Character arc – in fiction and life

Young woman hiking with backpack. Girl walking on mysterious road through scenic green forest at sunset.

Although the word ‘journey’ has become synonymous with reality television shows, it’s an important part of stories.

The journey a character goes on during the course of a novel is often what attracts us to the book. How does a man who has lost his memories reconnect with the people in his old life? What does it take to climb a mountain or move cities or open a cafe? We urge friends on in real life, and in a similar way we want the protagonist to overcome all obstacles. We want to support them in the hard times, and celebrate with them during the good ones.

In most novels, the character will change during the book. Donald Maass in his book, The emotional craft of fiction, defines character arc as ‘the change or changes that a character goes through over a novel’s length.’

I’m sure we all know someone going through an awful patch now. Perhaps it’s a divorce that involves betrayal, children, selling the family home and negotiating childcare access. Maybe it’s a loved one’s unexpected death or terminal illness. If this were a book, her life would be at the midpoint of the book – right when things seem worse.

And yet, we all know, after reading many books, that the dark night of the soul is yet to come, about 80-90% in, when the character really hits rock bottom. She has to make some tough choices, gather all her courage, bring together all her inherent skills and talents in order to become her true self and overcome the antagonist.

I’m working on the character arc of my story now. At the beginning of the book, my twelve-year-old protagonist, Freya, had her normal world disrupted. At the beginning of the book, she’s hurt and vulnerable – which she covers up with anger. She’s also curious and sporty and competitive. At the end of the book, she’s still curious and sporty and competitive but she’s lost her anger and she’s gained more confidence in overcoming her greatest fear.

Actually, like most characters, she has two greatest fears. (That doesn’t sound grammatically correct but bear with me!) Freya has an outer, physical, nameable fear. But underneath, she has an inner fear which she’s not even conscious of at the beginning of the novel. In her character arc over the course of the book, she moves forward to overcome both her physical and inner fear.

So easy to analyse a character’s arc or journey in a book, isn’t it, like dedicated English literature students? It’s a bit harder in real life, when we can’t flick ahead to the end of the book to see if the protagonist moves to Paris with her long-forgotten love or reread a chapter to make sure we’ve understood the symbolism of the red umbrella in chapter three!

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