How to write a good character arc | Follower Q&A

“How do you create good (emphasis on *good*) emotional character arcs? I’ve seen tons in the media but I wouldn’t know where to start. Are there any basics, like where to start and end? I think I’d know how to work out the middle if there was a start and end.”

Question from Tumblr user: im-creative-guys-i-swear

How to write character arcs

A strong, emotional character arc often consists of four components:

  1. A character with a clear emotional struggle
  2. Challenges
  3. High stakes
  4. An earned resolution

1) A character with a clear emotional struggle

If you want readers to emotionally invest in a character arc, your first step is to communicate your character’s emotional struggle.

Their emotional struggle is the core, deepfelt pain that drives their actions and often emerges from their background. The fear of failure from overly demanding parents; a deep longing for a family they never knew; a desperate need to be accepted after spending years as an outcast.

This struggle is the foundation of your character’s arc — the thing they wrestle with (and your audience reacts to) emotionally throughout the events of the story.

2) Challenges

After establishing your character’s emotional struggle, the next step is creating “challenges” — which is my way of saying you should create plot points that force your character to confront their struggle and grow.

Think of all your story’s events as little crucibles, challenges that force your character to grow or, occasionally, regress. This makes for a more dynamic and emotional arc, because when the plot connects to your character’s struggle, every plot point suddenly matters.

3) High stakes

You’ve established an emotional struggle, and you’ve created challenges. But what happens if your character fails to achieve their goals?

If the answer is, “nothing much, they’ll be fine,” there’s a problem. When stakes are low, your character’s struggle doesn’t matter to readers. But when stakes are high and clearly defined, your readers will sweat right alongside your character. 

Do keep in mind, however, that while they can be physical and/or emotional, stakes are most effective when they’re relatable.

4) An earned resolution

Character arcs have a beginning, middle, and end. You start with the emotional struggle, you challenge that struggle throughout the story, and then you bring your character’s arc to an end by showing a significant change in them. That “change” is often overcoming their emotional struggle, shifting their relationship to that struggle, or satisfying the deepest need that stems from their struggle.

How do you make that change feel earned? By ensuring the character’s growth is a natural result of the story’s events (see #2) and by making the character’s journey significantly challenging (#2 and #3).

Hope that helps!

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