An important element in a story is showing how a character changes over the course of their journey. This change is related to growth in most instances. The character faces a challenge, stumbles a few times, sees how to look at the situation differently, and learns. This growth is likened to a child coming into adulthood and becoming more mature.
That’s not to say it’s the cycle your story needs to go through, but it’s a simple way to look at it. This has nothing to do with age in your story, just the mental growth that the character must go through to get to the other side of his journey and come out a better version of themselves.
There are three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and neutral. Let’s take a look at each one a bit closer to understand the differences.
Positive: A positive character arc is the process of a character going from a point of lacking, and through their journey, they end in a better situation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s by a better understanding of themselves, because they were taught a lesson and struggled to find the right way to see or do something, or whether it came by the guidance of another. The point of the positive arc is for the character to start at point A in one way, and when they arrive at point B, they have grown in some way. There is something they couldn’t do or see early in the story, that by the end, they now are enlightened and have learned to do what they couldn’t.
Negative: A negative arc is the opposite of the positive arc. In this case, they start in one spot, but rather than being better for their journey, they’ve gone backward. Think about a villain. You may see them starting at one point, but as the story progresses, they haven’t made a journey to a better, healthier place. Instead, they’ve spiraled to a darker place. They didn’t make it to point B and grow to a better version of themselves.
Neutral: A neutral arc is where the character remains consistent throughout the story, and it’s the story itself which follows an arc. The character is unchanged, even though they go through experiences, they are still the same person when the story ends. An example of this would be something like a series where readers expect the same character and experience each time that they read a book.
Let’s look at character arc examples, so you can see the idea play out in front of you.
Star Wars: We first meet Luke Skywalker with his droids, going about his life. He’s then met with a challenge, learns to use “the force” and defeats the bad guys. He comes out stronger because he’s learned to trust himself and is willing to fight for a good cause.
Harry Potter: Harry Potter started lost and alone, even though technically he had a family. His confidence was low, and he wasn’t sure what his future was. But through the story, we watch him grow, go through struggles, and learn to confront his fears. He comes out with maturity and understands that he has something inside of him that allows him to deal with his fears and come out stronger.
Sitcoms like Seinfeld, Friends, or Big Bang Theory are all examples of shows where the character remains mostly the same each week, but that’s what viewers tune in for. They want a specific experience and expect the characters to be the same each episode.
In a television series, you often tune in to see a character the same way each time. Think of characters like Superman or even Sherlock Holmes. You want the same experience, but in another story. So, in this instance, it’s the story arc that changes, rather than the character.
This works better in a plot driven story over a character driven story, obviously.
Have you ever watched a series where each season you know what you’re going to get? Take for instance a mystery series where the detective follows a pattern to solve a crime, solves the crime, the story ends, but the character isn’t suddenly living life in a new way because of the outcome. Some of these series go on for years, and their age never even changes.
In this instance, it’s the storyline that is the focus. You might see bits and pieces about the character, it will show their lives or maybe a love interest, but just like every other episode there’s no final resolution or ultimate change in the character.
Another good example is James Bond. He always gets the girl, but he doesn’t change his career, doesn’t get married, and doesn’t change his lifestyle dramatically. This is a good example of a neutral character arc where the storyline takes the lead.
While most stories rely on positive arcs, we’ve seen how neutral and negative arcs can be used. One of the reasons we love a positive character arc is because we’re cheering on our character, watching them overcome a struggle, then finally winning in the end. We’ve seen them grow and change which is something we all strive for, to be a better version of ourselves.
It gives us somebody to cheer for. We learn from their mistakes, go on adventures, and face big challenges from the safety of our reading chairs. But in the end, we know the character will be okay. They’ll come out better, stronger, and learn something important about themselves.
When writing your book, consider which type of character arc works best for your story. Will your character remain consistent with a neutral character arc? Will they backslide and fall into a negative character arc? Or will they conquer their challenges and grow?