One of the biggest draws to stories—of any medium—are characters. So many of us want to follow the journeys of individual characters whose personalities or situations we find compelling. The biggest disappointment I often have at the end of a book, television show, or movie is a lack of character growth or change at the end of the story. In other words, the protagonist or main cast of characters lack a proper character arc.
A character arc is the inner journey of a character over the course of a story. In this case, we will talk about novels. It isn’t the complete change of a character, but rather their growth. If the principal characters don’t grow and adapt to the changes happening as the plot unfolds, a story can’t develop organically.
The plot is the sequence of events in a story that draws the reader into the characters’ lives and gives context for the choices they make. Within this sequence of events is where the character arc needs to/should happen. In my opinion, in order to understand character arcs, we must first understand plot development.
Most stories follow a similar sequence of events:
Exposition: Principal characters are introduced and the setting and central conflict are established.
Rising Action: A series of events create tension, suspense, and/or general interest. According to Literary Devices, the rising action includes “all decisions, characters’ flaws, and background circumstances that together create turns and twists leading to a climax.”
Climax/Turning Point: The story moves from building conflict to resolving the conflict. This is when the protagonist faces a conflict head-on or decides how to resolve a conflict.
Falling Action: When the main problem of the story is resolved.
Resolution/Denouement: The unfolding or solution to the main conflict of the story. The narrative is wrapped up and loose ends are resolved.
According to the article, How to Write a Compelling Character Arc, in Reedsy: “A character arc maps the evolution of a [character’s] personality through a story. . . . 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.”