What’s a Character Arc Anyway?

When I set myself the task this week of writing out the character arcs of my hero, heroine, villain, and main subplot guy, I really didn’t think it would be that big a thing.  Frankly, I kind of thought it would be easy.  That I’d get it done yesterday and have the rest of the week to figure out how to best weave it into my plot.  The best laid plans…

I figured the best way to begin such a venture would be to make a worksheet for each character and head it up with their GMC chart.






Nice and simple, right?

So I went to go pull the nice neat little charts I’d made during the plotting phase.  Couldn’t find them.  What?  Hadn’t I made them?  How was it possible that I’d spent 3 months plotting this book and talking about GMC ad nauseum with Pot and never actually wrote it down?

Grumble grumble.  So off I went to mine old GoogleTalk chat transcripts for that information.  It took a while to articulate the GMC for some of them.  I really have a problem with Internal GMC (you know, that necessary thing that makes your characters complex and interesting?).

So then I sat down to write out the character arcs.  About the time I wrote the fifth or sixth sentence that went “Marley [did something that made something happen],” I realized I was not, in fact, writing out character arcs.  I was just summarizing the plot from her perspective.

What was I doing wrong?

At that point I decided to trot out my handy dandy books on craft to see if I couldn’t pinpoint a nice simple definition of what a character arc is supposed to be (and I had hopes of finding a chart—I really love charts).  Well according to James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure, “As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story.”  Which makes it all about internal GMC.  Um, remember how I just said I have a really, really hard time articulating that?

According to Bell, a good character arc has

  • A beginning point, where we meet the character and get a sense of his interior layers
  • A doorway through which the character must pass, almost always reluctantly
  • Incidents that impact the layers
  • A deepening disturbance
  • A moment of change, sometimes via an “epiphany”
  • An aftermath

Okay, so not a chart, but a list.  I can work with a list.

What follows in the chapter of Plot and Structure is an analysis of A Christmas Carol and the character arc of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Well that helped, a little.  Some characters were pretty simple and clear for me on internal GMC.  Conall and Derek (my subplot guy) make sense and I’d already mostly worked all of this out with them.  But Marley (my heroine) and Knox (the villain)—not so much.  I still can’t really properly articulate Marley’s internal GMC.  It’s like I’m right on the cusp but I’m not quite there yet.

And Knox?  I don’t know what to do with him.  I actually do have an internal GMC for him, but I don’t see him changing over the story.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  In my past work, villains who didn’t change…well that was the root of their downfall.  They didn’t learn their lesson or whatever.  So I’m not entirely sure what to do with his character arc.  It’s not like he’s suddenly going to wake up one day and give up that goal or motivation (his internal and external GMC are tied very closely together).

So all of this is to say that I’m still figuring out the whole character arc thing, but I thought I’d share what I’d learned so far.

If you have any good resources on this particular issue, do share!

2 thoughts on “What’s a Character Arc Anyway?

  1. If it helps any, villains aren’t supposed to change much. That’s why they are the antagonists. The point is that the protag learns something during his dark moment that allows him to defeat whatever internal obstacle hinders him, whereas the antag sinks deeper into the “how I’m doing will work if I just try harder” mentality; they aren’t supposed to learn from their mistakes or they wouldn’t be villains. Not that they don’t change at all, but an antag with a big epiphany would probably no longer be an antag. I don’t see many antags having epiphanies they need to be even MORE ebil, right?

    1. This is true. Knox bugs me in this book because he’s not like the villains I’ve written before. I’m used to spending a lot of time developing the pychological profiles of my villains (because historically, I’m writing about serial killers), and Knox’s motives are really pretty simplistic. He wants the power that he feels has been denied him, and he’s willing to both kill and frame someone to get it. But even as far in as I’ve gotten, I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten into his head.

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