The Secret Character Arc

Every good story needs a character arc.

Plot arc and character arc—those are the two essential ingredients in any story. Without those two, you have something less than quality storytelling.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that not all characters see their own arc. Now there’s a difference between character development and a character arc, although you can’t have the second without the first. Character development, at the very least, is “the process of building a unique, three-dimensional character with depth, personality, and clear motivations.” This can include the changes the character undergoes, but it more strictly refers to the process of making the audience familiar with the character as he or she is.

A character arc, on the other hand, traces the inner journey of the character’s mind, heart, and will as he or she responds to the events that unfold in the story.

If the audience gleans nothing else from the story, they will at least see how the events have impacted the lead character and altered him/her in some way.

That being said, every well-developed character resembles a real person. He or she has believable human thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and motives. But here’s the catch: many people in the real world are not self-aware. I bet you can think of some.

Things get interesting here because real people in the real world often do not know when they have changed.

Sometimes we do know when we’ve changed. Take for example:

  • Kicking a habit
  • A religious conversion
  • A change of heart toward another person

Other times, though, changes can fly under our own radars:

  • Developing a habit
  • Religious backsliding
  • A general change in perspective toward the world/other people

No doubt some people are more perceptive than others too, which means that some of us would notice all of these changes in ourselves, whereas others would notice none of them. And no doubt some of these changes are more life-altering than others. In short, some of these give us more of a character arc than others.

The question I want to pose to you is this: Does every good character arc require that the character notice how he/she has changed?

Looking at classic stories, I see a mix. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has moments of incredible self-awareness and revelation, but by the end he still sounds in many ways like the same old vagabond boy bent on his own idea of freedom. By the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s encounters have undoubtedly deepened his perspective on life, but he keeps his flippant tone through the very last page.

This lack of self-awareness doesn’t mean a lack of character arc—if anything, I think it sorts out perceptive audience members from less perceptive ones, because the less perceptive ones will always take the main character at his word. A perceptive reader or viewer, however, can see things that the lead character may not see in himself, or things that he flat-out denies.

But do you think that the power of a character arc depends on the character’s awareness of it?

Do you think that a truly powerful story requires the character to recognize his own growth (or decline)?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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9 Comments on “The Secret Character Arc

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you found it informative– it’s something I definitely question when writing a story. Which type of character arc do you usually find more powerful?

  1. I like how you make the changes we usually notice vs. the ones that might go unnoticed so similar. There’s a thin line between being aware and not.

    Since I consider myself above-average on the awareness scale, I like it when the characters I craft reflect that. However, I don’t think it’s always necessary. The only time I make the character reflective and aware is when it’s important for the plot. If the story doesn’t rely on a character knowing they’ve changed/what impacted them, then I don’t see a reason for them to know it all.

    • Good point! If a character spends too much time reflecting inward, it can start to feel overwritten or even preachy. Have you read Dostoevsky’s novella “Notes from the Underground?” I think you’d really love that one, it seems right up your alley.

      • It’s a very dark but accurate window into the mind of the human psyche. Very thought-provoking and strangely relatable in some embarrassing ways!

        Also, I don’t know why WP holds every single one of your comments in moderation until I manually approve them!!? For everyone else, they only have to comment once before it automatically approves everything they say on my blog. I find it rather ironic, since you’re one of the last people I would want to filter. XD

      • 🙁
        I thought everyone goes through purgatory on your page before able to be posted. At least I’m special?! LOL

  2. Great post! In my opinion, the character doesn’t necessarily have to recognize their growth for it to be powerful. What matters is that their actions reflect it and that you as the reader can recognize the change in them. Personally, I find that less on the nose than when a character tells me “hey, I’ve changed.” Of course, as always, depends on the story and how the whole arc is done

    • I have to agree with you here. Actions are always a more powerful sign that someone has changed, rather than their verbal claim that they have. Whether or not they note it can sometimes be beside the point, depending on the story. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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