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Character Arcs


By: Donna Schlachter –

This month we’ll take a look at how to create a Character Arc for the main characters in your story, usually the Hero, Heroine, and Villain. Secondary characters can have a character arc, as we’ll see below, but that most often stems from a main character’s Arc.

A character arc is the inner journey a character embarks on from the beginning of the story to the end. It hinges on the goal, motivation, and conflict (GMC) of the external events, the emotional or inner conflicts, the relational events, and sometimes the spiritual circumstances. This means, in fact, you could be looking at up to four GMC’s, depending on your story. As you can imagine, in a novella, with a limited word count, you need to get these arcs moving quickly yet believably.

Think of a character arc as a mini-model of life. None of us is the same as we were three years—or maybe even three months—ago. The same holds true for our characters. For a story of any length to be satisfying to the reader, something must happen. Action is good, but it is also shallow, in that it doesn’t touch us to our core. However, true change that results in a person becoming better in some way, can teach us something about ourselves.

The resources listed below this article are particularly helpful, especially Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. These sources provide lists and specific examples, some by genre, for various kinds of character arcs. For this post, I’ll simply list the information for you to think about, because there is way too much for one reading.

Character arc goes beyond story structure, although that’s important to understand as well. Once you figure out how to write a strong arc, you’ll understand your story far better, because change is the point of any story. Nobody wants to read a book where neither the main characters nor the world around them is any different at the end than at the beginning. What would be the point?

In the first resource below, Helping Authors Become Writers defines the various kinds of character arcs:

  1. Positive change arc – where the character or their world changes for the better
  2. Negative change arc – where the character realizes what they want isn’t better; where they fail to achieve their goal (tragedy); and where they change their mind about what they want and accept something less
  3. Flat arc – where the character has a belief that gets tested throughout the story but that belief keeps them going until the end

This same article goes on to list how to write each character arc. As you can imagine, the Positive Change Arc is the most complex, because it depends on forward momentum of circumstances and relationships that will mold the character into something new.

Write with a Positive Change Arc:

The first act and first plot point:

  • Reveal the Lie your character believes—and make it big enough to matter
  • Show conflict between the Lie and who/what your character wants to be
  • Know why it’s important to your character for the change to happen
  • Introduce your character in their normal world but set them up to move quickly into the now-evolving world
  • Give your character the opportunity to unlock the first dangerous door in the first plot point

The second act and midpoint plot points:

  • Send your character where he/she has not gone before – stretch them
  • Show how your character has learned from this blundering about and has figured some things out.
  • Move the character from the reactive phase to the active phase, taking control of the conflict
  • Take your character to an uber low moment that he must confront

The Third Act:

  • Increase the intensity of the onslaught of circumstances as you head toward the inevitable conclusion

The Climax:

  • As the reason for the story, this is where you, the author, reveal what the journey the character just endured was really all about.

Writing a Flat Character Arc:

  • Act 1 – make sure your character knows their Truth then make them use it to overcome the tests you plant
  • Act 2 – here your character acknowledges the Lie that’s embedded in their world, and holds it up to the Truth to choose which to believe
  • Act 3 – here your character’s Truth overcomes the Lie

Writing a Negative Change Arc:

  • Act 1 – show what Lie your character believes or what Truth they believe
  • Act 2 – your character confronts the Truth and rejects it, or confronts the Lie and accepts it
  • Act 3 – your character lives out his days in inner unhappiness and incompleteness


Modern fiction and storytelling usually embraces the Character Change Arc, because people change, and we hope they change for the better. Not that the character has to be more skilled in some aspect of their lives, or physically more robust, or mentally stronger—they just need to be changed in some positive way by the circumstances.

According to the MythicScribes article, which caters primarily to Fantasy stories, the primary arcs are the Character Change Arc and the Flat Arc. This makes sense, because in the Flat Arc, the world around the character has changed for the better.

As you can see, readers will have different expectations according to the genre. If the book is a Tragedy, which would be made clear by the title, the cover, or the back cover blurb, readers will find a Negative Character Arc satisfying, so long as the outcome is believable.

And that’s what a story of any length is all about—satisfying the reader’s expectations. When we do it well, the story and characters will resonate with the reader, and they’ll want to read more stories about those characters. They’ll also trust you to produce a satisfying story the next time around—which is your goal.

Next month, we’ll talk about how to give physical attributes without sounding like you’re reciting the character’s driver’s license.


Donna Schlachter, HeadshotA hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both, and is an avid oil painter.

Stay connected with Donna through her links below:
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