Cues for the Character Arc

Character arcs don’t just happen out of nowhere, and for good reason. Having somebody just wake up one morning and say “I’m going to change some aspect of my personality!” would be a bit odd, wouldn’t it? You’d expect a cause, even something as improbable as a dream about antelopes, breakfast materials and blackmail, wouldn’t you? The good news is that, for the people who have trouble figuring out how to make their characters change, character arcs needing a cause means that one can tend to isolate the kinds of points or causes that set off arcs. So what sorts of things can do that?

One of the big ones is something going wrong, usually in a way that messes up a character’s rules of the world. When the girl who thinks herself invincible is defeated for the first time, the dedicated assistant of the major leader is suddenly having to take the leader’s place, or the adherent of a belief system discovers a contradiction in it that goes against what she thought her ideals were, there lies change—and most, particularly the interesting characters, aren’t going to just turtle up and try to ignore it.

On the other hand, there’s something going right, whether that’s in the way the character expected or not. What do you do when you achieve the goal you’ve been striving for for as long as you can remember? How about what happens when you discover a way out of what you thought were dead-end circumstances?

A lot of people arc in response to role models. This isn’t just finding one and deciding to try to emulate them, though that’s a common way of going about it, though. What happens when you discover that the role model in question isn’t quite who you thought she was? When the role model needs you for something, possibly even the thing you admired him for? How about if the role model dies?

And then there are those who arc in response to people who aren’t their role models. Sometimes it’s a vague acquaintance, a social inferior they’re familiar with, or even someone they barely know who has an impact. This is a lot rarer, though, since it requires a character for whom it actually matters what some random and possibly nameless person does and thinks, whether of them or not. And that’s not even taking into account the impact of friends; you’d be amazed at what they can do for a character with the potential for a sense of loyalty.

Some arcs come as a result of tasks that a character is supposed to do. In some cases, it’s a task the character originally wanted nothing to do with; the character might come to like it, come to deal with it, or at least come to find a way around it. In others, it’s something she’d always wanted to do, and there are a number of ways it might be not quite what she expected.

Every now and then the cause is somewhat more mystical in nature. Sometimes, a character learns something through a dream or vision, or maybe a prophecy—usually something along the lines of “You need to change x behavior, or else.” While people have done one-night epiphanies (A Christmas Carol, anyone?), I personally find it a lot more interesting when they spend a while working at it. Overnight character development can be a bit straining.

The above is a good range of potential character arc triggers; someone looking for a possible source of character arc might use one, or a GM trying to see if she can trigger character change might try to arrange one or more and see if the targeted player responds to it. Have any of these worked for you? Do you have any other triggers that can set off a character arc?

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