A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.
Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.
Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.
Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.
One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! ;-) )
By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.
This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.
The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.
Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.
For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.
Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.
As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.
More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.
Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.
Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.
For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.
At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.
What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.
Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.
However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.
If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.
To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.
Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.