Not every story and character follows the same arc, nor do they need to. All an arc is is an internal change from one state to another for the character. Just as in life, things are random and complex, and we don’t always grow from our learning, or our experiences may make us worse, and not wiser or better people. But most stories will be character arcs in some fashion, so here are the main character arc types.
Positive Character Arcs
This is when your character does indeed make some sort of positive shift or change. Their realizations and new thinking make them and the world better.
They start out with a goal, have to face the lie or misconception that keeps them from reaching what they want or their true potential, and realize a more helpful, or healthier and balanced truth which enables them to reject previous misconceptions and become more able, happier and fulfilled.
It may be they realize their original goal wasn’t what was best for them or what they really needed. Regardless, positive change occurs for them in the end.
Within this category, you can get growth or a shift sub-arc. With growth, the character changes more, and with the shift, their context changes more than they do.
A positive arc, where flaws are discovered and eliminated, is a good option, but not always suitable for your story.
The Negative Character Arc
The character starts out with their goal and also has misconceptions or the lie they tell themselves which hinders them. In this version, they don’t make a positive shift. Either the lie is reinforced or they have some sort of knee-jerk reaction which reinforces further faulty thinking and beliefs. They make further poor choices which often make their obstacles and challenges that much worse and impossible to resolve.
They enter a downward spiral and the struggles in the story get the better of them in the end. Their flaws cause death, destruction or at the very least they don’t achieve their goals. This is also known as a fall arc. It ends in tragedy and self-destruction. For example, the arc of Anakin Skywalker, Dorian Gray, or Dr. Jekyll.
Flat Character Arcs
This doesn’t mean there is no character arc, just that the character is pretty much the same at the end as at the beginning. You still need to have a fully-developed character for this. Perhaps they start out with little or no misconceptions and have the answers all along or their goals and root beliefs are reinforced as working for them, so there is no need to change. Take for example many of the superhero stories, where the superhero forms the strong rock around which all the action swirls. Captain America is a good example of steady, moral behavior that doesn’t really change throughout.
You see this arc quite often in mystery, spy, and adventure story genres. For example, Indiana Jones stays fairly static but reveals how he handles obstacles and his inner struggles along the way. James Bond is always himself, he never changes much, but we still have a clear idea of who he is and how that relates to his choices as each obstacle appears. We can still relate to him.
Success in spite of a character flaw would probably fit under this type. It is quite difficult to pull this off, but not impossible.
The Inverse Character Arc
The character succeeds exactly because of their fatal flaw. Whether they are aware of it or not. The more complex you make this flaw the more fascinating the story will be. Also, quite a challenging arc, and one not often seen.
No Character Arc
You deliver a series of events. There is no change in the main characters or their choices and very little is revealed about who they are, or what their motivations or inner struggles might be. There is nothing personal, real, or deep enough for readers to relate to.
Snag Your Copy of Character Development for Fiction Writers!