What’s the deal with character arcs?

by | May 13, 2016

Last Updated:
May 27, 2017


I won’t say writer’s block, but I will admit that when I started my current WIP the flow came in drips and drabs. I dreaded starting a new chapter because I just didn’t have a good sense of what was going to happen. Or what should happen.

Because I wasn’t clear on what my characters wanted.

The events in the novel were forcing the characters in a variety of directions. But they weren’t making decisions and moving ahead of events. They weren’t taking control of the story and without that, my writing was like pushing a stubborn mule. It wasn’t going. But I was putting in a lot of effort!

What to do?

Oddly, I teach using character arcs. And I’ve used them for the primary characters in my novels. I won’t say main because I’m on book 5 of the same fantasy world. Many of the characters from previous books appear, and have a part, in the story. So I’ve ended up with a slew of important characters that blur the line between main and secondary.

If they are in the book, they are important.

What's the deal with character arcs?

And that is the point, isn’t it? If the character is in the book for more than a brief walk in, walk out, they are important. And even THEN, why that tertiary character helps or appears is important. Something motivated them to commit an action that added to the story.

Every character has an arc.

The reader just might be discovering the character when she is at the end of her arc, lending a helping hand due to prior lessons learned such as an old woman who hides the hero because he reminds her of the son she lost. Or the character is an obstacle because he is at the very beginning of his arc like a jaded bartender who reports the group of friends and lands them in the dungeon because he thinks keeping the peace means following the rules of a dictator. Or anywhere in between, because the in between is where the tension lies.

The thing is, I’ve been with some of these characters for over seven years. I know them. I don’t need to develop arcs, right?

If only it were so easy. Some characters change over the course of a novel, some take a few books, others only a chapter. In general, the main character(s) of a novel complete their arc for that novel. Because their arc is part of the plot.

So what happens in the next book?

The hero's journey illustrates one type of character arc

I like this because of the hiker as much as the circular continuation!


Well, they’ve changed, right? Are they done adapting? Um, no. They aren’t dead yet (and in a few of my worlds that isn’t an excuse either!). So they need a new arc. They have new wants, unknown obstacles, and fresh challenges to face. When they aren’t the focus of the show, the arc might be longer or not as BIG as the focus character. But it exists.

Think of life as a set of challenges and you’ll see how your character will grow, reach a new point, and then find out they face a whole new set of rules and lessons to learn.

This is taking the farm girl and making her a warrior in book 1. In book 2, she needs to figure out how to be a leader. In book 3, she has won the interest of a prince (who so totally has to prove he is worthy of her, but that is his arc) and has to figure out love. Same character, three arcs.

And that is where I was as I wrote book 5. A dozen characters who the reader knows from the series, all of them having been THE main character at some point. They’ve grown, changed, fallen (not all arcs work out), and are friends. But where in this novel were they especially in relation to helping the plot? Didn’t have a clue. So I broke down and wrote very simple character arcs.

How simple?

I use a four question outline:
  • Outer Motivation – What does the character want?
  • Inner Motivation – What does the character need?
  • Outer Conflict – What stands in the character’s way?
  • Inner Conflict – What character flaws and fears hold her back?


The tension comes in the conflict between the outer motivation and the inner. The character spends chapters going after what they want, not realizing it isn’t what they need. When they figure it out, that is the climax of the arc. The outer conflict as well as the inner create the obstacles meant to reveal the difference, or defeat the character for not realizing the difference.

So a writing session later, I had a dozen mini character arcs written down. And I won’t say they were all easy. I had to really think about where some characters were in life and what they were hoping to achieve versus what they really needed to learn. Which was the core of what was holding up the novel in the first place. But the questions helped put me in their head and life. I figured it out and when I did … ZOOM! I’m on chapter 22 now, approaching the climax and the only thing slowing me down is not having enough time to write.

Anyone have a time machine? 😉

How about you? Have you used character arcs before either written out or just sketched in your mind?




Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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  1. Ben Spurlock

    Great post as usual, Autumn! I admit that I’m just a tiny bit eye-rolly at the Hero’s Journey, if only because it is both overdone and is almost Jungian in that it remains alive because it can be applied so vaguely to so many different stories, but that’s just personal aggravation. *laughs*

    The core of your post, the idea of character arcs and resolving both internal and external conflicts- or not, because as you say, not all arcs work out- really help with writing. In a way, character motivation is very similar to our own motivation- once we have it set and know where it and where it’s going, it almost has a motive power of its own. No need to force it, it just flows pretty naturally. One of those bedrock ideas that can be so easily overlooked, so I’m glad you brought it up once again.

    The only thing I’d really add is that I think playing around with the idea of arcs is one of the great ways of adding in tragedy when a character does die. What’s the difference between a red shirt and a tragic character? I’d argue it’s the fact that the red shirt doesn’t seem to have any arc- he appears, he dies, that’s it. Whereas think of the guy just a few days from retirement. Before it was done to death, that was a shortcut to tragedy, because everyone knew that the guy was nearing the end of the arc. He’d gotten his scars, he’d gone through his atonement and struggles, and now he’s SUPPOSED to go home and enjoy the end of his story. But it’s cut short, and we feel for the loss. (Except now we tend not to, because we see that as a red shirt thing now. He’s always been a few days from retirement, but he was never going to enjoy it.)

    As another example, why is it that so many people will feel nothing for the hordes of minions that are slaughtered by the heroes, but will think the heroes are jerks for not showing mercy to the heartless evil villain? I’d argue it’s because we can see the villain’s arc, but we can’t for the mooks. The villain should be put through his Abyss, and then the heroes show mercy and he finds redemption. There’s a part of many readers who expect that to happen, who almost demand, in their heart of hearts, for that to happen. So when it doesn’t, they’re outraged. Conversely, because the minions aren’t really people- they have no arcs, they exist only to be killed- there is no such outrage.

    Hah, maybe that’s the reason why characters without arcs tend to fall flat. The reader, not seeing an arc, mentally shuffles them off as a bit of scenery, and therefore their minds actually just write them off. Huh, you’ve given me a lot more to think about than I’d originally thought, Autumn. I’m indebted to you for that, so thanks again for this post!

    • Hi Ben! I couldn’t agree more about the tertiary characters/minions and red shirts who aren’t given arcs. I was actually just working on course slides on this exact topic: all characters need at least a motivation. I could understand not wanting to develop a full arc for a character that is just passing through a scene, but they should be more than scenery as you put it! So how about just a character premise: what is their motivation? Are they against the hero or secretly support? Do they just want to go home? In it for pay?

      If we as the writer include the character in the book, they should have some inkling of realism to make them more 3D. Otherwise, we could replace them with a bush and move on. 😉

      So glad to give you something new to think on. Thanks for stopping by, Ben!

      • Benjamin Spurlock

        Hah, I was wondering if this was going to be on a slide somewhere. *laughs* More seriously, yeah, a character premise is a good way to think about it. Or if I may use an art metaphor, a character sketch- perhaps not as fully-designed as a main character, perhaps not fully detailed, but you can both have memorable details and there’s enough there that we can fill in the blanks in an enjoyable way. As opposed to, yeah, a bush or some other bit of scenery.

        Regardless, you’re more than welcome, and as always, I’ll look forward to your next post. 🙂

  2. Victor Ray Rutledge

    This is marvelous. My Characters grow like mushrooms or bamboo, almost instantly. They start as that guy at the stable, and become the older man who filled in as a father figure and taught the main character to be a good person. Or the nanny who became her own story. Or a Dragon, that was just “that dragon over there” and became a lead in a story about dragonkind. A character Arc can fill a story, or create one. I find them to be essential in the creation/continuation process, but sometimes they draw you away from the story you’re writing and into an entirely new facet of your created world. If that’s a bad thing for you, then you’ll have to hang on tight when using them.

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