Shelley Widhalm

Character Arcs explained

In 52: A Writer's Life, Character Arc, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 7, 2013 at 11:00 am

After reading “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer, I couldn’t figure out why some of my writer friends called it popcorn, poorly written material.

At a party last month, I asked one of those friends to explain, particularly because I had gotten caught up in the young adult story and liked the characters, though now I can’t remember their names and had to look them up (Bella Swan and Edward Cullen). That should have been a clue right there. Memorable characters have memorable names, like Scarlet O’Hara, Scout, Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennett and the couple Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley.

One writer friend said that the point-of-view character, Bella, who falls in love with Edward, a sexy vampire whose extreme beauty is almost un-human, doesn’t change.

In other words, there is no character arc for her where she undergoes some kind of transition and learns something in the process. She’s just a pretty girl who ends up with the vampire boyfriend.

A character arc demonstrates the point-of-view character’s growth process through the unfolding of the story through beginning, middle and end. Without a character arc, which is graphed as a curve alongside the plot, the story becomes a series of events lacking anything tying them together.

The character has to want something, or she already has what she wants and loses it. She has a certain viewpoint at the onset that changes by the end. She is impacted by the plot, and as a result changes and grows.

The character arc is the line of movement in the story as this character faces her flaws, fears, attitudes and limitations and overcomes them to get what she wants or needs but does not initially recognize or acknowledge. When she faces her flaws, she is forced to face the truth about herself and as she does so, is able to consciously choose to change or not to change.

The inner or outer journey she undergoes from beginning to end causes growth and transformation of who she is. A negative arc will take her from a good place to bad, while a positive one takes her from bad to good. An arc that isn’t so clear cut allows her to achieve some of what she wants or needs, but not everything.

Regardless, she is a different character at the end of the book and not the same old Bella, or beauty, she was at the beginning.

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