Character arc

A character arc is the transformation or inner journey[1] of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story. Since the change is often substantive and in the opposite direction, the geometric term arc is often used to describe the sweeping change. In most stories, lead characters and protagonists are the characters most likely to experience character arcs,[2] although it is possible for lesser characters to change as well.[1] A driving element of the plots of many stories is that the main character seems initially unable to overcome opposing forces, possibly because he or she lacks skills or knowledge or resources or friends. To overcome such obstacles, the protagonist must change, possibly by learning new skills, to arrive at a higher sense of self-awareness or capability. Protagonists can achieve such self-awareness by interacting with their environment, by enlisting the help of mentors, by changing their viewpoint, or by some other method.

Relationship with narrative arc

The phrase character arc takes its name from the narrative arc whose shape, often depicted as an oblong half-circle, emerges from the rising and falling qualities after the noument and denouement or tying and untying events in the common five-part dramatic structure of the Freytag pyramid or the three-part structure of many stories. Although the narrative arc resolves within a given text typically after a climax and "falling action," most character arcs do not fully resolve in a single text because life continues for that character beyond the confines of the text's narrative. A narrative arc usually does not contain an entire character arc because most characters' births and deaths are not depicted. For those whose birth is depicted at the beginning of the narrative (as in a Bildungsroman) or death is depicted at the end of the narrative (for example novels about the death of a protagonist or that involve the protagonist's death at the end), such a character arc dovetails with the narrative arc in one place. Both can occur for the protagonist of a biography or autobiography or in fictional texts that follow the protagonist from birth to death, if the character does not re-appear in an afterlife.

The life of an antagonist or secondary character might end before the narrative does. Thus, the portion of the character arc that is visible to the audience will appear shorter than the narrative arc. The character arc of a secondary character will not involve a change as profound as that of the protagonist. Consequently, the amplitude of the arc will not appear as broad as that of the narrative arc. On the other hand, the amplitude of the protagonist may appear deeper throughout the character arc than that of the narrative arc. Although the elements of the outer life of the plot may not be particularly dramatic, they cause a profound change in the protagonist's inner life.

Dramatic narrative structure

Throughout the trajectory of narratives with a tri-partate structure, character arcs often unfold beside the narrative arc in the following way:

First act

During the first act, the character arc is established or re-established for at least one character, the main character (the protagonist), within the exposition (noument) of the environment including relationships to other characters. Later in the first act, a dynamic, on-screen incident, known as the inciting incident, or catalyst occurs that confronts the protagonist, whose attempts to deal with this incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point. After the first turning point, life will never be the same for the protagonist and raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the story. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action, for example, Will X recover the diamond? Will Y get the girl? Will Z capture the killer?[3]

Second act

During the second act, also referred to as "rising action", the character arc develops as the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to discover ever-worsening situations, which often lead to the learning of new skills, the discovery of capabilities, and (sometimes late in the second act if at all) the raising of self-awareness.[3]

Third act

During the third act, including the climax, "falling action" and resolution (denouement), the narrative arc is completed although the character arc typically is not. During the climax, because the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question is answered, a character arc reaches a place where the character gains a new sense of who he or she is becoming. As the plot and its subplots resolve, the character arc's emphasis shifts from the learning of any new skills or the discovery of dormant capabilities to the awakening of a higher level of self-awareness, which in turn changes who the character is becoming.[3]


Examples in literature

Some examples include:

Examples in film

Some examples include:


Like a story arc, which often is composed of many narrative arcs, the character arc is not confined within the limits of one narrative. The character arc may extend over to the next story, a sequel, or another episode. In episodic TV series, the character arc functions as a narrative hook that writers often use to ensure viewers continue watching.

See also



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