A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story. Since the change is often substantive and leading from one personality trait to a diametrically opposite trait (for example, from greed to benevolence), the geometric term arc is often used to describe the sweeping change. In most stories, lead characters and protagonists are the characters most likely to experience character arcs, although it is possible for lesser characters to change as well. A driving element of the plots of many stories is that the main character seems initially unable to overcome opposing forces, possibly because they lack skills or knowledge or resources or friends. To overcome such obstacles, the main character must change, possibly by learning new skills, to arrive at a higher sense of self-awareness or capability. Main characters can achieve such self-awareness by interacting with their environment, by enlisting the help of mentors, by changing their viewpoint, or by some other method.
Dramatic narrative structure
Throughout the trajectory of narratives with a tripartite structure, 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. After 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 story. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action, for example, 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 often lead to the learning of new skills, the discovery of capabilities, 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 (denouement), the narrative arc is completed although the character arc typically is not. During the climax, because the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question is answered, a character arc reaches a 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 capabilities to the awakening of a higher level of self-awareness, which in turn changes who the character is becoming.
Some examples include:
- Shakespeare's Hamlet sees the eponymous character, once a young scholarly prince full of promise, quickly becoming a melancholic brooder after his father's death. The play shows his slow but deadly fall into madness.
- In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov commits a murder, that leads him on a path of redemption, and after an intense inner struggle, he realizes that he needs to be punished for his actions, reporting himself to the authorities.
- Victor Hugo's Les Misérables includes a myriad of characters that transform against the backdrop of social events. Jean Valjean starts as a selfish, violent convict and develops into a generous and loving father to Cosette, who in turn transforms from an abused, lonely and somewhat secluded child to a beautiful and caring woman.
- Ursula Le Guin's protagonist from her A Wizard of Earthsea quartet gradually changes from an impulsive and arrogant youth to a stoic and wise man, reconciling the darkness within and all the bad actions it had caused.
- A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin shows numerous examples of complete character arcs. Daenerys Targaryen transforms from a naive young girl to a queen and a conqueror, only to fall from grace after a misuse of power. The character of Jon Snow, undergoes a similar arc of embracing the need to govern and rule and metaphorically "kills the boy and lets the man be born", only to be banished after a misuse of power. Other characters such as Sansa Stark and Jaime Lannister, start out as childish and petty, but once faced with the cruelty of the world, Jaime grows into a mature and wise leader, and Sansa grows into a strong-willed and poised lady.
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 (1972), widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Michael Corleone initially wants nothing to do with the crime business of his father, Don Vito Corleone. When Vito is critically injured in a shooting, however, Michael gradually becomes more involved in a war of retribution on those responsible. This, effectively and ironically, sets him down the path to becoming Don of the Corleone crime syndicate. Its acclaimed sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), chronicles Michael's effective fall from grace as a result of becoming a powerful crime lord.
- In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle degenerates from a somewhat disturbed, highly disorganized Vietnam war veteran into an obsessive psychotic.
- In Goodfellas (1990), Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) goes from being a suave and sophisticated gangster to a paranoid nervous wreck due to a severe cocaine addiction.
- In Frozen, Elsa begins the movie embracing her ice powers. After injuring her sister Anna she becomes scared of her powers and considers herself a monster. After her sister sacrifices herself, Elsa finally embraces her powers again. Anna begins the movie as a social butterfly willing to throw herself into any man's arms. After Hans betrays her, Anna learns that looks can sometimes be deceiving.
- In Thor: Ragnarok, the Hulk begins a story arc dealing with accepting himself as one person rather than seeing Bruce Banner separate. It continues in Avengers: Infinity War and concludes in Avengers: Endgame.
Like a story arc, which often is composed of 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 functions as a narrative hook that writers often use to ensure viewers continue watching.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lost focuses on character arcs for each of the survivors of a plane crash. Jack Shephard accepting his role as protector of the island, James "Sawyer" Ford going from a self-centered con-man to a mature leader, John Locke discovering his destiny on the island.
- 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 Lex Luthor's ascension to President of the United States. As well as individual characters, there are arcs involving many characters which intertwine to tell about the formation of the Justice League.
- In Breaking Bad, Walter White begins as a high school chemistry teacher struggling with a serious illness while trying to support his family financially. His decision to become a manufacturer of addictive illegal drugs starts a downward spiral in which his wife, Skyler White, divorces him, and his character arcs from a morally responsible regular guy into a dangerous monster.
- The teen drama series 13 Reasons Why features two character arcs for its protagonist Clay Jensen: In the flashbacks, Clay begins as a shy young man until meeting Hannah Baker. In the present, after Hannah's death, he becomes emotionally withdrawn until listening to the tapes left behind by his former friend. After learning the truth, he becomes a warrior and a voice of justice for Hannah.
- Bell, James Scott (2004), Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 1-58297-294-X
- Gerke, Jeff (2010), Plot versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction, Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 978-1-58297-992-2
- Trottier, David (2010). The screenwriter's bible: a complete guide to writing, formatting, and selling your script (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Silman-James Press. ISBN 1935247026.