You know your character from head to toe: eye color, dreams, hobbies—the works. But you don’t have a plot, and you don’t know how they will change. What you need, fellow writer, is a character arc. Read on to discover the six beats you need to nail it.
Let’s get on the same page about character arcs. A character arc is a journey of growth from one internal state to another. These can be positive or negative—think Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender—and a character can have multiple arcs, although typically one is contained in a story. Arcs are important because they show not only that our characters are lifelike and capable of change, but also their agency. Active characters are what we strive for in stories, and that is why the journey is so important.
Writing is subjective. This is in no way an official, objective guide to character arcs, but I hope you’ll consider my observations in your own stories.
Beat 1: Little Baby Man
At the beginning of your story you’ll show everything your character is. In some way they are immature and have some growing up to do. Establish who they are. That is, description, backstory if necessary, and most importantly their wants. Often, a character is wrong about what they really want, or what having it will achieve. Or sometimes the path to get what they want diverges due to their actions. But they don’t know this yet, they are a baby with wants.
Beat 2: Challenge Accepted
Between 10-25% of the book your character will have to transition from a passive to an active character. Something is thrown in the way of their path, a disturbance to their lives, and they have to rise to the challenge. Failing to do so would end to the plot. We see a new side to the character at this beat.
Beat 3: Who Am I?
Although your character has been subtly changing up to this point, the midpoint of your story will be an obvious moment when they show their growth. In the projects I write, the character’s false assumptions have led them to this point, and now they have to face the consequences. This beat is a catalyst for change, and a moment when old identity is challenged. They are unsteady in a way that feels two steps forward, and one step back.
Beat 4: Dark Night
Everything your character wanted is lost, or this is when they feel lost. It’s a real low moment, but your character must pull themselves together and keep going. This decision to keep going, to fight through difficulty, is a a very powerful moment of growth. Characters can change from cowardice to tenacity, or grief to hope. Ultimately, the change will be from negative to positive, even if it’s only grim hope to face the final boss.
Beat 5: Show Yourself
If the last beat was the wind up, this one is the follow through. The climax aligns with this moment. I’ll demonstrate with an example this time. In Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief, Percy grows from a 12-year-old demigod to a boy who challenges the god Ares for Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt. When he makes this challenge, Percy shows that he has changed. He applies his confidence, knowledge, and agency he’s learned so far and returns the bolt and his mother to safety.
Beat 6: Everything Has Changed
This moment is a beat that lets the reader see how much everything has changed—a final pause before the story ends. It is the time when the dust settles and we have a new normal, sometimes both internal and external. Your character doesn’t even have to be aware of the dust settling, but a little self-reflection doesn’t hurt. In a movie, this would be the full-circle moment, or the final pan away from the scene.
I’ve learned the hard way, through writing and rewriting, that books are built on characters first and plot second. The curve of a character arc should be inexorably twisted by the plot. In other words, the plot is the device to change your character from one state of being to another. Without compelling character arcs full of lessons and agency, a story is left with all style and no substance. No to throw shade, but Ready Player One is a good example of this. The plot is dazzling to read, but the characters are not well developed.
For more examples on character arcs, I recommend this article by StudioBinder about The Godfather and Indiana Jones. Happy writing!
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.
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