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Character Development
13 MIN
November 20, 2020

Creating Fascinating Character Arcs

Great characters have to have great character arcs. Easier said than done, right?

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.

There are many guides that will give you templates for classic character arcs. You can follow these templates and adapt them as you see fit .

You can also take advantage of all the features in Arc Studio that allow you to plan your screenplay and turn that plan into a professionally formatted script for pitching to Amazon or the BBC.

What is a character arc?

A character arc represents the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. It is the backbone of a character's development and is crucial to a narrative's depth and emotional impact. The arc charts the evolution of a character, typically moving from one psychological state to another, and is often intertwined with the plot, influencing and being influenced by the story's events.

At its core, a character arc is about change. This change can be positive, negative, or neutral, and it reflects a shift in the character's beliefs, needs, or overall perspective.

There are several types of character arcs, but they all serve to provide the character with a trajectory that the audience can follow and invest in emotionally.

The Elements of all character arcs:

  1. Introduction: The character is introduced in their initial state, often called the "status quo." This state reflects their current situation, beliefs, and attitudes. It is the baseline from which the change will occur.
  2. Catalyst: Some inciting incident challenges the character's status quo, forcing them to confront a central conflict or problem. This is often an event that triggers the character to take action or reconsider their current path.
  3. Progression: Throughout the story, the character experiences events that test them and push them to evolve. They face obstacles that challenge their beliefs and force them to grow or regress.
  4. Climax: The character reaches a turning point where they must make a critical choice or take a significant action. This moment is a culmination of their growth and the lessons they've learned.
  5. Resolution: The character emerges from the climax changed. This final state is a direct contrast to the introduction, showing how the character has grown, fallen, or solidified their beliefs.

The basics of creating fascinating character arcs

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 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. We’re going to tackle three exceptional arcs that best demonstrate three of the major journeys your character can take:

  1. The Rising Arc
  2. The Declining Arc
  3. The Changing Arc
  4. The Redemption Arc

You don’t need to have seen any of these shows to understand the points we’re making about their character arcs.

The rising character arc – Roy Goode from Godless

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, the transformation; 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 protagonist with a traditional rising character arc that overcomes inner conflict.

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.

What changes?

1. 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. 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.

2. He develops relationships – This is a major part of any rising arc. The relationships he develops change and transform the course of his life. This evolution directly impact his decisions throughout the story. This can’t 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.

3. He overcomes his past – 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?

1. We learn the backstory – We learn that he’s a good man at heart in the beginning, and we learn about the love and hardships in his childhood. Knowing his past makes us more interested in his future.

2. 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 as he pursues his inner journey.

3. 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 declining character arc – Thomas Shelby from Peaky Blinders

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. The inciting incident is not a point of benevolent transformation but one in which the pursuit of short term dark goals like the pursuit of power, money or lust starts a downward spiral.

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 as the writers establish his character.

Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders smoking a cigarette and dressed in a suit.
Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders.

What changes?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Why should we care?

1. 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.

2. He’s the driving force of every fate around him – 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.

3. 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.

The changing character arc – Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey

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. We know nothing of her past, her entire personality being cleverly revealed through pre-existing relationships.

What changes?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Why should we care?

1. She offsets the arcs around her – 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

The Redemption Arc

The Redemption Arc is a classic narrative device in storytelling where a character undergoes a transformation from a state of moral flaw or wrongdoing towards a path of atonement, leading to salvation or improvement in character.

This arc is deeply rooted in the universal theme of forgiveness and the belief in the possibility of second chances.

In the Redemption Arc, the character often begins the story with behaviors or attitudes that are selfish, harmful, or otherwise negative. They may be the antagonist or a flawed protagonist who makes decisions that lead to negative consequences for themselves and others.

The audience is shown the reasons behind these behaviors, which often include a troubled past, a specific trauma, or a series of misguided beliefs. These motivations serve not to excuse their actions but to add depth and complexity to their character.

As the narrative unfolds, a catalyst prompts the character to confront their past and their wrongdoings.

This can be an event, a realization, or an encounter with another character that holds up a mirror to their flaws. The character begins to experience remorse and recognizes the need for change, marking the beginning of their redemption journey.

The path to redemption is seldom easy or straightforward. It typically involves a series of trials and challenges where the character must prove their commitment to change. They may have to sacrifice something significant or face the consequences of their past actions, demonstrating their growth and the genuineness of their transformation.

Use the plot board features on Arc Studio to get started with this.

Redemption Arc Examples

A poignant example of a character with a Redemption Arc is that of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Valjean starts as a convicted thief, hardened by years of unjust punishment.

His encounter with the Bishop of Digne, who shows him mercy despite Valjean's theft, triggers a profound change in him. Valjean's subsequent journey is one of striving to live up to the grace he was given, as he adopts a new identity and dedicates his life to helping others, despite the constant threat of his past catching up to him.

The Redemption Arc resonates with audiences because it taps into the hopeful belief that no one is beyond redemption and that transformation is always possible. It allows viewers or readers to engage in a narrative of hope and witness the evolution of a character striving towards betterment, which can be both inspiring and deeply satisfying.

Another examples is Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers series. Starting as a self-centered arms dealer, Tony Stark undergoes a massive change after a near-death experience.

Throughout the films, he evolves into a hero who learns the value of responsibility, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.

Final thoughts on creating fascinating character Arcs

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.


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Creating Fascinating Character Arcs
Alex Woodroe

Alex is a professional editor and ghostwriter from Romania. 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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