Character arcs and why they’re important

I was editing a manuscript recently and found myself making the point that the author’s protagonist hadn’t changed much between the first chapter and the last. This protagonist had been through a lot and their circumstances had changed radically, but despite that, their emotions, outlook and behaviour had not evolved or been much affected by what they’d experienced. They’d taken everything on the chin and kept their cool from start to finish.

It took me a long time to realise how significant a character arc is when writing a novel. When I first started writing, I was so focussed on getting the general story arc right that I often overlooked the main character’s journey of development – mistake! One of the most essential ingredients of a novel is the emotional journey that the main character goes on. And that while conflict in any form is also an essential element, a protagonist’s feelings must at times be conflicted, too.

A main character needs to have a goal – something they want/need to have/do. They should also have some kind of flaw that holds them back – ie, fear or naivety, ambition or prejudice. The MC needs to be on a mission to achieve their goal (whether they know it or not). That mission needs to be a bumpy one, with various obstacles sending them on a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows until they reach their bleakest moment. Reaching this low point forces the MC to have a re-think and an epiphany. The epiphany leads to a change in their thinking and behaviour. By the end of the story, they must be a changed person in some way. They must see things differently to how they did before.

Why? As readers we want to go on a journey with the main character. We want to understand them, feel for them, root for them. If they don’t evolve or learn or grow, will the reader be able to feel as much for them?

I’ve listed a few examples of character arcs below – I found summarising them for this purpose was helpful to me, so I hope you find them helpful, too. PS These examples might contain spoilers so if it’s a book you intend to read, then look away! As for A Christmas Carol, bah humbug 🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
As a child, Amir craves his father’s approval. He is jealous of his best friend Hassan who seems to receive more affection from Amir’s father than Amir does. When a horrific event turns Hassan’s life upside down, Amir selfishly distances himself from his friend but carries the guilt into his adulthood. Many years later, he realises he must confront the legacy of his past mistakes and redeem himself.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Christopher wants to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog and why. His investigation leads him outside his very restricted comfort zone and forces him to deal with situations he’d previously avoided. The challenges he faces help him to become more independent and lead him towards a far more significant truth.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor wants to find a boyfriend while blotting out her childhood trauma with vodka. But as someone who is socially awkward, she lives a lonely, rigid life. While most people write her off as weird, new colleague Ray tries to befriend her. Eleanor’s determination to bury the past and Ray’s attempts to get her to open up lead her to a lowest point, after which she finds the courage to talk about her painful childhood and start to move beyond it.

The Lives of Others (A 2006 German film)
Set in East Berlin in 1984, cold-hearted Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend whom he suspects are disloyal to the Communist party. As he listens in on their every conversation, waiting to uncover evidence of their disloyalty, he begins to feel compassion for them. As a top government minister creates more anguish for the couple, Wiesler finds his own loyalties divided.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
For a long time, Scrooge’s goal has been to amass wealth. But he’s so obsessed with money that he’s lost all empathy and compassion for others. The ghosts of Marley and of Christmas past, present and future show him how callous and greedy he has become – a truth that shocks Scrooge and shames him into turning over a new leaf.