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Here’s a question for the ages: When writing a story, what’s more important- character or plot? What’s the difference? Great character arcs are what make for a great plot. The two elements are inseparable. So, how do you write a great character arc? With a lot of practice. But first, we have to know what character arcs are and how they work.
There are three types of character arcs- positive, negative, and flat.
What is a Character Arc?
A character arc is a way a character changes in response to the challenges presented by the plot. It is your hero’s evolution, their growth as a human being, their inner journey. And, a character arc is the heart and soul of any great story.
As I said, character arcs come in three varieties. Each type of arc has a unique plot structure, and we’ll talk about all three.
The Three Types of Character Arcs
Positive Character Arc
Negative Character Arc
Flat Character Arc
Now, to craft any one of these three you need to know a few things about your character. First, you need to identify what your character wants. What is the motivation behind their actions? This motivation may change or stay the same depending on the type of character arc you’re writing.
The second thing to know is what is getting in the way of what your character wants. What stops them from achieving their goals? It’s an obstacle, a barrier. Let’s just call it the catch.
So, here’s an oversimplified break down of your character’s arc- Your character wants something, but there’s a catch. The two secrets are a goal and a catch. Let’s look at how this dynamic plays out in the plot structure of the three types of arcs. We’ll start with the positive character arc.
What is a Positive Character Arc?
A positive character arc is when your character begins the story with a glaring flaw in their personality. But, through the events of the plot, they identify and overcome this flaw. So, in a positive character arc, your protagonist will grow as a human being. We’ll break down a positive character arc together. For this example, we’ll use Cher the protagonist of the classic 90s film Clueless.
The protagonist in Clueless is the teenaged, Beverly Hills socialite Cher Horowitz. At the start of the movie, Cher is popular and kind, but also shallow and very superficial. Cher has a clear goal in the film and an obstacle that keeps her from achieving that goal.
Goal– Cher wants to find love.
The Catch– Cher is too shallow to appreciate the people in her life that already love her.
How does this character arc play out in the film? Mostly Cher’s interaction with her friend Tai, the new girl at school. Tai is awkward and not nearly as popular as Cher. So, Cher decides to take Tai under her wing. Cher attempts to play match maker, pairing Tai with a rich suitor named Elton. Tai’s true crush is a boy named Travis, but Cher rejects Travis as an option because he is a “slacker.”
This gets to the heart of Cher’s dilemma. She values social status over true compatibility. She repeatedly chooses boyfriends who bring her status. Naturally, these relationships all end in failure. Tai and Elton are also a poor match. After a fight, Tai breaks away from Cher and begins to eclipse her in their shared social circle.
After her failure with Tai and many boyfriends, Cher realizes there is more to life than status. She makes a sincere effort to live a full and purposeful life and even heads a disaster relief fund. Cher is able to rekindle her friendship with Tai. She discovers a mature romantic partner in her socially-conscious stepbrother, Josh. Kind of weird, I know, but it works in the movie.
For positive character arcs, the key is to give your character a glaring flaw and have them overcome that flaw through the plot. Now, let’s move on to flat character arcs.
What is a Flat Character Arc?
Not to be confused with flat characters– click on that link if you’d like to learn more about character types. Flat character arcs happen when your protagonist has the right idea. They know the Truth with a capital T! They just need to convince everyone else to go along with them.
Flat character arcs are found in serialized stories. You know the ones- same character but lots of different plots. Think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes.
For our example of a flat character arc, we’ll take a look at one of these serialized heroes. Let’s talk about Wonder Woman.
Specifically, we’re going to look at the 2017 film Wonder Woman. In the movie, Wonder Woman believes that humanity is not destined for war and that the god Ares has manipulated man into a global conflict.
Goal– Wonder Woman believes Ares is manipulating humanity and is the cause of violence. She wants to kill Ares and end World War I.
The Catch– Humanity is as much the cause for our own suffering and war is part of our nature.
Wonder Woman begins her journey when a soldier, Steve Trevor, crash lands on her idyllic island home. He informs the Amazon women that there is a great war raging in Europe and he must return to it.
Wonder Woman, or Diana, believes that her mother’s nemesis Ares has returned. She thinks Ares has caused the war. She decides to travel, with Steve, back to the world of man. Diana believes that if she can find and kill Ares she will stop the needless war.
An idea the movie returns to several times is the possibility that Diana is wrong in her quest. Perhaps Ares is not at the heart of the great war. Maybe mankind is destined for destruction because violence is in their nature. However, Diana rejects this idea because she believes that humanity is ultimately good.
She is proven right by two events during the film’s conclusion. First, Steve sacrifices himself to save the lives of thousands by destroying a plane full of weaponized gas. Second, Ares reveals himself and Diana defeats him in combat. After Ares’s death, the war quickly comes to an end.
In a flat character arc, the hero is right, but the struggle is in convincing everyone else to go along with her ideas. She must not lose faith in the face of overwhelming adversity. Finally, let’s discuss the negative character arcs.
What is a Negative Character Arc?
In a negative character arc, your hero will succumb to a deep-seated flaw in their personality. The protagonist will start out with good intentions. But, through events in the plot, they commit increasingly worse acts to reach their goal. When it comes to a negative character arc the ends always justify the means. At least in the eyes of the hero.
These characters’ motivations will start pure but will devolve along with the character. Take Walter White for example. His drug empire begins because he’s dying and he wants to provide for his family. By the end of the show, Walter’s only motivation is his lust for power.
Let’s look at another example of a negative character arc in-depth. Game of Thrones heroine Daenerys Targaryen had all the makings for a fabulous negative character arc. Rushed writing marred her conclusion, but that’s another article altogether.
Goal– Daenerys wants to reclaim her family’s throne. Beyond that, she wants to be a fair and just ruler of Westeros.
The Catch– Daenerys has a vengeful personality. When people do her wrong she wants to see them suffer.
Daenerys’s vindictive nature is completely at odds with her desire for justice. We see these dual motivations clash frequently throughout the series.
Early in the series, Daenerys marches her army on the city of Meereen. Meereen is a rough place to grow up. The economy is based on slavery. Worse, the city’s masters routinely crucify the slave population, even the children.
When Daenerys arrives she leads a slave revolt. Fair enough. She then executes all the city’s masters. Fine, all’s fair in love and war. Then Daenerys displays their crucified bodies along the main road, and we start to see some of that Mad Queen mentality creep in.
At this point, the audience doesn’t fault Daenerys for her brutality. But, we’ve seen other characters handle capital punishment in a more humane way. In fact, humane execution is a running theme on the show. Characters like Jon Snow and Ned Stark view capital punishment as part of their duty, but they take no joy in it.
Daenerys’s brutality becomes less discriminate by the series finale. She responds to the murder of her best friend by destroying an entire city of innocent people. At this point her arc is complete. She’s gone from liberating cities to demolishing them. Daenerys surrenders to her darkest impulses. She becomes the feared tyrant she sought to depose.
A negative character arc presents a character who believes they know the truth. These characters start out with the best intentions. However, the events of the plot lead them to make a series of compromises or desperate acts. With their single-minded pursuit of a goal, these characters eventually self-destruct.
Those are the three types of character arcs and a little on how each of them works. Remember that in each arc the character needs a goal and something to get in the way of them reaching that goal.
Time for a recap.
In a positive character arc, the character changes for the better. Character goals will evolve with the character’s growth.
In a flat character arc, the character is aware of some fundamental truth. This character’s goal is to convince everyone else of that truth.
And, in a negative arc, your character will start with the best intentions. In pursuit of their goal, they will succumb to their worst instincts.
Creating Character Arcs Workbook by K.M. Weiland
Classic 90s Movie: “Clueless” – Go Into the Story