How to Create a Satisfying Character Arc

By Sarina Dorie

The most interesting stories often have characters who grow and change. This is a character arc. A character who changes is considered a dynamic character. A character who doesn’t change is considered stagnant or flat. Let’s look at a couple examples. 

A common, pop culture character that many superhero fans will probably know, Thor, God of Thunder, the first movie in the franchise with Chris Hemsworth from 2011. What kind of person is Thor at the start of the movie? How is he a different person at the end? (Hint: Why is he worthy to use the hammer?) 

In case you didn’t see the movie or don’t remember, Thor isn’t worthy of wielding the infamous hammer because he is arrogant, self-centered, immature, and a jerk at the start. By the end of the movie, consider what kind of person he becomes in order to be worthy of the hammer. It isn’t spoiling the ending if I reveal the hero’s journey and give away the obvious arc; he becomes selfless, has learned humility, and is a better person. In order to earn that hammer (and develop his character arc), he has gone through trials. He learns lessons through his try fail cycle and is a different person. The viewer can see this change with him. 

In this movie, Thor’s character changes, so he is a dynamic character and has an arc. In the following movie, his character’s arc is less dramatic. It is common in old school pulp, science fiction, and action that the hero doesn’t change, and instead they change the world around them through their actions. This can also be seen in a long series like superhero movies where characters might become static after a while—and is a different kind of structure that isn’t necessarily relevant to the kind of books that we are writing that rely on a character arc. In a romance and stand-alone novel, we need a character arc. Even in my own paranormal mysteries, I try to give my protagonist an emotional arc for the book so she isn’t stagnant.

Let’s shift gears and look at a classic as another example. In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, what is the arc of Ebenezer Scrooge? What kind of person is he before the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit him, and how does he feel about Christmas? (Hint: Bah humbug!) What kind of person is Scrooge afterward, and how does he feel about Christmas? 

How did Scrooge change? 

In most modern stories, we show this change in the character through many of the actions the character takes during their try/fail cycle and the plot of the story. It makes the character active rather than passive if they do something about the problems they are faced with. If they do nothing, they are passive and haven’t earned the happy ending. I write romance and often feel frustrated when people (who don’t read romance) talk about how they hate romance because the female characters are weak and passive (therefore have no arc). This is as much of an old trope as it is for 1930s pulp adventure stories to not have character arcs. Most modern romance authors write active protagonists with character arcs because it makes a stronger and more compelling story.

Please note, one difference between A Christmas Carol and a modern story is that Scrooge is largely reactive to the plot. He just goes along with it and allows it to happen. He is resistant, but ultimately he can’t stop the ghosts from taking him on journeys, so he had to go along with the plot. Scrooge has to witness the past, present, and future. Writers today wouldn’t be allowed to get away with this by modern readers or editors—but it worked in its day. And ultimately, it created a powerful story about a character who changed that still resonates with people to today. 

Let’s look at one more classic example because we are writers, and we need three examples for classic storytelling just like Scrooge did. 

Pride and Prejudice is my favorite romance of all time. I have heard a lot of people attribute the pride to Mr. Darcy and the prejudice to Elizabeth Bennet at the start of the story, but I think they have an equal measure of both. The starting point of both characters’ arcs is pretty obvious from the title, and it is a romance, so the ending point is pretty obvious that it will be the opposite. What is harder is figuring out how characters get from point A to point B in their arc. In order for either character’s arcs to work, consider all the events and good deeds Mr. Darcy takes to change Ms. Bennet’s good opinion of him. Consider how each character’s opinions change and how they apologize to each other in order to be worthy. 

The romance genre has some built in tropes that lends itself well to character arcs like the enemies to lover’s trope. This is used well in Pride and Prejudice because both characters have to change their perspectives in order to get along, so they can figure out they are meant to be together, and live happily-ever-after. I find it a fun trope to work with, and it has natural, built in conflict, which is why I utilize it in my paranormal romance novels. 

What is your favorite romance? What is the protagonist’s arc? 

If you want to improve your skills at writing better a character arcs, the first step is to dissect it in examples like what we have done here. Then move on to your favorite genre or subgenre of stories that are similar to what you are writing. Be aware, not every story will have a character arc—like those super hero movies or series. After you feel comfortable analyzing other writers’ works, it is time to look at your own. Does you character become a different person by the end of the story or end in a different emotional state? 

In conclusion, not every writer is a plotter who enjoys spending hours figuring out the entire outline of their novel. However, understanding the basic character arc can help start pantsers and plotters with a skeleton, so we know what we need for the middle of our plot. If we know the starting and ending point for the heroine and hero (and villain!) and their arc’s, we can build an outline, try/fail cycle, or just intuitively pants our way through the story while still having a guiding star to light our literary paths.