371 – Character Arcs
Most storytellers have some concept of a character arc. It’s a literary device in which a character goes through some kind of change, emerging a different person than when they started. But the specifics of character arcs are a lot more complicated. Which characters need them? How intense does the change need to be? Does just getting something they wanted count? Listen to this week’s episode for the answers, plus hear about Chris and Oren embarking on character arcs of their own. You’ll have to decide for yourself how successful they are.
Generously transcribed by Dovah. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris.
Oren: And I’m Oren.
Chris: And this time we have some personal problems and by the end of the podcast, hopefully we’ll grow as people and learn important life lessons, and then we’ll just be happier and make wiser decisions by the time this podcast is over.
Oren: Oh, I see. So we’re doing that thing where either podcasters or YouTube posts just get way too personal and just start like airing their dirty laundry. And it feels weird that this person you have like a parasocial relationship with is talking to you and telling you about what’s going on in their friendship that’s fracturing or whatever. Is that what we’re doing now?
Chris: You make fun of it. But, uh, the data shows that it’s a successful strategy.
Oren: It is! I would just, rather die.
Chris: *laughs* Well, maybe that’s your arc.
Oren: By the end I’ll just be way oversharing and it’ll be great.
Chris: Oren, did you know that you’re an internet personality?
Oren: Oh, no, I don’t like it. I hate it now.
Chris: I have an acceptance arc.
Oren: All right. My question is: in the first Indiana Jones movie, if he doesn’t by the end, grow to understand friendship better, or maybe, you know, making deals with other people… Why is it called the Ark of the Covenant?
Chris: First of all, “arc” is spelled “A R K” and that’s a bad pun and you should feel bad.
Oren: Chris, your character arc is coming to terms with my puns. And by the end, you will love them. This is the development I’ve decided is happening.
Chris: Well, considering I picked your character arc, I think that’s fair.
Oren: Yeah, there we go. Boom. *laughs*
Chris: So, yeah, we’re talking about character arcs. First of all, what is a character arc?
Oren: Who is character arc?
Chris: I would say the answer is the problem was inside you all along.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: We talk a lot about plot arcs. You start with a problem, you have a turning point, then you have a resolution for good, or ill. Character arc is just like that, but it’s about the person’s internal thoughts and feelings. That’s where the problem is and that’s where the problem has to be solved. We had a whole discussion where we were talking about various small arcs we see in some places where a character wants something and then they get it. So for example, in the Lego Movie, there is this old-school, nineties Space Lego dude, who just wants to build a spaceship.
And he, and he has this little arc where people are deciding what to do, and he’ll be like, “Spaceship?” And they’ll be like, “No, this is not the time to build a spaceship.” That happens a number of times and then finally at the end, it’s like, “Yes, we want you to build a spaceship.” And he’s so excited, he’s so happy that he gets to build a spaceship.
We decided that was not a character arc because he didn’t have to change inside. He is unhappy, but he’s unhappy because of an external situation and he just needs an opportunity to build a spaceship. He doesn’t change his mind about needing a spaceship; whereas, when you have a character who wants something, but they’re supposed to be misguided about it and they’re like, “Hey, I thought I needed this thing, but really what I needed was to believe in myself.” Right?
Oren: Yeah, I’m glad you remember this conversation. This sounds very deep and I don’t remember saying it.
Chris: You are the one who was so insistent that this was not an example of a character arc.
Oren: What? Oh dear.
Chris: *sighs* And that’s a little complicated because in that situation. It’s like, “wait, if that’s not a character arc, it doesn’t feel like an external arc because really, the only problem is the characters feelings. We could call that a low-stakes, external arc because what needs to change… the solution is external, right? He needs an opportunity to build a spaceship. He doesn’t need to decide that it’s time to move on from building spaceships.
Oren: Yeah and it’s mostly a little comedy relief bit. Okay. So here’s a question. Do you want to talk about the myth of the flat arc?
Chris: Sure. Let’s, let’s talk about that.
Oren: So first, what the concept of a flat arc and what people seem to think it is, is something like a Superman story where Superman is tempted to do a bad thing to catch Lex Luthor, but then at the end he realizes, “No, I shouldn’t do the bad thing and doesn’t.” He usually catches Lex Luther anyway, but you know, that’s what people think a flat arc is. So Chris, I would like you to explain to me why that’s fake.
Chris: Different storytelling advice-givers, categories, think in different ways, right? So the flat arc is something used elsewhere and it’s not that a flat arc doesn’t exist exactly… it’s the way that Mythcreants categorizes our arc. It’s just a normal arc and in some ways, one that could be improved.
So basically an arc starts with a problem. Before you have a problem, you don’t have any tension. Tension is what gives a plot structure. So there’s really no structure and no arc until the tension arrives. In more traditional circles, when they talk about plot, they talk about inciting incidences and there’s a beginning that happens before the plot. I think this is more an artifact that happens in stories out of necessity at the very beginning where sometimes you need context to understand the problem and so there’s some setup that happens before the problem arrives, but that only happens at the very beginning of a story in the first one whereas later when we have things like child arcs and all of these other things, they don’t have that same thing. It doesn’t appear.
So I don’t think it’s fair to say an Arc has started until the problem appears whereas the idea of a flat arc is that we’re counting the things before the problem appears as part of the arc. So the character is fine and then the problem appears and then they solve the problem and go back to where they were in the beginning. That’s what makes it flat. But I wouldn’t call that flat because again, the arc just appears late in the story. It doesn’t appear until the problem appears. And the other thing is it’s always unsatisfying if you take a character back to exactly the circumstances of the beginning and it makes the story feel like it doesn’t matter.
So I think it’s always better if you want something like that to show that okay, the character has a subtle issue that they’re able to avoid dealing with because it hasn’t gotten really bad or it’s not out in the open and then something aggravates it. For instance, Superman always was a little bit too preoccupied to chase down Lex Luthor and then Lex Luther does something and then suddenly, now he’s obsessed, right? But that’s kind of a worsening of a problem that already existed and then when he gets over that you can take him to a place where he’s stronger than he was when it started. Then it feels like there was a point to the whole thing, but it actually mattered that he went through this.
Oren: Right, yeah. If you look at most of these, they are usually some kind of temptation arc, or if not a temptation then an arc where the character is being pressured to give up their ideals and then recommits to them and has them stronger than before. That’s the arc that Picard goes through in The Drum Head–the TNG episode where an evil Admiral–because it’s always an evil Admiral–rolls onto the ship to investigate a minor security breach, which eventually explodes into a red scare essentially.
So Picard eventually has to stand up against this even though it would be easier for him not to. It’s not that he isn’t going through an arc or isn’t changing, it’s that his commitment is stronger at the end than it was at the beginning.
Chris: I think it’s worth also mentioning that if we’re talking about instances of Picard going through these tests of his commitments, that the next generation is basically an anthology in structure. There’s a reset button between each episode. There’s rarely arcs that carry over multiple episodes. In a lot of stories, you wouldn’t have something that’s basically an anthology structure that way, and you wouldn’t have an arc like that just disappear. So you can just skip over the next generation episodes. For most of them, you would just never know they happened and that’s how every episode works because it’s basically an anthology and it’s designed so that you can jump in anywhere you want or just watch the best episodes if you want. You don’t have to go through them in order. Like Deep Space Nine is what’s referred to as more serial, which is a more overarching plot.
So that’s one of the reasons why it would look like Picard just kind of ends up where he started, but ideally, especially if you’re not writing an anthology, you would take him to a better place so that there was a point to that challenge and everything made a difference.
Oren: I also think that at the same time, if nothing else, it feels like Picard is in a place where he would not accept the initial challenges to his ideals that he does in the episode. Or like in the episode, he initially goes along with the red scare Admiral because he’s trying to be accommodating and he thinks there’s a genuine security threat. The episode is about him realizing that he made a mistake; whereas, if there was another episode where the same thing happened and he went along with it, it would be like, “Wait, hang on. He’s had this arc he’s developed. He’s not going to do that again.”
Chris: *laughs* We would hope not.
Oren: Yeah, hopefully not. Incidentally, one of the reasons why his arc in First Contact feels kind of weird if you’ve watched all of T and G because it’s like he has a needing-revenge arc–which he eventually gives up his revenge–but he already had that arc in the show. He had an episode where he really wanted revenge on the Borg and for better or worse decided he didn’t need it anymore. Now of course, these are, as you said, they have limited continuity, but if you’ve watched the show and then you watch First Contact, it’s like, “Eh, hang on a minute.”
Chris: Other types of character arcs that we sometimes talk about are redemption arcs and downward arcs, which are very specialized. With redemption arcs we’re talking about kind of a moral improvement of a character specifically. Although some redemption arcs are also them kind of forgiving themselves if they’re really done doing bad things. Then there’s of course downward arcs, which generally mean not just that a character gets worse, but usually it’s referring to a character that becomes more amoral. Although we could call anything where the character actually fails to grow and instead becomes a worse person a downward arc if we want to.
Oren: The kind of arc that I think people are most familiar with is a person overcoming some kind of problem.
Chris: I mean most character arcs generally boil down to two things: Either A: the character is unhappy at some level or just discontent and it can be mild or B: they’re making bad judgements. So for instance, they don’t know who they are, that would be discontent or unhappiness. That’s what that boils down to. If they feel guilty about something in the past, again, that boils down to the fact that they’re unhappy. If they’re being overly reckless, that’s a matter of bad judgment. If they’re rigidly following rules, even when the rules don’t make sense, that would be considered bad judgment.
So it’s almost always, you want it to be much more specific than just the character has bad judgment and you know, if the character is unhappy, we need to narrow down what they are unhappy about so that you can actually solve it. But most character arcs are smaller problems that they always boil down to one of those two things generally. That’s how we know that they’re problems because it is also possible to make a mistake in a character arc where the audience just doesn’t see a problem to solve. If you don’t see a problem, there’s no compelling arc. It’s like, why does the character need to change? They’re fine just the way they are.
Oren: And this is one of the key problems in a lot of stories that are using either, at best, outdated, at worst, simply bad social judgments. So you can have an arc where someone is unhappy because they don’t have friends and they want friends. That’s an arc. Someone who doesn’t socialize a lot, but is perfectly happy… that’s not an arc. Trying to have a thing where you force them to socialize and become an extrovert, or what have you is like, not only is that kind of a bad thing to do for people who don’t like to do those things in real life and feel judged, but it’s also just unsatisfying because it doesn’t seem like the character had a problem to begin with. They were perfectly fine.
Chris: Or arcs about how people need to like Christmas. *laughs*
Oren: Right. Yeah. That’s another common one.
Chris: Look, not everybody celebrates Christmas. We need to get away from that. And yeah, those arcs come off as very judgy of somebody’s personal choices in lifestyles. So usually if you’re going to have something that’s like bad judgment, you should show how it is negatively impacting themselves or others in it. Again, you want to usually keep it mild. If you have a character that’s just hurting other people, presume is this going to be an unlikable character? And if it’s your main character, you don’t know what that is.
Oren: That is a major problem that a lot of people run into with arcs or growth arcs in particular, is they’re like, “My character is going to start off as a mean bully and by the end of the story, they will have learned better and they won’t be a mean bully anymore.” I don’t want to read a story about a mean bully. I don’t care if they’re going to get better at the end, right?
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I think part of it is that in literary culture and writing and advice, and a lot of the conversation, there’s so much talk about character flaws. I think that people do that partly in a reaction because there are a lot of writers who want to write a character that is just like, perfect. And that’s not really likable either. So in reaction, people like, “Oh, flaws, they’re beautiful flaws.” But writers also listen to that and then they can make a character that’s nothing but flaws.
Oren: Right. It’s because they don’t understand what candy and spinach is. That’s honestly, I think where this comes from. They see a character like Kvothe from The Name of the Wind. And they’re like, “Ah, that character is too perfect. He doesn’t have any flaws.” Which is correct. He is too perfect. He has way too much candy. And so they’re like, “I need to make a character with more flaws. So my character is going to be a huge asshole who can’t do anything because that’s flaws.” But what he actually needs is a better candy-spinach balance. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a flaw.
Chris: We should probably clarify what is the distinction between strengths and candy and flaws and spinach, because those are not actually equivalent.
Chris: Candy is a measure of glorification. So if you have a character that’s like Murder Bot, for instance, it gets away with a lot because other people are automatically afraid of Murder Bot because it’s a construct that was designed to be basically a dangerous weapon made by corporate entitites. It does not have people’s best interests in mind. So that gives people a reason to be wary of Murder Bot. Their negative reactions to Murder Bot give Murder Bot spinach, and then that enables Murder Bot to have more strengths of a character than Wells could otherwise get away with writing.
Oren: Right. If everyone loved Murder Bot, then Murder Bot would be insufferable. It’s like if everyone loved Murder Bought and Murder Botwas also the strongest and could beat everyone and was super great at stuff… everyone would hate that character. But because Murder Bot has all of the spinach because people don’t like it and are suspicious of it and react negatively to it that balances out. Now I do think there are still a few times where it goes a little overboard, but for the most part, it works very well.
Whereas with Kvothe, people will argue that Kvothe has a flaw, which is arrogance. But there are a couple problems with that. Number one, that’s not spinach and Kvothe has so much candy that he needs spinach and arrogance is not spinach. Also, arrogance is one of the most unlikable characteristics that you can give a character. It’s like the opposite of sympathy, which makes the character likable. It’s like people see a character who is arrogant and they just want to take them down a notch. They just want to see their ego get popped.
Yeah. There’s a difference between strengths and flaws and candy and spinach and understanding that distinction kind of helps you manage like-ability when you’re also thinking about the character’s areas to grow.
Oren: So here’s another question: are character arcs and internal arcs the same thing?
Chris: So internal arc is more general, but it’s also kind of a relative term to a certain extent. Usually when I’m talking about internal arcs and external arcs, I’m almost talking about their role in this story in that most stories have arcs that are internal and arcs that are external, and then they work together. So the external arc in the story provides arcs that have the highest tension and provide the plot structure and then the internal arc sort of gives purpose to their emotions and provides more meaning. Sometimes attachment and other things like that.
So character arcs are always eternal arcs. There are probably some stories out there that are trying to use a character arc for plot structure. The question is, should they?
Oren: I would say no.
Chris: Because almost always, if you’re going to have a character arc, you’re gonna want to externalize it. Right? Because the character has to be doing something. They can’t just be sitting around thinking in their head throughout the entire story. So if they’re doing this thing, you want to create structure to what they’re doing that emphasizes their character arc. So if it’s a character arc that you really care about, what you need to find is externalize it by finding situations that bring out that character struggle.
So if they don’t know who they are, they don’t have a strong sense of identity and that’s bothering them. You would create external situations that really bring that to the forefront where they can’t ignore it anymore. But you would also want to have problems there and you can emphasize the character arc by making it so that they have to figure out who they are in order to make progress on those external problems.
So for that reason, a character arc basically never provides the structure, but relationship arcs–usually referred to as internal arcs–could actually play the role of an external arc. If you have a romance or a drama, the relationship arc may be the external arc in the story; whereas in other stories where there’s a high stakes action sequence, the relationship arcs–whether it’s a friendship, romance or what-have-you–would be more of an internal arc in that story.
Oren: That’s usually my recommendation to clients who want a character arc be front and center is: I advise them to find an external conflict that will bring that character trait or character arc out, as opposed to just trying to start from the character arc and have the character brute force development. It’s just easier to get your audience engaged with an external arc. It just matters more and then you can engage your audience and also grow your character at the same time.
Chris: Right. But I mean, you also want to think about, “Okay, what kind of conflicts is this character getting into and are those conflicts the things that I want to cover in the story and do they bring the character arc out in the way I want?” You know, if you have an external arc that’s about them traveling, do you like the type of survival conflicts that come with that? Because that’s what you’re going to be depicting in the story. Whereas in many cases, if you want to highlight a character arc sometimes a relationship arc is a better match.
Chris: Because then we can spend our time being more social and emotional and the characters can talk about their feelings. Not that they can’t talk about their feelings with high stakes stories too. They can. Mix those stories in. But if you don’t like narrating action scenes, then you probably don’t want to add in an external conflict that requires fight scenes even if it emphasized the character arc, because you probably have multiple options.
Oren: Yeah, I’m also a big fan of telling people they don’t need action. Some people think they do.
Chris: Yeah. So that’s the difference. Again, what you want is a good fit. And the interesting thing is usually, not always, but often even with an external arc the turning point is still an internal moment. The turning point in any arc is always about internal struggle at some level so that’s the place where the character arc really starts to shine is when you kind of create external problems where they have to actually figure themselves out or grow at some level in order to solve those external problems. And then they grow and they’re rewarded by winning the external problem.
Oren: Speaking of which, and another question for you: do stories need character arcs? Must the main character have an arc?
Chris: Pretty much. Yes. I mean, it depends on how long the story is. I know you want me to say no, but the answer is…*laughs*… yes.
Oren: You made me add an arc to my novel, Chris, I’m still bitter about it. *laughs*
Chris: Here’s the thing. Most people want some level of emotional depth to their story, right?
Oren: Ugh, gross.
Chris: Even if you have a relationship arc in there, generally the characters are going to have to grow a little for them to solve that relationship arc with.
Oren: [sarcastically] Uh, my character will grow from someone who only killed five guys to someone who killed 50 guys. There. They grew. The number went up, Chris, that’s growth. I made a graph of it.
Chris: And the thing that I’ve seen is that if you try to add emotional depth without a character arc the motions are just disorganized. And since you brought your novel into this, now you’re being made an example of.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: And so what happened is I looked at your outline-
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: -and your character had these deeper emotions coming from this backstory and it’s like, “Okay, well, there are pieces of four different arcs in here [Oren groans] and you were just trying to add emotional depth. You were trying to get away without having a character arc, but as a result, you created four different potential problems and none of them were resolved properly or developed properly or focused on properly. You had no vision for her emotional journey.
Oren: Maybe I was just collecting artisanally, handcrafted emotional problems, Chris, and you don’t know. *both laugh*
Chris: So again, the reason that you need a character arc is that people generally want to have some emotional depth and there’s no reason not to add it because you can multitask pretty well; they can have emotions while they’re doing their external things. So it’s just a benefit and a story without that emotional component would just feel like a little shell. If you try to add emotions without it, you just get kind of something that looks disorganized.
So, you know, a short story like a Flash Fic… you might not have a character arc. Again, you can get away with a lot more in small stories, and you don’t have to sustain tension for a long period of time, but generally, yes, at least for the main character, right? For other characters, it’s more optional and it’s about what do you have time to fit in. A character arc for a side character usually has to be simpler, especially if you’re not in their viewpoint, which is what we usually recommend. You have to be able to tell what their arc is from the outside which is a little harder. So if it’s simpler, you don’t have as much time for it. So it needs to be simpler. It’s easier to communicate. You don’t have to spend much time on it, but like, it is nice when side characters have character arcs, too, but it’s less necessary.
Oren: Well, I took Chris’s advice and I added a character arc and the only thing I have to show for it is beta reader saying they liked it. So really who can say if it was the right choice? *both laugh*
Chris: Yeah. I’m still proud of the fact that there’s one chapter where the character just goes through the old family home and looks at stuff and remembers stuff. And they love it.
Oren: I was so worried that it was going to be boring.
Chris: It’s like, yeah, people actually like character arcs and emotional journeys. Those can actually have less tension, so they can’t necessarily sustain the readers forever, but people do like them. It does add enjoyment. It’s not just about fight scenes, especially in a book where you can’t see the cool fight scenes.
Oren: What a concept. *laughs*
Chris: Yep. If you want structure, because we do get questions about, “Hey, can I just have a soft story? That’s all like internal problems.” Generally the more external the problems are the easier it is to create, especially for a long work, to create that structure. Again with relationship arcs, you can keep them going for a while, but you have to be pretty inventive about steps, layers of problems for the characters to get through without actually solving all of their relationship problems.
With the character arc, it’s kind of the same thing. You do want to show movement in the character arc. And that’s the tricky thing is that it can be hard for external arcs to come up with lots of content and if you have an external arc, you don’t have to create structure with your character arc. That really takes a lot of burden off of it, but you also don’t want it to get repetitive. You don’t want the character to be angsting about the same thing over and over again, without any changes throughout the story, because yeah, people are going to get bored with that. You do need movement. So again, the kind of layers of problems, for instance, you might start with the character not even knowing why they’re unhappy and then they might have a realization where they figure that out.
Right. So the first obstacle has been cleared, but then now there’s immediately another problem for them to solve. “Oh, I’m happy because something changed and now I’m questioning my path in life.” Then you can go through them. They do different things to try to figure out what their new path in life should be and they might learn some additional lessons about themselves, but they’re still not there yet. So you have to create layers of problems that are obstacles that they have to solve to get to the next one, but they’re still not there yet. They still have more problems before they complete their journey.
If the character has a bias where they just hate somebody unreasonably, you’re going to have them take little steps where first they learn like, “Okay, well, this person actually is helpful in these certain sorts of circumstances” and then learn, “Oh, okay. I understand this person better now.”
The nice thing is if you have the external arc providing lots of tension, you don’t have to work so hard to keep the tension of the character arc going up because you have tension from other sources. So it’s a lot easier to be like, “Yes, they’re closing in. They’re clearly going to finish their character arc. It doesn’t look so hard.” Whereas with the external arc in a story where you’re trying to drive tension up towards the climax, you have to get closer to the finishing, but you also have to make it look harder as you get closer so that the tension keeps going up.For internal arcs that aren’t providing the tension, you don’t really have to do that so much.
Oren: Yeah and I will just remind everyone that there are plenty of ways to introduce a higher-tension, external conflict that isn’t violence. Don’t discount violence. If you like writing action sequences, that’s a great way to do it, but there are plenty of other options.
Chris: We even have a list on the site of high stakes conflicts without violence.
Oren: And that just takes a lot of the pressure off of your character arc and your character can still be there to provide emotional drama and human depth and all of that stuff, but it doesn’t need to carry the plot in the same way, which is generally just much easier in my opinion.
Chris: Yeah, it’s very freeing. Right. You can kind of do more of what you want to with the character arc if you’re not forcing it to be that structure, which generally it isn’t.
Oren: All right. Well, with that final note, we’re going to go ahead and end the podcast. Hopefully we all went through our arcs. I think I have to start over sharing now. So let me tell you about my breakfast.
Chris: Take a video tour through your home.
Oren: Yeah. Look at this egg that I made. That’s a lie. I don’t like eggs.
Anyway, before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeese.com. We’ll talk to you next week!