. A character begins the narrative with certain viewpoints and, through events in the narrative, those viewpoints change, in part because they must adapt to changes in the narrative. In many narratives, the main characters or protagonists seem unable to resolve their problems, in part, because they yet lacks the skills to overcome the forces of antagonism that confront them. In order to ameliorate their predicaments, not only do they often learn new skills but also must arrive at a higher sense of self-awareness and capability. In turn, they can only achieve such awareness in contact with their environment and usually mentors and co-protagonists aid them. The new awareness changes who they are or are becoming. A character arc affects the protagonist in a narrative, though other characters can go through similar changes.
The Relationship between Narrative Arc and Character Arcs
The phrase character arc takes its name from the Narrative Arc whose shape, often depicted as an oblong half-circle, emerges from the rising and falling qualities after the noument and denoument or tying and untying events in the common five-part dramatic structure of the Freytag pyramid or the three-part structure of many films. Although the narrative arc resolves within a given text typically after a climax and "falling action," most character arcs do not fully resolve in a single text because life continues for that character beyond the confines of the text's narrative whether or not a text's audience accesses that narrative. A narrative arc, then, usually does not contain an entire character arc because most characters' births and deaths are not depicted. For those whose birth is depicted at the beginning of the narrative (as in a bildungsroman) or death is depicted at the end of the narrative (for example novels about the death of a protagonist or that involve the protagonist's death at the end), such a character arc dovetails with the narrative arc in one place. (Both occur in the case of the protagonist of a biography or auto-biography and rarer, in certain fictional texts that follow the protagonist from birth to death as long as the character does not re-appear in an afterlife.)
Moreover, frequently in the case of non-protagonists, such as antagonists and major and minor characters alike, the character's life might end before the narrative does, in which case the portion of the character arc that is visible to the audience will appear shorter than the narrative arc. Furthermore, for non-protagonists, the character arc will not involve as profound a change in character so the amplitude of the arc will not appear as broad as that of the narrative arc. On the other hand, for the protagonist's character arc, the amplitude may appear deeper than that of the narrative arc whenever, although the elements outer life of the plot are not particularly dramatic, they cause a profound change in the protagonist's inner life.
Dramatic Narrative Structure with the Common Tri-partate Structure
Throughout the trajectory of narratives with a tri-partate scructure, character arcs often unfold beside the narrative arc in the following way:
During the first act, the character arc is established or re-established for at least one character, the main character (the protagonist), within the exposition (noument) of the environment including relationships to other characters. Later in the first act, a dynamic, on-screen incident, known as the inciting incident, or catalyst occurs that confronts the protagonist, whose attempts to deal with this incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point. By the first turning point, life will never be the same for the protagonist and raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action, (Will X recover the diamond? Will Y get the girl? Will Z capture the killer?).
During the second act, also referred to as "rising action," the character arc develops as the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to discover ever worsening situations, which will lead often to the learning of new skills, and the discovery of capability, and (sometimes late in the second act if at all) the raising of self-awareness.
During the third act, including the climax, "falling action," and resolution (denoument,) the narrative arc completes itself though the character arc does not typically. During the climax, because the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question answered, a character arc reaches place where the character gains a new sense of who they are becoming. As the plot and its subplots resolve, the character arc's emphasis shifts from the learning of any new skills or the discovery of dormant capability to the awakening of a higher level of self-awareness, which in turn changes who the character is becoming.
Examples in Film
Some examples include:
- In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman’s character begins as a misogynistic chauvinist but when he is forced to play the part of a woman, he also experiences a change in how he views women and becomes a different character by the end.
- In Empire of the Sun, Jim begins as a carefree young boy. After the Japanese take over Shanghai and he is separated from his family, he is forced to suffer trauma because of the war.
- In The Godfather, Michael Corleone at first does not want to have anything to do with his father’s crime business. When his father is attacked and barely survives, Michael begins a war of retribution on those responsible. This effectively and ironically sets him down the path to becoming the head of his father's crime syndicate. The Godfather Part II chronicles Michael's effective fall from grace as a result of becoming a powerful crime lord.
- In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle degenerates from a somewhat disturbed, highly disorganized Vietnam war veteran into an extremely highly organized, full-blown psychotic.
Examples of Serialized Character Arc in Television
Like a story arc, which often follows serializes many narrative arcs, the character arc is not confined within the limits of one narrative. The character arc may extend over to the next story, a sequel, or another episode. In episodic TV series, the character arc has become a hook that writers often use to ensure viewers continue watching.
- In the American television series Lost, Shannon Rutherford is a damaged rich-girl who regularly cons money out of her stepbrother, Boone Carlyle, after his mother steals her inheritance. After the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, her knowledge of French is key in translating Danielle Rousseau's distress call. But her attitude following this event is generally one of being rude to the other survivors and unhelpful, as she believes rescue to be imminent. When, after a month, it looks like rescue isn't coming, and the constant attacks from her stepbrother in which he calls her "useless", she begins to help where she can and even develops a romantic relationship with Sayid Jarrah and befriends Claire Littleton, Sun-Hwa Kwon and Walt Lloyd. When Boone is killed, she reverts to being distant and angry. Walt, a young boy who survived the crash, entrusts his dog to Shannon when he and a few other survivors leave on a raft. Shannon later begins seeing visions of Walt, though no one believes her. She searches for him in the jungle before she gets into a tearful confrontation with Sayid. She asks him why he doesn't believe her, and why he doesn't believe IN her. Shannon thinks she is useless and therefore worthless, and is afraid that once they've been rescued Sayid will leave her just like everyone else has. Sayid tells her he does believe her, and that he loves her and will never leave her. They embrace before Shannon sees Walt again, and this time Sayid sees him as well. Shannon chases after him and is accidentally shot and killed by Ana Lucia Cortez, another survivor. Like many characters on the show, Shannon dies following the resolution of her personal issues.
- The TV series Desperate Housewives made heavy use of character arcs throughout its run, with story arcs (or mysteries, as the show was famed for) normally being used to move the plot along in the background, as the four protagonists, Susan Mayer, Lynette Scavo, Bree Van de Kamp, and Gabrielle Solis, dealt with their various foibles and flaws, through the eyes of their dead friend and neighbour, Mary Alice Young. From the pilot to the series finale, the characters are shown to have come full circle, having dealt with their fears, vulnerabilities and flaws enough to move away from Wisteria Lane and begin new, happier lives, being free from the shackles of secrets and desperation that constricted them throughout the series. Susan, who began the series as a vulnerable single mother who is searching for love, goes through various quests for happiness and romantic fulfilment, and ends the series having been widowed, being a single mother to a young son, and having a new grandchild to look after. The similarities of the opening and closing situations allow the audience to see how much Susan has grown as a person; her sense of hopelessness and desperation has been replaced by a renewed vigour and hope for the unknowns of the future upon which she is embarking. Lynette started off as the drowning mother of four children who felt that her happiness was a sacrifice she had to make in order to raise them, while by the end of the series, she has become content with her life, having realised that happiness comes not from external conditions, but from within. While, throughout the series she is constantly shown to be searching for something more, something that will make her truly 'happy', this epiphany allows her to stop searching for the thing which she already has, and in turn lets her leave the Lane and take a new job in New York with her family. When we first see Bree, she is introduced as the wife and mother who is striving so desperately for perfection, for her vision of an 'ideal' life, and as a result she represses her fears and emotions, and is burdened by the secrets which are a by-product of this struggle. Ironically, as the series progresses, Bree has the most tragic, imperfect and unhappy arc of the four protagonists, until she eventually learns to let go of her struggle for idealism and fall in love with someone who loves her for who she is, ultimately learning that she cannot control every aspect of her life, but that only by letting go of her fears and secrets can she truly be happy. Gabrielle begins the story by being plagued by her and her husband's selfishness and greed, believing that contentment can come from wealth and materialism. As the series progresses, she is shown to make various selfish decisions to better her own cause and to protect herself from the consequences of her own mistakes. Ultimately, she realises that she loves her children, her husband and her friends far more than she loves herself, which allows her to become more selfless and find true happiness in what she has.
- In Gargoyles (first US air date: October 1994 ) (animated), the coming of age of Brooklyn is subtly portrayed as his difficulties in his personal life and his eventual promotion and adjustment to the clan's second in command position develop until they simultaneously come to a head when Goliath, Elisa and Bronx disappear on their world tour.
- Over the course of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess (first US air date: September 1995 ), Gabrielle starts from a young, idealistic Greek farm girl to becoming a warrior, and in the end, she becomes Xena's successor.
- Jackie Burkhart (from That '70s Show (first US air date: August 1998 ) goes from a spoiled ditsy rich girl that nobody liked, to a girl that was actually accepted in the group, while Michael Kelso starts off as an irresponsible womanizer but eventually settles down and gets a real job to support his family after the birth of his first child.
- Smallville (first US air date: October 2001 ) focuses on character arcs for each of its main characters as they progress into their Superman comic book identities. Clark Kent's arc revolved around the gradual acceptance of his destiny and becoming a hero. The series also tracks Lex Luthor's progression into darkness and Lois Lane's emulation of her cousin Chloe as she becomes a hardened journalist. Other characters have their eventual character arc alluded to but never explicitly defined or realized onscreen, such as Perry White's rise to editor of the Daily Planet and Pete Ross's ascension to Vice President of the United States. As well as individual characters, there are arcs involving many characters which intertwine to tell the formation of the Justice League.
- Small Pig, the protagonist in Arnold Lobel's novel Small Pig, goes from an angered pig who leaves home because the farmer's wife vacuums all the mud, to a much kinder, more empathetic pig who grows to better understand familial relations and hardships when the farmer and his wife come looking for him in desperation. When he returns to the farm, the mud is back. The farmer's wife also experiences a character arc in growing to understand the sacrifices one must make for family.