Simply put, a change arc is the inner journey a character experiences from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s their transformation, or their lesson learned. It’s how far they’ve really come regardless the distance of their physical journey.
And it’s super easy to mess up.
So, here’s a cheat sheet to use when you need to either rein in a runaway change arc, or kick an underwhelming change arc into high gear.
Fantasy Character Arcs
In fantasy, we mainly see two types of stories—those in which the hero changes during the journey (change arc), and those in which the world or people around the hero change during the journey (flat arc). If the character is essentially the same person in the beginning and end of the story, his flat arc is how he influences secondary characters, or society, etc.. He may grow in some ways, but it doesn’t create a true change in him.
The change arc begins with one image of the character and ends with an opposing image. If he’s a liar in the beginning, by the ending he’s honest as the day is long. If he’s devout in the opening scene, he’s heretical in the closing scene. Not just any opposing images, mind you—specifically the ones that show he’s discovered some truth in the world that has changed him. That truth is the foundation of his change arc. It also connects the story’s theme to the character’s plot journey.
In many popular stories the character starts off ordinary and becomes a hero, or he begins flawed and overcomes his weakness with newfound strength. While the change arc is most often positive, it doesn’t have to be. There are some amazing stories that show a negative change arc, where a character slides into evil, or simply chooses to not overcome his flaw once presented with the truth of it.
Regardless of whether you select a negative or positive change arc, the change must happen organically. At critical times within the story, the character will be forced to make choices, and those choices will lead down one path or the other, toward their eventual opposing image. Luckily, these choice moments also align with a 3-Act structure, and the inner journey will mirror the outer one.
The transformation of a character may be the most important part of a story’s plot if, without the knowledge that caused the change, the character wouldn’t have been able to defeat the antagonistic force.
Planning your Character Arc
The problem with writing character arcs is one of juggling two or three (or more) thematic bowling balls… while walking a tightrope of clean prose …all in the noisy, clown-riddled, flashy lights big top of interconnected plot incidents.
So much is going on when you’re writing a story, it can feel impossible to organize.
There are many books to help writers become comfortable with the purposes and methods of creating plot events, story structure, character arc, etc. but it can be tricky to combine what you learn in one book with what you learn in the next because of a certain lack of common terminology. So, I’m going to borrow some terms from an author I think has really nailed it.
K.M. Weiland’s blog covers character arcs in depth, and I think the terms she uses are honest and simple to work with.
A character arc begins with a belief the character holds at the start of the story. Whether that belief is about them, their world, their life, their family, etc., it should represent some facet of the story’s theme, and it should relate to the antagonistic force.
In a flat arc, the character is a follower of some truth. His journey takes him to people and places that will call the truth into question. The character may perhaps falter in his commitment to the truth, but in the end, his truth leads him to a victory over the antagonistic force, and the people around him have been changed by their relationship with the character’s truth (whether the secondary characters embrace or reject it).
In a positive change arc, the character begins the story believing some misconception about himself, the world, etc. and because of his belief in the lie he struggles to find inner happiness / completeness. It is only after he is presented with the truth, and in the end embraces that truth, that he is able to defeat the antagonistic force.
In a negative change arc, a character begins the story believing a lie, but whereas in the positive arc he will learn the truth and use it to grow, in the negative arc, he will learn the truth, reject it, and at the story’s outcome, will not find inner peace, happiness, etc.. Or, the character begins the story knowing the truth, only to later reject or abandon it, replacing it with a lie, and ultimately, inner unhappiness and incompleteness.
Here’s my chart to help plan a character arc:
(+, -, =) Positive, Negative, or Flat Arc questions:
What belief does the character hold in Act 1?
How is it challenged in Act 2?
In Act 2 how does the character react to exposure of the lie and the revelation of the truth?
How does that revelation change the conflict with the antagonistic force?
What knowledge must the character gain to defeat the antagonistic force?
How will they get that knowledge in Act 2?
How will the character outwardly reject the truth while internally accepting it (+), reject the truth (-), or use the newly understood truth to further their position (=)?
What must the character sacrifice in order to abandon their lie (+), reject the truth (-), or bring others to the truth (=) in the second half of Act 2?
How will learning the truth allow the character to defeat the antagonistic force (+)?
How will rejecting the truth in favor of the initial lie (or a worse lie) cause the character to be defeated by the antagonistic force (-), or help them defeat the antagonistic force (-)?
What does the character accomplish in Act 3 (that they never could have in Act 1) because of their new understanding of the lie and the truth?
Completing a Change Arc
Again, in a flat arc, the character will end his story the same person he was at the beginning. He may have some new understanding of the world or himself, and he may have a whole lot of experience to back up his initial truth that was tested on the journey, but he hasn’t actually changed much. The final scenes of a flat arc typically show the change around the character—in people and society—to solidify the theme and confirm that defeating the antagonistic force was essential for the necessary change to happen.
In a positive change arc, we need to see how the character and his situation are different because of the truth he embraced or rejected. Whatever he believed in the beginning of the story was keeping him down in a way, holding him back from true happiness or completeness. It was a lie he believed because of the events in his past that shaped him into the character he was when the story opened.
During the journey, he had to face his past and the lie, and learn the truth…and it was no easy task, right? He struggled with believing the truth, abandoning the lie that once made him feel safe. It was hard to change!
So, in the ending, when the truth has helped him become the sort of person that could defeat the antagonistic force, we need to revel in that just a bit. We want to see how he’s a better person, a more complete or happy being because of the truth.
In a negative change arc, we want to end with a character who may have failed (or achieved) his story goal, and who did not find inner wholeness. Something caused him to reject the truth after learning it, and it cost him, big time.
When he was faced with the difficult choices at the midpoint and the Act 2 Climax, he chose the lie. Maybe it was necessary. Maybe he was just too weak to overcome the past that made him believe in the lie in the first place. Regardless of why he rejected the truth, and whether he defeated the antagonistic force or failed miserably, the closing image of the character should still contrast the opening image (barring, of course, the final image of him being his headstone).
If the negative change arc led the character to a place of better position than the one in which he began the story, we should understand how he feels about that. Same thing if he utterly failed and ended in a worse position.
How do you think a character arc helps a story?
What’s the hardest part of writing a character arc?
What kind of character arc are you currently writing?
Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.