What Is a Character Arc? How Do I Do it?

Some of the most important changes in a story are those that happen within your characters. They’re powerful because, while the reader may not relate to your character’s actions of slaying dragons or flying spaceships, they can often relate to the internal changes your character goes through as they do these extraordinary things.

It’s these internal changes that we’re referring to when we talk about character arcs. And because they’re so important, they’re a great place to start when editing your work.

In Leslie’s post below, she’ll help you understand what character arcs are and how to discover your own characters’ arcs. 

What Is a Character Arc? How Do I Do It?  from Writership.


What is Your Character’s Arc?

The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change. Where you have CHANGE, you have CONFLICT. Because, hey, no one changes without conflict. Something happens to ignite that change.
— Lynn Price


I appreciate a good character arc. The domino effect of the relationship between circumstances and a character’s behavior fascinates me. I love to connect the dots and find causal connections between happenings. Looking at the way characters change helps me appreciate the author and the challenges of telling a great story. So let’s unpack the character arc.


What Is a Character Arc?

A character’s arc describes the change she undergoes from the beginning of a story through the end. Often called the character’s inner journey, this arc is separate from but connected to the plot and her external journey. We notice the protagonist’s character arc most easily; after all, she is the character who undergoes the most change. However, exploring the arc of the antagonist and other major characters helps you tell a better story with multidimensional characters. 


Discovering Your Character’s Arc

If you don’t know how to create an arc for your character, think about the state of her life at the beginning of the story. What are the defining elements of her behavior? Where does she struggle? How might she improve herself or her life circumstances? Once you know that, think about what happens to her during the story. How might the external conflict change who she is, how she behaves, or how she sees the world? 

You can also flip it around if you have a better handle on where she ends up. In this case, look at the lesson she needs to learn and consider how far she might grow given the external events in the story. Her arc begins with those challenges in front of her. For example, if your character learns to ask for help and work with others through the course of the story, she might be a loner who is afraid to rely on others at the beginning.

If you know your plot but don’t know how the events will affect your character, get to know her better. Ask yourself what her strengths and weaknesses are. What does she do for a living? What does she do for fun? What’s on her bucket list? Then ask why and how. Why does she want to hike the Appalachian Trail? How did she come to be in her current job? Why does she continue doing X when she dreams of doing Y? Spend some time exploring what she lacks and the lesson she needs to learn.


Setting up the Character Arc

A character grows when conflict pushes him to make choices that are outside of his comfort zone. Something is missing that author K.M. Weiland calls the Thing He Needs. The character also deeply desires something related to his external plot goal, called the Thing He Wants. The need and the desire are often mutually exclusive, and circumstances cause the character to choose between the two again and again. To change, he must finally choose the need and sometimes by doing so he will gain the thing he desires.

Demonstrating the character’s need and desire is important, but also include a characteristic moment at the beginning of the story to set the stage for the upcoming inner conflict and one at the end of the story to show how he has changed. To appreciate the difference, your reader must have a sense of who he is andwho he becomes: Snapshots in time to help the reader understand the depth of the choice he must make and what's at stake. 

If you want to explore this topic further, I recommend Weiland’s fabulous series on character arcs or Jordan McCollum’s book Character Arcs: Founding, Forming, and Finishing Your Character’s Internal Journey. For a character-based approach to storytelling, I recommend Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel.

Have you uncovered helpful tips to write a character arc? Is it hard for you to envision your characters’ inner journeys? We invite you to share your thoughts and challenges in the comments below. 


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How to Make Your Characters More Realistic

Last week we asked you to take a break from your work-in-progress, to give it space to breathe and to refill your creative cup. Now we want to take you back into your manuscript to look at your characters. If you have a finished first draft, this is a great place to start the editing process. If you’re mid-draft, these ideas will help you build better characters as you move forward.

How to Make Your Characters More Realistic with


What are you doing to build a better character? 

What do your characters truly want in life, what they are most afraid of, and what are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What pisses them off? What brings them joy beyond measure? And how do you figure all that out?

Some writers just know this stuff. Their characters have been whispering to them for months or years. The rest of us have to dig a little deeper to get in touch with our characters’ hearts and souls. Even if they reveal all to you, spending time to explore your characters’ terrain may yield gems that will enrich your story and deepen the bonds between your reader and characters.

The key to getting to know these elusive creatures, just like with people in real life, is to spend some quality one-on-one time with them. Below I’ve included exercises to help you collect the information you need to get to know your characters and send them walking and talking through the pages of your book.


Make a vision board

Make a physical or digital vision board on which you collect images and words that describe each of your main characters. Collect pictures of people that look like them, items they would own or covet, and places they want to live or visit. Cut pictures out of magazines or draw them to make a physical board. Use a public or private Pinterest board to keep digital pictures. Update these boards as you find new items that fit. Before you dive into a scene in which your characters appear, look over the boards, step into their skin, and inspire your writing.


Write a letter or diary entry

Write letters from one character to another in your story. If the character is a villain, rival for a loved one’s affection, or a government agent, have her write a letter in that capacity. Another option is to write diary entries describing things that people who play that role might do. The villain might record the details of her latest caper; the romantic rival might wax poetic about her desire for your main character’s love; the government agent might record thoughts on her latest findings. The point is to put the character in her role, and give her free rein.


Write the character’s backstory

Take the moment your character enters the story, and write back from there. What happened in the hour before that moment? What about the days, weeks and months prior? Go as far back in time as required to get a feel for who this person is, what brought her into your story, and what her plans are. Consider mundane moments, but also the pivotal ones that created her worldview. 


Use people you know

You can use your friends and family as stand-ins until your character sheds the disguise. This sounds risky, but it’s a way to get started. It allows you to touch someone real while you’re finding your way. Later, as your character develops, go back and change the name and parts that don’t fit. Author Johnny B. Truant likens this to using lighter fluid to get your fire started. As long as you burn off the fluid before you put your food on the grill, everything will be fine.


Thirty-minute sprints

Spend thirty minutes a day with your characters for a week. Put your characters in mundane or extraordinary circumstances and see how they react. Be the fly on the wall and record your observations through free writing. Use this list of circumstances and add others you like. 

  1. First kiss
  2. Eating a favorite meal
  3. First job
  4. Learning to drive a car
  5. Going camping
  6. Clothes shopping
  7. Visiting her parents
  8. Getting haircut
  9. Stuck in traffic
  10. Receiving news of the death of a loved one


Let us know how it went

What did you discover about your fictional friends? Do you have other means of getting to know your characters? I invite you to share your methods and the results of your exploration in the comments below.



If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

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Cast Your Net with Writership , 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts


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