The Empowering Character Arc

What is a character arc?

A Character Arc could also be described as the journey.  Remember, every protagonist must have a journey that they experience throughout the storyline.  Sometimes, it can be seen in the development of their character or personality they experience.  Some examples of this are frequently seen in the aspects of their persona—emotional, physical or psychological.

Why does a character need an arc?

A character arc helps to create believable characters that will always have universal appeal.  Without an arc, the character might not be convincing or interesting and could loose the audience.  The lead character must go on some kind of transformational journey.  If you want your audience to identify with your protagonist, create a complex journey for them to take.  Make him or her human.  Ask and answer questions like:  What is the their goal?  Define if it’s emotional or physical.  What do they want (want/desire births action) and how will they change (transform) throughout the story?

Examples:  Luke Skywalker in the First Star Wars film.  He begins his journey as a naive farm boy with dreams of exploring the solar system. Luke struggles with authority, responsibility and “The Force,” but as the story progresses, obstacles are thrown his way that he has to overcome.   By the end of the film, Skywalker is living the dream.  He’s fighting villains and saving a princess.  How about Elle Woods in Legally Blonde?  She begins her journey on a quest to become Warner’s wife, a goal that is never met, but interrupted by her journey to FULL TRANSFORMATION, which takes place at Harvard Law School.  Elle ends up at the top of her class, fully realized, with the promise of a job with a top law firm in Boston and the better guy.  What more could a “not-so-dumb” blonde girl ask for, right?

*Note:  Character arcs are for the main characters.  Very often the antagonist will have an arc too.  They need to have their own life journey—even if it’s evil, which makes them seem more real-to-life.

How to Figure Out Your Character’s Arc

Many a story begins with a great character. That flash of inspiration that says I have to write a story about this person. Yet, so many stories stall out just short of that all-important finish line. Why is that?

The answer can often be traced to misplaced focus. So much attention is placed on fleshing out the character and providing them with greater and greater sources of escalating conflict, which the basic logic of their actual arc breaks down. In fact, sometimes it’s not even there at all.

Structure your character arcs by asking three pivotal questions:

1) What do they WANT? This is a tangible, attainable goal. Admittedly, it gets interrupted by the antagonist repeatedly, but it is attained in the end.

2) What do they NEED? This is the underlying motivation driving their main want?  The complexity of human psychology often reveals that our outer wants are inversely related to our inner needs. For example, Elle Woods believes that there’s no other man for her in the world, EXCEPT Warner, however, when she shows up at Harvard Law School, she’s in for a rude awakening.  Not only does she experience the reality check of her life, she is suddenly aware of how Warren is NOT the guy she thought he was.  She inwardly wants a boyfriend/serious relationship, but it’s not really with Warren.

3) What’s the issue with this character?  In other words…what’s the FLAW? A flawed character is always going to be more compelling and easier to relate to than someone who appears to be perfect.  That’s simply not realistic.

Note:  There is a simple dynamic that exists within all Main Characters, defined by the chasm between a problem and a solution.


For screenplay coaching and/or editing:

Other references: – where screenwriters and actors collaborate online to help bring scripts to life!

Recommended Books:  Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriter’s, by Michael Tierno, STORY, by David McKee, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, by Syd Field, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier and Backwards & Forwards by David Ball



94 thoughts on “The Empowering Character Arc

    • I so love writing. I work as a journalist, copywriter and screenwriter, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Some of the rules and elements of craft lop over into the other genres, and it’s great! Thanks for stopping in.

  1. Your points are so good its oozing that quality of “must read!!” I’m working on a book right now and even as I do that I’m focusing quite a bit on the protagonist and what his problem is and what he’s needing to fix it. To add, the problem is very universal, proof of maturity and responsibility.

    • Once again, thank you Kendall. I am humbled.

      Focusing on the protagonist is a good thing. Here’s a tidbit. Your character/protagonist’s WANT will produce ACTION. Every time. Think about it. If you’re hungry, what do you do? Go to the refrigerator… go to the store… go out to eat. Characters respond to need much the same way, and the great thing about that… It makes them REAL! 🙂

    • You’re so WELCOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMME! Do it! Just write! You know, I read somewhere that Tennessee Williams was asked how to become a great or good writer, and his response was brilliant: “Start.” :0 I love that!

  2. Thanks for the blog. You are 100% correct about having that ‘flash of inspiration’. Mine came to me in the middle of the night. They are almost required for motivation, because the fleshing out of characters (and their worlds) can get overwhelming at timesa.

    • I do agree with you about the fleshing out of characters. Indeed, it can get overwhelming, but it’s really so necessary. Thank you for stopping in! I’m so glad you enjoyed this David.

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  4. In the trilogy of novels I’m working on, the ten protagonists all go through a journey together, an each learns something along the way. I couldn’t help but see their problems and resolution in your post.

  5. Thanks for sharing this take on the arc. I have been struggling with my character for some time. She seems flat, but no matter what I do I can’t bring her to life so to speak. Answering your questions with her in mind has shed some light on just who she is! I will be keep these questions close to me as I continue to write. Thanks again 🙂

    • Wow, thanks Olivia. So glad this helped. One thing I generally do if a character is flat is go back to the beginning and review her or his need/want or desire. It must be there, in plain sight. Desire produces ACTION, and whether you’re writing fiction or especially a screenplay you want to see that happen. What does your character WANT? 🙂

      • I’m beginning to understand her more and more. Another issue I am having is getting through the middle. It’s the hardest part to write. I know how it starts and ends but what happens in between is such a hang up for me. Would you happen to have any helpful writeups in this area??

  6. Great blog! Character development is something I am definitely still working on in my writing; I’m used to academic writing but the move back to fiction is proving trickier than I’d thought — thanks for these tips!

    • I love academic writing, and this is definitely different, but there are so many areas where things seemingly merge together. Hooks, character arc, story arc… etc. Even in journalism, there needs to be a hook, and a beginning, middle and end. In academic papers, though you’re writing critically and supporting a thesis statement, you still have to have a hook and a beginning, middle and end. It’s wild, isn’t it? Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • You’re absolutely right! This was something I struggled with in my book project because the more intrigue/arc I attempted to add, the more I became concerned I was getting off topic or crossing a line into another genre. Do you find this is ever a problem in your own academic writing or reading?

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  8. People should read Joseph Campbell, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, to get an insight in issues like the Character arc.

  9. Thanks for posting, these are great points and I like that you mention how imperfect characters will seem more believable. They have to have a flaw, even if they are the hero/heroine. I especially like the breakdown part of finding your character’s story arc, very helpful!

    • Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Flawed characters are always the better character, because they are more real, and the great thing about that is it will build universal appeal to your reader/audience, which you want. I’m really glad this helped crampedwriting. 🙂

  10. Great post and something that separates good stories from the also rans. In my latest project, the character arc for the inititial protagonist sees him transformers into the antagonist, while the initial antagonist transformers into the protagonist. They achieve this through their interaction with each other and crises that occur to them along the way. The real trick I’m finding is to write both characters so that my initial antagonist can be saved, while the initial protagonist’s fall is seen as a tragedy.

  11. Indeed, generating a believeable character requires good acting and a good understanding of human psychology. Almost like how anatomy is important to an artist.

  12. Very interesting post – I’m going to pass this on to my daughter who’s just starting a career in writing for children’s programming. I’m sure it’s as valid there as anywhere else!

  13. Well said! I love to see how a character progresses during a book or movie. One of the best examples of characterization I ever saw was the movie “Citizen X,” a true story about a serial killer in Russia. It’s basically the story of three men. The killer is a very nasty guy and there’s no way you can like him, but they show scenes that help you understand why he became the way he did.

    The other two characters are both in law enforcement. One is passionately caring and idealistic, and the other is colder and more cynical. By the end of the movie, the idealistic one has become a little more cynical and the cynical one is more caring, so in essence they’ve changed positions.

    Excellent movie but be advised that it has some VERY graphic scenes. If you ever decide to watch it (if you haven’t already), shoo away any kids or teens first.

    • Thanks so much. I couldn’t agree with you more about watching the characters progress, in fact, I really enjoy that part of the writing process. I really get into my characters! 🙂 Would you believe I haven’t seen Citizen X, but I’ve heard the character arcs are good. Of course, it’s all about transformation. That character must journey and change.

      Enjoyed this banter. Appreciate you sharing. 🙂

  14. Great post, thanks, I find discussions about the craft fascinating. In case you or your readers haven’t seen it I can recommend “Story” by Bob McKee as an excellent book on screenwriting that talks along the same lines.
    I’m working on a cyberpunk novel at the moment, with a protagonist that has at least half of his decisions and motivations set by a personality-controlling artificial intelligence. It’s tricky to unravel the hybrid characters, but an interesting challenge!

    • Thanks for stopping in and sharing Barry… “Story” is an EXCELLENT book on craft. All the best with your novel, but of course you know that your main characters have to arc there too! Enjoy the writing challenge set before you!

  15. cool! there seems to be a lot of writing (script, fiction, blogging etc) tips floating around wordpress these days, and i really love that. as a former english major, i think being able to express yourself on paper is one of the most important skills you can learn! even though screenwriting is obviously different, creatively, all writing is born from the same place and tips like these ones are great!

    thanks for sharing! x

  16. Thank you for this-my Great American Novel, Screenplay or trash can liner-whatever it turns out to be, has gotten no further than a series of 3×5 index cards fleshing out the story line. Reading posts like yours is edging me closer to actually doing something with it after far too long. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  17. Thanks for this very instructive post on character arcs. I’m a nonfiction book editor and I can already see how this will be useful to memoir writers. All characters, fictional or otherwise, need a character arc.

    • Thank you for stopping in and reading it Katie. I am glad the post was informative for you. You are absolutely right about characters at large. The character arc is paramount.
      All The Best!

  18. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing anything, I think. A great reminder! On another note… are you on Stage 32?

  19. The thing I love about arcs is that you can never maintain the high point. You must always come back down to earth – fail, grow disillusioned, find your ending. Fiction is a form of escapism but if there’s no arc and only the rise, its falsehood becomes too obvious and I can’t connect with it.

    Luke Skywalker only has one flaw. He used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16. That’s the sign of a depraved child.

    • LOL I love the reference to Luke being a depraved child. Very good. Thanks for the visit and the comment. You are also correct about the falsehood that exists with no apparent arc.

    • LOL I love the reference to Luke being a depraved child. Very good. Thanks for the visit and the comment. You are also correct about the falsehood that exists with no apparent arc. 🙂

  20. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you happen to be a great author.
    I will always bookmark your blog and may come back at some point.
    I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great posts, have a nice morning!

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