Three Character Arc Types

It doesn’t seem right if a character begins and ends the story as the exact same person, does it? But figuring out what kind of change they’re likely to go through is difficult in its own right, particularly for people whose strengths lie more in the range of events or settings. There are just so many things that can change—how does one settle on one?

I find it’s easier to understand a question like that when you’ve got patterns you can apply to the situation. So here’s my look at three major flavors of arc that a character might undergo.

My personal favorite character arc type is the rule-changing arc. Most people try to understand the world by assigning rules to it, whether they’re actually true or not. This isn’t just extrapolation of natural laws, like “What goes up must come down”, or societal tendencies like “People don’t like those who are different”, though those are part of it—it’s also the kinds of things that come from personal experience. They might be about a single person, like “Mother’s always right”, or about a group of people, like most prejudicial beliefs are. Sometimes, they’re about oneself; sometimes, they’re about the world. But either way, people get used to being in those patterns, and may even make a point of ignoring minor things that challenge the rules. Imagine, then, what happens if the rules are broken, particularly those rules that closely affect the character herself. That’s going to make a difference, isn’t it? There are a lot of ways in which a character’s response to a broken rule can go: a character might attempt to reassert it, flee to the opposite belief entirely, or change to fit the place in the pattern where she sits, growing if it gives her room to grow and trying to shore up her position if it puts her at risk.

The variety of character arc most people are used to, though, is the growing process arc. This usually involves the removal or acquisition of one or more traits, almost invariably related to some form of ‘growing up’. Coming of age and hero’s journey stories pretty much depend on this kind of arc. Unlike most of the others, though, it’s something that’s usually planned rather than something that happens to a character; on the other hand, other varieties often fold into it, so that the changes created by another kind of arc happen to coincide with part or all of a growing process trajectory.

Then there’s the interaction-based arc. This one has traits of the other two, in that there’s growing to be done and rules to be changed, but has a greater level of effect on its own cause than the other two. After all, growing up is one of those things that tends to happen, and a process that’s hard to change, and a break in the rules isn’t going to just knit itself up or deliberately grow larger. But since the interaction arc is based around a character’s interactions with another character and how she’s changed by them, it creates a feedback loop: the character changes, the character with whom she’s interacting changes, the original character changes a bit more to accommodate the changes, and meanwhile the changes are probably throwing off someone else’s image of the world, and so on it goes. Complex? Yes. Fascinating? You bet.

And who says a character arc has to be just one? As likely as not, what’s going on is a combination of several, all twining together to influence the character and in turn each other. That’s what makes them all different, and being all different is what makes them interesting.

Look through what your characters have been through. Can you see anything that might make them change?

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