If a work contains a character arc, it features a character who begins as one sort of person; things happen to and around him or her, gradually moving him or her in an "arc" that is complete when the story is over. Lead characters and/or protagonists most frequently experience character arcs. A character begins the narrative with certain viewpoints that change through events in the narrative, in part because he must adapt to changes throughout the storyline. In many narratives, the main characters or protagonists seem unable to resolve their problems because they lack the skills to overcome the forces of antagonism that confront them. This flaw is a driving element of the story's plot. In order to improve their predicaments, not only do they often learn new skills but also must arrive at a higher sense of self-awareness and capability. In turn, they can only achieve such awareness in contact with their environment and usually mentors and co-protagonists aid them. The new awareness changes who they are or are becoming. A character arc affects the protagonist in a narrative, although other characters can go through similar changes.
Relationship between narrative arc and character arcs
The phrase character arc takes its name from the narrative arc whose shape, often depicted as an oblong half-circle, emerges from the rising and falling qualities after the noument and denouement or tying and untying events in the common five-part dramatic structure of the Freytag pyramid or the three-part structure of many stories. Although the narrative arc resolves within a given text typically after a climax and "falling action," most character arcs do not fully resolve in a single text because life continues for that character beyond the confines of the text's narrative. A narrative arc usually does not contain an entire character arc because most characters' births and deaths are not depicted. For those whose birth is depicted at the beginning of the narrative (as in a Bildungsroman) or death is depicted at the end of the narrative (for example novels about the death of a protagonist or that involve the protagonist's death at the end), such a character arc dovetails with the narrative arc in one place. Both can occur for the protagonist of a biography or autobiography or in fictional texts that follow the protagonist from birth to death, if the character does not re-appear in an afterlife.
The life of an antagonist or secondary character might end before the narrative does. Thus, the portion of the character arc that is visible to the audience will appear shorter than the narrative arc. The character arc of a secondary character will not involve a change as profound as that of the protagonist. Consequently the amplitude of the arc will not appear as broad as that of the narrative arc. On the other hand, the amplitude of the protagonist may appear deeper throughout the character arc than that of the narrative arc. Although the elements of the outer life of the plot may not be particularly dramatic, they cause a profound change in the protagonist's inner life.
Dramatic narrative structure
Throughout the trajectory of narratives with a tri-partate structure, character arcs often unfold beside the narrative arc in the following way:
During the first act, the character arc is established or re-established for at least one character, the main character (the protagonist), within the exposition (noument) of the environment including relationships to other characters. Later in the first act, a dynamic, on-screen incident, known as the inciting incident, or catalyst occurs that confronts the protagonist, whose attempts to deal with this incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point. After the first turning point, life will never be the same for the protagonist and raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the story. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action, for example, Will X recover the diamond? Will Y get the girl? Will Z capture the killer?
During the second act, also referred to as "rising action," the character arc develops as the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to discover ever-worsening situations, which often lead to the learning of new skills, the discovery of capabilities, and (sometimes late in the second act if at all) the raising of self-awareness.
During the third act, including the climax, "falling action" and resolution (denouement), the narrative arc is completed although the character arc typically is not. During the climax, because the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question is answered, a character arc reaches a place where the character gains a new sense of who he or she is becoming. As the plot and its subplots resolve, the character arc's emphasis shifts from the learning of any new skills or the discovery of dormant capabilities to the awakening of a higher level of self-awareness, which in turn changes who the character is becoming.
Examples in film
Some examples include:
- In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman's character begins as a misogynistic chauvinist but when he is forced to play the part of a woman, he also experiences a change in how he views women and becomes a different character by the end.
- In Empire of the Sun, Jim begins as a carefree young boy. After the Japanese take over Shanghai and he is separated from his family, he is forced to suffer trauma because of the war.
- In The Godfather (1972), widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Michael Corleone initially wants nothing to do with the crime business of his father, Don Vito Corleone. When Vito is critically injured in a shooting, however, Michael gradually becomes more involved in a war of retribution on those responsible. This, effectively and ironically, sets him down the path to becoming Don of the Corleone crime syndicate. Its acclaimed sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), chronicles Michael's effective fall from grace as a result of becoming a powerful crime lord.
- In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle degenerates from a somewhat disturbed, highly disorganized Vietnam war veteran into an obsessive psychotic.
Like a story arc, which often is composed of many narrative arcs, the character arc is not confined within the limits of one narrative. The character arc may extend over to the next story, a sequel, or another episode. In episodic TV series, the character arc functions as a narrative hook that writers often use to ensure viewers continue watching.
- The TV series Desperate Housewives made heavy use of character arcs throughout its run, with story arcs (or mysteries, as the show was famed for) normally being used to move the plot along in the background, as the four protagonists, Susan Mayer, Lynette Scavo, Bree Van de Kamp, and Gabrielle Solis, dealt with their various foibles and flaws, through the eyes of their dead friend and neighbour, Mary Alice Young.
- Over the course of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess (first US air date: September 1995 ), Gabrielle starts from a young, idealistic Greek farm girl to becoming a warrior, and in the end, she becomes Xena's successor.
- Smallville (first US air date: October 2001 ) focuses on character arcs for each of its main characters as they progress into their Superman comic book identities. Clark Kent's arc revolved around the gradual acceptance of his destiny and becoming a hero. The series also tracks Lex Luthor's progression into darkness and Lois Lane's emulation of her cousin Chloe as she becomes a hardened journalist. Other characters have their eventual character arc alluded to but never explicitly defined or realized onscreen, such as Perry White's rise to editor of the Daily Planet and Lex Luthor's ascension to President of the United States. As well as individual characters, there are arcs involving many characters which intertwine to tell about the formation of the Justice League.
- Bell, James Scott (2004), Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 1-58297-294-X
- "Character Development – 7 Questions Every Writer Must Know". 25 July 2014. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
- Gerke, Jeff (2010), Plot versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction, Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, ISBN 978-1-58297-992-2
- Trottier, David (2010). The screenwriter's bible: a complete guide to writing, formatting, and selling your script (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Silman-James Press. ISBN 1935247026.