Character Arcs: Types and Examples
There is no story without characters. Characters can easily make or break a story, making it imperative for writers to draft compelling characters. A character doesn’t necessarily need to be likable, but they need to be within what’s known as a character arc—the transformation or inner journey of a character.
Most audiences aren’t aware of character arcs because it’s a deeper layer of writing that evokes a more important lesson throughout the story. Whether that lesson is positive, a declaration, or tied to a more resounding theme, every film has it to a certain degree (even the most experimental).
Still with Anakin Skywalker. Photo credit: Seriesly Awesome
What is a Character Arc?
A character arc is a proportion of how a person changes after some time. These circular segments are straight, meaning they generally have a start and end. However, they don't need to agree with story points. For instance, a story curve might begin at its end. However, that doesn't mean the person's arc also starts at its end.
Character arcs work because people in real life have an arc in their life. People transform because of their genetics, mental state, and life events. The same can be said in a movie, but it is obviously at a much quicker pace than someone in real life. Nevertheless, let’s discuss some different character arcs.
The Flat Character Arc
The flat character arc is the only character arc where the character doesn’t necessarily change, but rather its setting or life around them. Flat characters don't change their ethics or goals to match the switching setting and are usually often than not, generalized, one-layered characters.
Flat arcs are great for novice screenwriters, primarily if their story is based in a unique setting with a sprawling plot. Flat arcs are ideally suited for uninvolved characters that let the story come to them. It’s a way for the characters to behave like conductors for the audience to encounter the story vividly.
● Captain America
● Sherlock Holmes
● Marty McFly
● James Bond
Ascending Character Arc
The ascending character arc is much denser than a typical flat character. You can write an ascending character arc in two different ways; a straight ascending line or a v-shaped arc where the character has a period of lowness in the middle before bouncing back up.
Furthermore, In the v-shaped arc, the character begins at a neutral position. Then, they experience an inducing affair that presents struggle, which makes them sink to their absolute bottom. In any case, the person drives forward to recover themselves from the absolute bottom and rise back up to their past state. Sometimes, the person surpasses their unbiased state into a sense of wisdom.
● Luke Skywalker
● Harry Potter
● Neo from The Matrix
● Gordie from Stand By Me
Descending Character Arc
The descending character arc differs from the ascending character arc by being the polar opposite. A character typically begins in a high or ideal situation and eventually declines to a bottom. That bottom can be a moral question, a loss of finances, or, worst-case scenario, death.
Maybe the best instances of descending character arcs are tracked down in anti-heroes. Most (not all) anti-heroes face an inverted v-arc. The character begins in a terrible state, makes progress by embracing their dark side, then, at that point, eventually falls flat.
● Henry Hill from Goodfellas
● Mikey from Red Rocket
● Walter White from Breaking Bad
● Anakin Skywalker
The Importance of Character Arcs
Character arcs are vital because they allow us to understand a character better. Every character has an arc, whether it's throughout several films or episodes in a television series. Even the most one-dimensional characters will fall under the character arc umbrella if they’re essential to the story.
As an audience, we want to see a character succeed, fail, or advance in whatever their specific goal is. Whether something as out-of-the-ordinary as Neo in the Matrix, nostalgic like Henry Hill in Goodfellas or heartbreaking like Walter White in Breaking Bad, character arcs constitute a significant part of writing.
Lastly, understanding the importance of character arcs can help writers enhance their scripts. Once you know about the varying character arc options, you can do a better job at mastering your characters and story. The result will be better, giving you a higher chance to make or sell the script. At the end of the day, whatever you can to help your writing is worthwhile.
Specific Arcs to Consider
● Transformational Arc - A transformational arc is when a character goes from being a customary individual toward the start of the story to a legend throughout the story.
● Positive Change Arc - A positive change arc is when a character undergoes a positive change throughout a story (hence its name).