Unlocking the Power of Character Arcs: Your Guide to Crafting Compelling Stories

Oct 31, 2023


One of the fundamental aspects of storytelling that makes our tales truly captivating is the character arc. Every story is a personal crucible. This crucible is where the main character sheds their flaws, confronts their wounds, and ultimately steps into (or shies away from) the heroic shoes they were always destined to fill. No matter the outward pursuit or goal (the plot), what we’re really interested in is how your main character changes internally over time. But how do you show character growth and change effectively?

1. Establish the Character's Need from the Get-Go

To illustrate character growth, you must unveil the character's need early on. This differs from their want, which materializes after the inciting incident. The want defines their goal—the driving force behind their actions. This is the plot, as your character relentlessly pursues their goal over the course of the story. However, the need is something deeper, something soul-searching. The need is the core issue they must confront deep within themselves. Whether it aligns with their want or not, revealing the character's need early on is crucial. It's like planting seeds that will grow throughout your story, providing a glimpse into what truly drives your character's actions.

2. Focus on One Primary Issue

As human beings, we all have our fair share of flaws and wounds. But for your main character, it's essential to identify one primary issue to overcome. Sure, this issue might affect various aspects of their life, but at its core, it's a single root problem. Take "About Schmidt" as an example. Schmidt wants his life to have meaning, but what he needs is to become a better person. He starts as a selfish, self-absorbed individual, unworthy of the reward he seeks. But over the course of the narrative, events conspire to make Schmidt’s transformation possible. As soon as he changes at the core level and becomes a decent person, Schmidt’s life finally matters, which is what he wanted all along. The magic happens when you intertwine the want and the need, making them work in harmony to achieve the character's goal.

3. Whoever Changes the Most is the Main Character

A conundrum that baffles many storytellers is determining the main character, especially in ensemble pieces with a multitude of characters. Here's a simple rule: whoever undergoes the most profound change is your main character. But tread carefully here. Hollywood sometimes confuses changing characterization with true character transformation. Take Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, for instance. Luke's characterization shifts from a bored farmhand to a Jedi Knight, but his core remains unchanged. In contrast, Han Solo's transformation is remarkable; he evolves from a self-serving smuggler to a selfless hero, a shift that resonates deeply with us. True character change is the magnetic force that draws us into your character’s journey.

4. Believable Growth: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Character growth must be believable and incremental. Sudden, inexplicable transformations can derail your story's credibility. Take Ebenezer Scrooge as an example. His transformation from a miser to a benevolent soul is convincing because it's a slow, step-by-step process. Each encounter with the ghosts chips away at his icy exterior, and we buy into his eventual redemption.

Every story, at its core, revolves around a character's inner, emotional journey. This journey is designed to nudge them along a path of transformation. It's about providing the right mix of outward conflicts and challenges that will gradually mold them into the person they were always meant to be. Whether they succeed or stumble, our audience needs to believe in this evolution and feel emotionally satisfied when the tale concludes.

5. Make Every Story Element Part of the Character's Arc

The key is to make everything in your story, from plot twists to character interactions, contribute to the main character's internal emotional arc. There’s no moment wasted. There's no "plot vs. character" debate because they are intrinsically linked. The character's inner journey unfolds because of the external journey they embark on. These pivotal moments in the plot serve as stepping stones for their transformation, and that's what keeps us glued to the story.

Final Thoughts

Crafting compelling character arcs is the secret sauce that breathes life into your stories. Remember these five key principles: establish the character's need, keep it focused, let the one who changes the most shine, ensure believability through gradual growth, and weave every story element into the character's emotional journey.