How to write character arcs
I’ve talked about creating interesting characters before on the blog and as many of you know, I also have a free character profile which you can download by clicking here! Creating characters is so important for your story but my previous post only covers the creation part of the process. Through the course of your story your main character has to develop and go through a journey of their own. This journey of course is internal, but it also relates to your external conflict. Everything that happens in their internal journey is probably related to your character's external journey.
There is no single or right character arc your characters have to go through in your story, in fact there are multiple types of character arcs. Not just for your main characters, but even your side characters and sometimes villains.
(Similar posts you can check out before we get started: How to write great female characters , how to write a great villain for your story and how to write morally grey characters.)
1. Positive character arcs
A positive character arc is precisely what it sounds like, in this kind of arc your protagonist most likely believes in a lie which they need to get past. Here your character is going to come out of the story learning something positive and being happier than they were at first.
To write a positive character arc, you need to start off with your character having a flawed or negative world view. Start by figuring out the “lie” your character believes.
This lie usually comes from their backstory, but there’s no set template for what someone will believe after a set situation. By the end of your story your characters “lie” should be flipped for them to believe the truth.
Here are some examples.
Lie: I am weak and a coward.
Truth: I am strong and brave.
Lie: I can never be loved.
Truth: I am loved and I deserve to be loved.
Lie: I am not talented enough to achieve my goals.
Truth: I am going to achieve all my goals.
And so on. Check out Abbie Emmons video on finding out your characters “lie” by clicking here.
The strong begins with your character believing the lie. At this
point of the story your character is very unhappy with their life but they have either convinced themselves that they are fine with it. (Check out my post on writing a great first act for your novel to check out the story beats.) As the story progresses, your character will get closer and closer to unveiling the truth. They will probably have to convince themselves that the “lie” they believe is true.
How does your character learn the truth?
Your character will learn the truth as the plot progresses. This can be through a side character, a villain, or just through a sequence of events.
Your character has probably been believing this lie for a while, so let them resist for a while. They won’t change something they believe firmly that easily.
2. Negative character arcs
Negative character arcs are well surprise surprise, the opposite of positive character arcs. In positive character arcs your character believes a lie at the beginning of your story, and by the end they learn your story's truth and are now enlightened. Now for negative character arcs… flip it around, well not exactly. You guys know it's probably not that easy.
Just as in a positive character arc, your character is going to start the story conflicted. They don’t have to believe a well-cemented lie, although they could.
If your character believed in a lie as your story starts, your protagonist will go through the story with their belief further cementing. They can come close to learning the “truth” or what would happen to them in a positive character arc, but this won’t just happen. Although teasing the idea around would make things interesting for the reader.
Whatever happens you are not writing about a perfect character, so make sure that your character has a conflict and fears and flaws. Download my free character profile and fill it out for more info on this.
In a negative character arc, your character doesn’t have to be perfect before the story starts. That doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. They can have a good enough life until your story comes along and rocks their boat. This could get them to question everything they have believed so far and shift their worldviews.
From what I have seen, there are three kinds of negative character arcs-
1. Disillusionment arc
The disillusionment arc is the one most similar to our positive character arc. Here your character goes into the story believing a lie, and by the end they learn their truth. Except not. This may not be an actual “truth” at all, but the truth your character learns here is very tragic. This may not be the same as the original lie, but in some ways it may be just as bad or worse.
2. Fall arc
In this arc your character goes into the story believing a lie and they come close to learning the truth… but they don’t. Through your story, give them plenty of opportunities to learn the truth, but here our characters just won’t learn it. And as they cling to their lie, it may get worse as time goes by leading to their destruction.
3. Corruption arc
The corruption arc is one I’ve seen many people talking about, and I think the one most of us have heard of. Here your character goes into the story with a fairly good mindset. They probably aren’t firm on it and still figuring things out, but as your story progresses, they get worse and worse until well… they get corrupted.
3. Flat arcs
In a flat character arc, your protagonist already has the truth figured out. That’s right, believing a lie and finding the truth is in their past. But what are the characters going to do in the story you ask? The idea behind a flat character arc is that since your character has already figured out their truth, they can use it to bring about some kind of positive change in the world.
You can still have an antagonist here because there is no set truth. Truth and lie seem like objective terms to me, although I’m sure a lot of you will disagree with me.
Your portraitist’s truth is in accordance with their situation and backstory. According to them, your antagonist believes a lie (if your antagonist isn’t a physical person in your story, then they believe the force to be wrong.)
A flat character arc can be executed very well through a side character especially. Your side character may have a story of their own, but in your book, their life revolves around your mc. So, why not have a side character who has figured out the truth and now your protagonist must learn this from them.
4. Complete transformation
This is an arc which I have heard of little by name, but it’s one I’m sure a lot of us have seen in fiction. In your complete transformation or change arc, your character goes through a big change. The most common example for this is going from a completely regular person to a hero. This arc also goes hand in hand with your positive character arc because your character goes through a positive change to become the hero or savior.
This arc most commonly features the chosen one trope. To transform into a hero, your character has to learn their truth. Here the transition is very dramatic.
That’s all for today’s advice from me, but I have a little extra for you guys! While making my posts, I do some research like reading a few blog posts and watching YouTube videos. So, this time I am going to be linking you to some of my favorite resources on the topic so you can learn some more on character arcs. Don’t forget to like this post and drop a comment down below, telling me what kind of character arcs are your favourite to read and write. Also, let me know if you would like me to link you to other writing advice resources on every post.
Other posts on character arcs you can check out
How to write a compelling character arc - Reedsy
How to craft positive character arcs for your novel - Well-storied
Create Compelling Characters With These 3 Types of Character Arcs - Writer's edit
Types of character arcs - Iwriterly
How to write a negative character arc - Abbie Emmons
Examples of negative character arcs - Abbie Emmons
How to craft negative character arcs for your story - Well-storied