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.
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.
Sometimes we do know when we’ve changed. Take for example:
Other times, though, changes can fly under our own radars:
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.
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!