How to Write a Compelling Character Arc in Just 3 Steps (2022)

A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It's a term that writers use to describe their protagonist's journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc.

While main characters might face big challenges (Hungarian Horntails and evil Dark Lords), character arcs have to do with internal, personal change. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story's end, they are a changed person. These changes might not be monumental, but they will have made a significant impact on the character, either positively or negatively.

In this post, we'll look at how a writer can plot a compelling, believable arc — starting with a classic story of good triumphing over evil.

Whether your protagonist has a happy or unfortunate ending, here's how to arc their internal development #amwriting Click to tweet!

How to write a character arc with apositive change

When the protagonist overcomes external obstacles and internal flaws in order to become a better person, we can describe this as a positive arc. It’s often used in story structures such as the Hero’s Journey.

(Video) How to Write a Compelling Character Arc | Writing Advice

At its core, this arc is made up of three points:

  1. The Goal: Every character needs to have a goal. It might be to fall in love. Or it might be to make as much money as possible. Either way, their journey will be hindered by...
  2. The Lie: A deeply-rooted misconception they have about themselves or the world that keeps them from reaching their true potential. In order to reach their goal, they’ll need to acknowledge and overcome the Lie, by facing…
  3. The Truth: While the character may have their own plans, the positive change arc has its own goal: self-improvement. This is achieved when they learn to reject The Lie and embrace The Truth.

To see this arc in action, let’s map it onto a few classic protagonists.

Example The Hobbit

How to Write a Compelling Character Arc in Just 3 Steps (2)

Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet life in his hole in the ground, which he likes. To begin, all he wants is to continue living a life of simplicity. Until the inciting incident introduces...

  1. The Goal: To help the dwarves reclaim the treasure stolen and guarded by Smaug.
  2. The Lie: Hobbits belong in the Shire, surrounded by their creature comforts. The outside world is dangerous and for braver men — the kind who know how to sword fight and take on goblins.
  3. The Truth: Heroism is just as much about the inner strength to follow your own moral compass in the face of adversity than it is about facing down danger.

Along the journey, Bilbo does start winning sword fights and gets the gang out of sticky situations — proving there’s more to him than just a nice pot of tea and a pipe. But these skills aren’t the point of Bilbo’s arc: they’re merely vehicles that drive him to the climax of his arc: the moment he steals the treasure which has begun to corrupt the dwarves. Finally, the Truth about the heroic qualities he possessed all along take the stage, and he returns home a better man for it.

Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they’re unworthy of journey → They are overcome by obstacles on the journey because they continue to cling to Lie → They are forced to confront the Truth about their inner strength → They believe the Truth and they win.

A Christmas Carol

How to Write a Compelling Character Arc in Just 3 Steps (3)

Ebenezer Scrooge lives an isolated life as a surly, old miser. To begin, his life is consumed by earning as much money as possible. Until the inciting incident introduces...

(Video) How to Create a Powerful Character Arc

  1. The Goal: To not meet the same bitter end as his deceased business partner, Marley.
  2. The Lie: A person’s value is measured by their wealth.
  3. The Truth: A life surrounded only by one’s riches is a miserable one, no matter how many you may count.

Scrooge starts the story entrenched in the lie, with no desire to look beyond it — not until Marley appears to as a ghost trapped by his own greed and warns Scrooge he may follow the same fate. His arc begins as he confronts his painful past: his boyhood when the Lie started to take shape. As A Christmas Carol is very much an allegory, the rest of his transformation takes place in fairly straightforward fashion: each new vision presented by the Ghost chips away at the Lie until the height of his transformation — the vision of his own lonely tombstone.

Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they need a certain thing to be happy → They set out on ajourney to achieve this Lie →Their journey shows them the Truth, and that they’ve been chasing a false goal → They believe the Truth and they wins.

This particular model of creating an arc is particularly compelling because it always grounds the story in something plausible. It doesn’t rely on a series of fantastical coincidences to drive the protagonist’s development — it simply requires them to realize something that was true all along.

Think of your favorite story that has a happy ending: it might be a fairy tale, a Pixar film or even The Matrix. Chances are that the protagonist will have a goal, believe in a lie and eventually find enlightenment with the truth.

Of course, not all protagonists change for the better. Which is why there’s also such a thing as a negative change character arc. Let’s find out what that’s all about.

From school teacher to madman — learn how to write a character arc using Breaking Bad as a blueprint. Click to tweet!
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How to write a character arc with a negative change

Not everyone always comes out on top after they fall on hard times. Humans are susceptible beings, heavily impacted by the circumstances around us. That means that struggle can get the better of us, and fiction that accurately portrays a person’s downward spiral can be extremely moving and compelling. Characters don’t always necessarily change internally for the worse in this kind of arc — sometimes, it’s just their world that is negatively impacted.

A negative character arc contains the same three basic elements as the positive one:

  1. The Goal: The same as with the positive arc, they will have a goal. However, instead of being hindered by it, the goal will become driven by…
  2. The Lie: The belief that achieving a certain goal will bring about a positive outcome. In order to reach their goal, the character either knowingly or unknowingly embraces the Lie, bringing them further away from...
  3. The Truth: Whether or not the goal was born out of ill intentions, the truth of the matter is that it was self-destructive: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Now, let’s see the negative change arc in action.

Example: The Great Gatsby

How to Write a Compelling Character Arc in Just 3 Steps (5)

Nick Carraway lives a restless life in Minnesota after completing school at Yale and fighting in World War I. To begin, his purpose in traveling to New York City is to learn the bond business. Until the inciting incident introduces...

  1. The Goal: To get a taste of the excitement of high society life, without succumbing to it entirely.
  2. The Lie: The belief that the rich and beautiful are the picture of happiness — and moreover, that you can take people at face value: they say they are.
  3. The Truth: All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold.

Nick’s lie is an optimistic and innocuous one that life thus far hasn’t forced him to challenge, and that East Egg initially supports in spades. Just as in the positive arcs, Nick starts the story believing the Lie — though this Lie is an optimistic and innocuous one that life thus far hasn’t forced him to challenge, and that East Egg initially supports in spades.

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Also like the positive arcs, Nick engages in a push-and-pull relationship between the Lie and the Truth for much of the story, until the Truth finally wins out in the end and Nick is able to see new “friends” for what they really are. Unfortunately, this new Truth does not strengthen Nick’s character but leaves him totally disillusioned with life. The climax of his arc occurs when Gatsby is murdered and none of the hundreds of people who eagerly attended his extravagant parties is there to mourn his passing.

Character Arc Map: The believe a Lie about the world → They leave their normal life and enter world that reinforces the Lie → They are confronted with the Truth and the world is not what they thought → They are disillusioned by Truth and they lose.

Example: Breaking Bad

How to Write a Compelling Character Arc in Just 3 Steps (6)

Walter White is in a happy marriage and lives an honest life working as a science teacher and as a father to his teenage son — but then he receives news of his advanced lung cancer. To begin, he’s concerned with the sudden confrontation with his own mortality. Until the inciting incident introduces...

  1. The Goal: Sell enough meth with ex-student-turned-drug-dealer Jesse Pinkman so that he can pay for cancer treatment and to secure the future of his family.
  2. The Lie: Arrogance. Walter believes he has the power to avoid the hand of the law, avoid corruption, and avoid bringing danger upon his family while entering the drug trade.
  3. The Truth: Walter believes he’s on a noble journey to provide for his family. In reality, he’s rebelling against his mortality — and playing with fire usually results in burns.

This arc is different from the others we’ve examined because Walter starts his arc already aware of the Truth: cooking meth is risky business and is not the solution to his problems. But faced with impending death, the boundaries of his morals have been suddenly pushed, leaving him vulnerable to the Lie: the belief that he is immune corruption. His arc sees Walter continuously rejecting the red flags and embracing the Lie, until any distinction is lost and he’s so far gone he has no choice but to embrace the Lie completely. In the end, it consumes him and he loses everything, turning into a full-fledged anti-hero.

Character Arc Map: They know the Truth about the world → They pursue a goal believing they can hold onto Truth → They succumb to the Lie and reject the Truth → They embrace (or are defeated by the Lie) and lose.

How to plot a compelling and believable character arc - with examples #amwriting Click to tweet!
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These three steps, while being universal elements of all arcs, can take countless forms depending on the specificities of your character. Sometimes, the arc doesn’t involve substantial internal change, and is more about the change they effect on the world around them — something often called a “flat arc.”

When planning the arc of your central personalities, always look for the lie they believe, the truth they may or may not believe, and the goal that drives them. We recommend downloading this free character profile template to help. If you find that you're still struggling, try using these character development exercises. Ultimately, breaking arcs down this way should help you emphasize cause and effect and keep your characters anchored in ways that will make it so much easier for your readers to empathize with.

FAQs

How do you write a compelling character? ›

Characters should almost always have clear goals, even if these goals are not immediately made obvious to the reader. Without goals, characters lack motivation—that is, they have little reason to do anything interesting. For this reason, many writers connect the main character's goals to the main conflict in the story.

How do you write a good arc? ›

Here are some writing tips for building a narrative arc in your own writing:
  1. Choose an archetypal narrative arc. Think about the story you want to tell. ...
  2. Identify your beginning, middle, and end. Who are the main characters? ...
  3. Plug your events into a narrative arc. ...
  4. Adjust as needed.
8 Sept 2021

What is a character arc example? ›

Well-known examples of this type of character arc include: Walter White in Breaking Bad. Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the Star Wars series.

Who has the best character arc? ›

10 TV Characters With The Best Redemption Arc
  1. 1 Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  2. 2 Steve Harrington (Stranger Things) ...
  3. 3 Spike (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) ...
  4. 4 The Hound (Game Of Thrones) ...
  5. 5 Villanelle (Killing Eve) ...
  6. 6 Theon Greyjoy (Game Of Thrones) ...
  7. 7 Michael (The Good Place) ...
  8. 8 Alexis Rose (Schitt's Creek) ...
5 May 2022

What makes a satisfying character arc? ›

One thing readers are looking for in a satisfying character arc is that the lead will have changed by the end of the book due to all they've experienced whilst fighting to get their narrative goal.

What makes a character more appealing? ›

Make your character a human being.

Flaws make us unique and interesting, not to mention memorable. They are especially appealing when they present an obstacle for the plot or for the character in question.

Does Harry Potter have a character arc? ›

Harry is the main character of the series - so it makes sense that his character arc is also the most detailed one. Harry had to learn a lot of things, defeat many dangers and enemies before he could finally lead a peaceful life with his wife Ginny and three children.

How can I make my character more interesting? ›

Easy And Effective Ways To Make Your Characters More Memorable
  1. Know Your Character. Develop A Thorough Backstory. Examine Your Character's Personality. ...
  2. Write Your Character Into The Story. Develop Interior Dialogue. Create Authentic Dialogue. ...
  3. Don't Make Them Boring!
  4. Find Your Characters In The People Around You.

What is a strong story arc? ›

A good story arc is one that guides the reader through this change in value, past all the important points in the journey, in a way that strengthens the story's impact on the reader. It is important for us as writers and editors to understand the power of a good story arc and to use the story arc effectively.

What are the 5 story arcs? ›

The 6 Primary Story Arcs
  • Rags to Riches (rise) All stories move, but some stories only have one movement. ...
  • Riches to Rags (fall) ...
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise) ...
  • Icarus / Freytag's Pyramid (rise then fall) ...
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise) ...
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

How do you structure a compelling story? ›

So, step away from the slides and use these 7 tips to tell a compelling story:
  1. Keep your focus on the audience. ...
  2. Have a single message. ...
  3. Structure your story. ...
  4. Create characters. ...
  5. Include the facts. ...
  6. Develop dramatic tension.
28 Jun 2018

What are the three types of character arcs? ›

There are countless ways a character can change throughout the course of a story, but their character arc can typically be categorized into one of three types: positive, negative, or flat.

What are the four common types of character arcs? ›

Moral Ascent. Moral Descent. Flat.

How do you write a powerful character? ›

How to Write Strong Characters
  1. Give your characters something to care about. This is the easiest one, but I often see stories where characters do things for no apparent reason. ...
  2. Create a threat. This doubles up as a way to create a plot when you don't have one. ...
  3. Give them a unique skill. ...
  4. Make them flawed. ...
  5. Make them grow.
24 Jan 2020

How do you write a villain arc? ›

Things get in the way, multiple motivations interact with one another and complement or counteract each other, and people change. When writing a villain, try to consider that he's always going to want more than one thing for more than one reason—and often be conflicted on which goal to pursue in any given scenario.

What makes a character believable? ›

Believable characters are unique and three-dimensional. Each has real attributes, like appearance, personality, and a backstory, that make them relatable. A character's motivations inform their actions and decisions, creating the narrative arc in the story.

What anime has the best character development? ›

Top 10 Anime Characters With The Most Development, Ranked
  1. 1 Zuko Regains His Own Honor (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  2. 2 Simon Pierced The Heavens (Gurren Lagann) ...
  3. 3 Katsuki Bakugo Becomes A Hero (My Hero Academia) ...
  4. 4 Mr. ...
  5. 5 Greed Does Something Selfless (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) ...
17 Jun 2022

What are some character goals? ›

Even a slice of life narrative has a character who wants something.
...
List of goals
  • Change a law or injustice.
  • Appease a deity or higher power.
  • Free a loved one from captivity.
  • Become the strongest/richest/most powerful.
  • Retrieve a stolen item.
  • Break a curse.
  • Assassinate a king/queen or head of state.
  • Fall in love.
4 Apr 2022

What are some good plot ideas? ›

Fantasy Plot Ideas

Everyone is born with three wishes in life that they are not allowed to use until (input age here). A contest for the queen after the sudden death of said queen from a magical realm. The bridge between the realm of the fae and mortal shrinks with each day while tensions run high.

How do you end a character arc? ›

Without an antagonist, there won't be enough conflict.

To check the protagonist and antagonist both enter the story early, select their names in the drop-down menu on the Story Arc. The conflict ends when the antagonist leaves the story, so make sure both the protagonist and antagonist are in the climax scene.

What are the four common types of character arcs? ›

Moral Ascent. Moral Descent. Flat.

What are the types of character arcs? ›

There are countless ways a character can change throughout the course of a story, but their character arc can typically be categorized into one of three types: positive, negative, or flat.

What is it called when a character changes throughout the story? ›

A dynamic character, in contrast, is one that does undergo an important change in the course of the story.

Can a character have multiple arcs? ›

Can a character have multiple character arcs? Never say never, but typically, no. Character arcs aren't about small, individual changes in your character. They're about the broad evolution of your character from the beginning to the end of the story.

What are the 7 types of characters? ›

7 Character Roles in Stories. If we categorize character types by the role they play in a narrative, we can hone in on seven distinct varieties: the protagonist, the antagonist, the love interest, the confidant, deuteragonists, tertiary characters, and the foil.

Does Harry Potter have a character arc? ›

Harry is the main character of the series - so it makes sense that his character arc is also the most detailed one. Harry had to learn a lot of things, defeat many dangers and enemies before he could finally lead a peaceful life with his wife Ginny and three children.

How do you end a character arc? ›

Without an antagonist, there won't be enough conflict.

To check the protagonist and antagonist both enter the story early, select their names in the drop-down menu on the Story Arc. The conflict ends when the antagonist leaves the story, so make sure both the protagonist and antagonist are in the climax scene.

What's a negative character arc? ›

Negative character arcs are less common but hardly rare. These are the stories where the characters get worse. They become more morally bankrupt, they are broken down, they double down on their bad behavior, they go down the slippery slope…

Why is it called character arc? ›

It's called an “arc” because you can imagine it plotted on a graph. Character arcs will normally follow an upward trajectory – where your character increasingly becomes a better person – though some will instead trend downward, where a character goes from good to bad, or bad to worse.

How do you write a good character dynamic? ›

Catalytic, Not Catatonic: 5 Steps to Writing Dynamic Characters
  1. Make Your Character Knock Down the First Domino. ...
  2. Knock Your Character Down, Then Make Him Choose Again. ...
  3. Make Your Character Culpable. ...
  4. Let Your Character Make Both Good and Bad Choices. ...
  5. Allow Your Character to Take Responsibility as Part of His Journey.
19 Sept 2016

What makes a character interesting? ›

Believable characters are unique and three-dimensional. Each has real attributes, like appearance, personality, and a backstory, that make them relatable. A character's motivations inform their actions and decisions, creating the narrative arc in the story.

How do you write a deep character? ›

5 Screenwriting Tricks to Conjure Better Character Depth
  1. Give Your Characters a Personality Flaw. Characters need to be portrayed as living and breathing humans. ...
  2. Give Your Characters an Addiction. ...
  3. Give Your Character a Physical Disability. ...
  4. Give Your Character a Mental Disability. ...
  5. Give Your Character a Secret.
2 Sept 2019

What are the 5 story arcs? ›

The 6 Primary Story Arcs
  • Rags to Riches (rise) All stories move, but some stories only have one movement. ...
  • Riches to Rags (fall) ...
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise) ...
  • Icarus / Freytag's Pyramid (rise then fall) ...
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise) ...
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Does every character in a story need an arc? ›

While every story didn't necessarily have to have a character arc, every story needs a story arc. This is more than just the plot. A story arc is really the way the plot shows up on the page. It's the sequence of events.

Do characters need arcs? ›

Unless you're writing a generational epic with dozens of main characters, then you simply don't need to chart arcs (positive, flat, or negative) for all your characters. Readers aren't going to notice if every character has an arc. Even if they do, they may end up overwhelmed and confused.

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