Just What IS Character Arc, Anyway?

UntitledWriters and reviewers and today’s literati focus a lot on character arc and depth. It’s easy for any aspiring writer to get the message: avoid shallow characters by writing characters with depth–characters who have an “arc.”

Okay. How?

This is one of those topics that is actually much simpler than it seems. Any fictional character can be thought of as having three layers of depth:

  1. The first, superficial layer, is what others in the story see: dress, manner, accent, behavior.
  2. The second, backstory layer, is what drives the first: income, upbringing, ethnicity, that time behind the church with the deacon’s son, etc.
  3. The third, “moral” layer, is what that character does with the first two. Does he become a skin-head rapist or an astronaut? When she fails, does she give up or try again? Character is revealed by a person’s choices and deeds, in literature as in life.

When the gurus talk about the “save the cat” moment, they are stuck in layer one. When reviewers complain about cliché or “one dimensional” characters, they are also talking about layer one. And when an editor says that character lacks depth or isn’t sympathetic, she she didn’t see much beyond layer two.

The fast-talking car salesman in a loud jacket is a cliché. He exists in layer one. If, as in the movie, “True Lies,” he lives in a run down trailer but uses his access to sporty cars to put the make on the town’s housewives, then cowers and denigrates himself when confronted, he starts revealing depth. We see a glimpse of why he is the way he is, and we know what kind of man he is. He’s a jerk, but we can at least pity him. If the same character, perhaps in a sequel, were to get his act together and take positive steps to make amends, that would be character arc. He would now be making different decisions based on the same inputs. He’s growing. If he grows a spine and risks his neck for the greater good, we might even start to root for this reformed loser.

That’s all there is to it. Three layers, and growth. How she appears, why she appears that way, and what she does with that reality. And how what she does with it changes over time.

By the way, it’s sometimes okay to write one dimensional characters. Giving a character depth implies something about his or her role in the story. Don’t flesh out a character who walks on to pump a tank of gas—unless doing so advances the arc of the main character.

I think it’s pretty simple, but of course, there are many places one can go wrong in execution. For now, this is my guide. What about you? As you read a novel, to these layers reveal themselves? If you are an author, do you have a different rubric you use to keep your characters on track? Like, comment, and let me know.

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