Great characters have to have great character arcs. Easier said than done, right?
No matter how much time you spend perfecting your character’s tastes, background, flaws, and looks, it won’t translate into a solid arc. While a compelling character is a good start, it’s not enough. An arc is the journey they take; it’s built beat by beat from the interactions between them and their environment.
While there are many guides that will give you templates for classic character arcs, these templates aren’t meant to be recipes you follow. Your job is to understand why they work, then break those elements down into something that works for you.
When you get down to basics, a fascinating character arc has to answer two major questions:
How do they change?
Why should we care?
It sounds easy enough, but in reality so many scripts fail to deliver on one or both points. That’s why we’re going to look at three characters—from three different TV series—who do deliver. Now, I’m intentionally going to steer clear of the popular choices most articles list. While Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones are no doubt great examples, you can read all about them elsewhere.
Instead, we’re going to tackle three exceptional arcs that best demonstrate three of the major journeys your character can take:
The Rising Arc
The Declining Arc
The Changing Arc
You don’t need to have seen any of these shows to understand the points we’re making about their character arcs. Hopefully, however, this article will inspire you to check them out.
To start us off, let’s look at an arc that’s been around since the classics – The Rising Arc. This is one umbrella called by many names: The Rising Hero, The Maturing Arc, The Hero’s Journey; and it covers many possible arcs which all have one thing in common: the hero rising to meet and beat challenges.
You probably already know this one by heart. You’ve seen it in The Lion King when you were a kid, then grew up with Star Wars and took your first date to see The Matrix. These movies all have a traditional rising character arc.
Traditional examples are wonderful and to be learned from, but if you follow every single step of the hero’s classic rise to power, you will end up with hundreds of the exact same script; and that’s not what we want. So, let’s break it down and see how a Rising Character Arc answers the important questions using the Western drama ‘Godless’.
Roy Goode starts off as a rumor. When he does show up, it takes us a while to figure out who he is. We only know that a ruthless, exceptionally compelling villain—a vital thing to write well—has sworn to take revenge on him.
Turns out, Roy is on the run from his adoptive father Frank and his gang. They had a falling out, Roy stole his money, and our story begins.
He comes into his own personality – We see him on the brink of the transition between the life of an outlaw, and the discovery that he’s actually a good man. It makes perfect sense. The life he led before, stealing and killing in his adoptive father’s gang, was thrust upon him in childhood. He didn’t make a choice. He broke free from that yoke almost on an impulse, and now discovers that he might have more to offer the world. A great way to accomplish this is to show that your hero performed evil deeds, but ones he would have chosen not to do if he’d had any other option.
He develops relationships – This is a major part of any rising arc. The relationships he develops change the course of his life and directly impact his decisions throughout the story. No longer a runaway, he becomes a protector of people he cares for. Ultimately, he makes a choice to come to their aid rather than serve his own interest, and that’s the peak of his transformation into a heroic figure. None of that could happen without the characters around him, so if you’re writing this kind of arc, make sure they impact your hero in a direct and significant way.
He overcomes his past – In more ways than one, the past haunts Roy. The shadow of his brother abandoning him casts a pall on his trust in others. Frank is hunting him down, angry at having been abandoned himself. Roy overcomes both the internal and the external struggle before he can finally call himself the master of his own fate. One way to do this is to have your hero react in an opposite way to his past self: if he made selfish choices, make his climactic moment all about self-sacrifice.
Why should we care?
We learn the backstory – We learn that he’s a good man at heart, and we learn about the love and hardships in his childhood. Knowing his past makes us more interested in his future. The writers hold back just enough secrets to keep us curious, but let us know his character early on.
His friends love him, and we love them – There’s an aura of reverence whenever his name is spoken, and despite several hiccups and misunderstandings, everyone who gets to know him, loves him. That’s a great trick—there’s no better way to get your viewers to care about a character than to have other good people love them.
We identify with his struggle – Every human being on the planet has made bad choices, that’s why we immediately care that he’s trying to rectify them. On a small or large scale, making up for the past is always difficult. The trick is to tap into your viewer’s collective ability to recall instances where they did their best and failed. That way, they will care about your hero doing his best and, hopefully, winning.
The direct opposite of our previous example, a Declining Character Arc follows a character’s descent through poor choices, bad luck, and into inevitable doom. These kinds of arcs are also called Negative Arcs, Downward Spirals, and Hero’s Demise arcs.
There are many ways a character arc can decline. You can see a great breakdown of some possible negative arcs (though there are infinite variations) here, discussing Disillusionment, Corruption, and Fall.
Thomas Shelby is, much like Roy Goode, a character who falls under the general umbrella of a declining arc without following the specific steps you’ll see in templates—if you’re noticing a pattern there, good.
Thomas begins the story as the younger brother in a small criminal family in Birmingham, right after the first World War. The opening scene shows him cleverly rigging a horse race and undermining his brother, and both his intelligence and his appetite for power become key features of his arc.
He gains power – It’s a shockingly straight line. Thomas Shelby goes from being the second son of a small criminal family to being the de-facto leader of it within the first five minutes. The power and influence he exerts only ever increases. That’s crucial, because your character’s descent has to stand in contrast with something—in this case, his apparent success.
He finds meaning – At the start, he’s distant and cold, obviously scarred by the war. Throughout his story, he forms few, but significant relationships; and learns to find a deeper meaning in family, friendships, and even horses. One great trick to making this search a stepping stone in your character arc is to allow your hero to love and care rarely, but with great passion.
He loses control – The staple of a negative arc is loss, and we witness Thomas apparently win most battles externally, but slowly lose the war with himself. His ambitions and wins put him ever closer to being unhinged, and a danger to himself and those around him. If you’re writing this kind of arc, remember that it will only work so long as we continue to care about the hero and understand why he does what he does.
Why should we care?
He’s the driving force of his fate – People love a character who takes action and is the engine behind every single thing that happens to him. No event in the entire show would have been the same without Thomas, and that makes for a compelling arc.
He’s the driving force of every fate around him – As an extension of the previous point, he’s also the reason behind everything that happens to every other character. Love them or hate them, every sibling and enemy reacts to his actions. If a viewer is invested in the life of just one of them, they’ll be invested in his, too.
He shows us who we can never be – A stark contrast to the previous example where we identify with the hero, Thomas represents something we can never be; or, at the very least, hope we won’t. He makes hard choices that we understand, but would never make ourselves. He wins more often than is natural, and ultimately changes himself permanently. This goes back to a very simple rule that often gets overlooked when creating a main character: even if they’re an average person, they have to be special in some way.
Now that we’ve covered the two obvious arcs—up and down—let’s talk about a lesser-known but equally stunning kind of arc: that of change and adaptation. This is a far more delicate arc, and definitely one where you’d need to make heavy use of Arc Studio Pro’s ability to store detailed character cards, as well as other story elements.
In a Changing Arc, a character neither rises nor falls; they neither become any better than they were, nor any worse. Mary Crawley is a fantastic example because she remains essentially unchanged throughout the entire show; she is still cool and harsh and wickedly clever. At the same time, she adapts to the changing world and steps into a version of herself that mirrors the changing times.
Lady Mary Crawley begins her story as the oldest of three sisters in an aristocratic Yorkshire family at the end of the Edwardian era. She is quickly and thoroughly set up as a sort of antagonist to the other, far more likeable characters. She is callous about the death of her fiance and cold when it comes to her father being in danger of losing the estate; and her main redeeming feature is her fierce intelligence. We know nothing of her past, her entire personality being cleverly revealed through pre-existing relationships.
She learns how to compromise – From the very start, Lady Mary is opposed to compromise. She wants the estate to remain in the family, she refuses to welcome her cousin’s help, and that is that. That’s what makes her arc—which is all about adaptation—so strong. Whereas her sisters start off already embracing the future, she has to learn compromise step by painful step.
She gains the ability to treasure – A common theme across all arcs, you’ll notice. Lady Mary begins as a rather spoiled child, and like most spoiled children, doesn’t much value anything. She never turns into a better, warmer person, but she goes from respecting the estate because of loyalty to respecting it because she loves it; and that is an excellent lateral change.
She gains the ability to take control – While it was always her role to be a strong leader, the change comes in what the role itself means. Being the leader of an estate rushing headlong into the roaring twenties is no longer about tradition; but about intelligence. She fights back against the characters that tend towards negative arcs and remains a pillar through troubling times. A great way to show this is to have your character actively rejecting the decisions of their elders and superiors, and being right.
Why should we care?
She offsets the arcs around her – In a great story, all the elements work together. Similarly, for a character arc to be great, it has to interact with every other arc around it. We care about the way Mary changes because everyone else around her has entirely different paces; whether they dive headlong into the future like her sister Sybil, or refuse to even acknowledge that the future exists at all, like her father. It’s always a good suggestion to make sure your characters aren’t all following the same arc.
She’s endearingly unlikeable and thoroughly human – Lady Mary appears in any conversation about compelling unlikeable characters. She is riddled with flaws and thinks highly of herself, which only serves to highlight her good traits: Her intelligence and adaptability. We love her because she is strong, not because she is good. One great way to write a compelling unlikeable character’s arc is to slowly grant them moments where they show that deep down, they are trying.
She represents overcoming something we all fear – A key point in any compelling metamorphosis arc is that the changes a hero goes through represent something. They parallel their setting, they highlight a philosophy, or, more often, they represent our everyday fears. Fear of change and of losing control is one of the most common human emotions, and watching someone so imperfect deal with and overcome that fear makes for a riveting arc.
An arc is a complex mechanism that reaches throughout your story, and can often be difficult to look at with objectivity. Make sure you keep notes and diagrams of how your characters evolve over time, and always ask for feedback before fine-tuning your script. There’s nothing like an external eye to tell you whether a character’s arc rises and falls as it should.
Keep in mind that Arc Studio Pro makes it easy for you to have an overview of the timeline of your script by using Arc Mode. The linear graph allows you to better understand your pace and easily move beats around to adjust your arcs.
Alex is a screenwriter and editor. She specializes in dark speculative fiction, compelling characters, and snappy dialogue, and loves nothing more than showing others the editorial tricks she’s picked up along the way.
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