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Character Arc

character arc - fiction writing

by Durant Imboden

Make character growth your story's overarching theme.

Most beginning writers equate "story" with "plot," and "plot" with "action." In reality, characters may be the most important element in any story. (See my article, "Character vs. Plot.")

In a good story, characters grow between "It was a dark and stormy night..." and "The End." This growth process is often referred to as the "character arc," because it can be graphed as a curve in the same way as a plot.

Let's take a hypothetical story about Justin, a bachelor playboy whose relationships consist almost exclusively of one-night stands. One night, Justin sleeps with Erica (after saying "I love you" without meaning it), then tiptoes out of her flat at 6 a.m. before her alarm clock goes off.

Justin promptly forgets about Erica until she turns up six weeks later to say that she's pregnant. What's more, Erica plans to keep the baby--and to give it his first and last name with a "Jr." tacked on for good measure.

Erica's plans would merely be embarrassing if it weren't for the fact that Justin's wealthy father is a puritan who'd cut Justin from his will in a trice if he learned about an illegimate grandchild. Justin is faced with three options: Convince Erica to abort the child, marry Erica, or forget inheriting his father's millions.

Over the next 300 pages of our novel, we don't merely see twists and turns of plot. We also see Justin evolve from a happy-go-lucky bachelor to a person who undergoes personal trials, is confronted by a choice between accepting and evading responsibility, and ultimately makes a decision that shows him to be a better (or worse) person than he was on page 1.

This evolution is the "character arc"--and it's what makes the difference between a mere series of events and a compelling human story.

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