How to Nail Your Character Arc: The Ultimate Guide
A crucial part of any screenplay is the main character’s growth and evolution from beginning to end. This is their character arc.
How do they grow? How do they change? What journey do they go on? Their character arc should speak to these questions.
Whether the term leaves you scratching your head or fills you with trepidation about how to properly build it up, we’re here to help guide you.
What is a Character Arc?
In simplified terms…
a character arc is the transformation or growth that a character has over the entirety of a screenplay.
Traditionally, the character that has the most significant character arc is the main character, aka the protagonist.
Their growth or internal journey is typically displayed as rather substantial, moving from one extreme to another.
- For example, many protagonists fall into the “unlikely hero” trope and as such typically progress from clueless, cowardly, passive, etc. to strong, courageous, and, well, heroic.
Of course, this growth and change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. One of the major driving elements in a character arc is a whole host of opposing, external forces that appear almost impossible to overcome.
The character arc is pushed forward by this as the protagonist is essentially forced to evolve or face defeat. They must achieve this change by acquiring, for example, certain skills, self-awareness, allies, or conviction.
What Makes a Stand-Out Character Arc?
There’s a marked difference between creating a good character arc and an absolutely stand-out character arc. Anyone who watches great films and TV will know this.
What makes for a brilliant, captivating and memorable character arc?
1. Complex Characterisation
- Avoid cliched, predictable character arcs by creating characters that have flaws, represent morally grey areas, and have both good and bad sides to all their character traits.
- Even character’s strengths have certain weaknesses attached. Exploring how that impacts the individual and their growth will make all the difference in their character arc.
- Contemporary TV, in particular, is filled with such characters, proving their appeal to audiences. These are characters who are appealing and disgusting all at once and overall prove compelling to watch.
2. Equal inner and outer journeys
- In the real world, growth and the struggle for it happens on both an internal and an external level.
- Focus on exploring both sides of your character’s journey. This gives their growth more weight and resonance.
- Realism makes for better character arcs. There’s little more unrealistic than a character arc that lacks ups and downs.
- Growth and change don’t happen in a straight line. Explore this and show that even the hero of the story will have their bad days.
- This speaks far truer than a character who keeps winning against all odds, and it makes the end transformation all that more fulfilling.
Steps for a Great Character Arc
Of course, there’s no one set way to write a great character arc – but having a series of suggested templates certainly doesn’t hurt.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to help you guide your character along their journey.
Step 1: The Starting Point
In order to see your character become someone new, we have to see who they used to be. In the beginning scenes of your screenplay, you’ll need to explore where your character is starting off.
- What is their life situation? What are their values?
- Even more importantly, what is the thing missing from them or their life?
- After all, there is no story if everything in their lives is right as rain.
It’s also crucial to explore what the mask is that they present to society.
- What is the face they show the world? How has it helped them cope with life and how has it ultimately failed at bringing them happiness?
- What are some of their major character flaws and how do they shape their behaviour?
If these questions seem difficult to answer, a great way to answer them is by working backwards. Odds are, you probably have a good idea where you want your character to end up.
- Whether you want your character to learn sacrifice, develop empathy, become a courageous warrior etc, these loose goals go a long way to informing your character’s personal journey.
Because of the (typically) dramatic opposite nature of character’s beginnings and endings, you’ll easily have a guide if you can figure out one of them.
- For example…want your hero to be forgiving? Maybe start them off as merciless and unsympathetic.
- Want your character to become an advocate for the weak? Perhaps show them to be the bully in the beginning.
Step 2: The Initial Goal
Connected to your character’s starting personality, values, and situation, you need to also establish what their starting goal is.
Your story is about a character who sets off on a journey – they need an initial reason for that journey.
- What does your character want to achieve? What are their internal and external motivations?
- Are they trying to rescue their family or start a new life? Is their main goal to gain money, slay a dragon, or take down a despot?
- Or are they rather striving for security, inspiration, or hope?
- How do their external and internal goals interact?
Whatever your answer, it needs to be a goal that feels genuinely important to the character. Nobody embarks on life-changing journeys because of reasons that don’t really matter to them. Make the goal feel important and make it feel real.
- Your character’s goal doesn’t have to stay the same for the duration of your screenplay. In fact, a good character arc needs to have motivations that change and morph over time.
- Just like the character themselves, their goals and reasons for their actions are constantly in flux.
- As their values and experiences change, what they’re striving for will also change.
Your character always needs an end goal to generate better story focus, inspire deeper emotions, and prove that a change has happened. Even if that goal changes throughout your story.
Step 3: The Big Challenge
In order for major character development to happen, you need to create a challenge that will push your character in the correct direction.
Yes, they have a goal spurring them on, but that won’t be enough to keep them moving. You must put pressure on them.
- This big challenge can come from a few different sources, with two of the biggest ones being from an antagonist or from the character themselves (their internal conflict).
- A combination of these two will be the most effective because it’s (once again) a pairing of internal and external conflict.
Regardless, don’t be afraid to give these challenges a serious weight or upper hand, because the conflict needs to create high stakes that don’t allow a character to quit.
Put into practice though, one of the biggest and most satisfying challenges for any character in their character arc is the struggle against a deeply held fear.
- Why? Because fear is the one thing that holds us all from getting exactly what we want.
- A fire-breathing dragon, a gun fight, a particularly bad talk with the IRS; they’re all barriers. However, they have multiple, practical solutions! Fear has one solution: conquer it!
The only way your character can move forward in their mission and in their character development will be to conquer their fears, whether those fears be about themselves or others or their circumstances.
Once they do this, they’ve already won no matter the literal, end outcome of the screenplay. Conquering fears will bring your character perspective, major internal growth, and the will to carry on regardless of the potential consequences.
Step 4: The Point of No Return
After your character has acknowledged what their challenge truly is, you’ve got to get them to the point of no return.
- It’s at this point where the figurative speed and experience they’ve picked up propels them forward.
- At the point of no return, your character needs to fully commit to a goal or plan – one that is likely far different from their original one.
Why is the point of no return important for a great character arc?
- It creates a greater focus and a more cohesive arc in general.
- It shows that the character’s transformation is truly taking shape and that the end result is something that’s going to stick.
- Furthermore, it also obviously helps along the plot, which is inherently tied to the character’s growth.
There’s a few different ways you could approach this point of no return, including:
Allow characters to make irreversible choices
- When you allow characters wiggle room to get out of a sticky situation, they can face stagnation.
- Whether the choices were good or bad, their lack of reversibility will always force change in character and plot to happen.
- This approach is also perfect for showcasing some of your character’s darker, more flawed moments. These can demonstrate the contrast between who they were and who they are now (or who they want to be).
Show the consequences of your character’s actions
- Similarly to the last approach, this can bring out the stark differences between the past and the present into the forefront.
- You could explore how the character’s initial actions has impacted their current actions and self.
- It’s also a perfect time to look and see what path their past could have taken them down.
Decide on further rising and falling plot points
- Allowing for more ups and downs, this approach can cause major shifts in your character arc.
- These plot points could take the character closer to their goals or further away.
- Everything can be improved or destroyed at will, which keeps an arc tense and interesting.
Step 5: The Other Side
What comes up must come down. Likewise, a character arc that has a starting point must also have an end point. A great character arc has to have a great conclusion.
Here, you need to explore how exactly your character has transformed in front of the audience’s eyes.
- Where have they ended up?
- Did they achieve what they set out to do and how have their goals changed throughout their journey?
- Did they ultimately fill the piece of the puzzle that was missing from their life or did they have to come to terms that they never would?
- How has your hero’s flaws and strengths changed? What changes do others notice in them? What mask do they present to society or do they even need to present a mask anymore?
- How does your character interpret their own journey? Did they grow into a better person or a worse one? How did they win and how did they lose?
When considering how to approach your character’s transformation, remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. They don’t have to win everything or lose everything. They don’t have to exclusively be a hero or a villain.
Alternatively, they don’t have to even change in a positive way. The fall of a character is a just as, if not more, interesting of a narrative than a redemption or hero arc.
In the end, finish connecting the dots and show off the transformation that has taken place, warts and all.
Some Great Character Arcs in Film and TV
Here are some examples of great character arcs within film and TV, just to get you going if you need inspiration.
- Breaking Bad – A famously tumultuous character arc. Walter White goes from normal high school chemistry teacher to a criminal mastermind.
- Succession – This HBO series is full of great character arcs across all its main characters. However, the troubled heir apparent to his father’s media empire, Kendall Roy, makes for the most empathetic and compelling character arc. His addiction issues and thirst for power make him an unstable and fascinating presence.
- The Godfather – Michael Corleone goes from all American hero wanting nothing to do with his family’s crime enterprise, to the leader of that very enterprise. The pull of family makes his journey empathetic.
- Games of Thrones – Many of our least favourite characters become, in the end, our favourite ones as the series progresses. Perhaps no one represents this better than Theon Greyjoy, who goes from arrogant braggart to near mute hero. This happens through a painful set of external circumstances that are ultimately a result of his initially repugnant persona.
- Boyhood – A very literal character arc, at least in physical terms, represented by the growth of the real actor filmed in real time. We see how the character’s family upbringing shapes his character over the years.
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