In this article, you will learn what is a character arc and see 5 different character arc examples from popular shows or movies.
If you’re a writer or a storyteller, you’ve probably heard the term character arc before. But what is a character arc? Simply put, a character arc is the transformation a character undergoes throughout a story. It’s the internal journey that a character takes, from their initial state to a changed state, as a result of the events that take place in the story.
Grasping the nuances of character arcs is crucial for weaving a compelling narrative.
A character arc is what gives your story depth and meaning, as it allows readers or viewers to connect with the character on a deeper level. There are different types of character arcs, and each one can serve a different purpose in your story. Some character arcs involve a character’s moral ascent, where they start off as flawed or immoral and end up becoming a better person. Other character arcs involve a character’s moral descent, where they start off as good or virtuous but end up becoming corrupted or evil.
In this post, we cover the following:
- A character arc is the transformation a character undergoes throughout a story.
- There are different types of character arcs, each serving a different purpose in your story.
- Understanding character arcs is essential to crafting a well-rounded and compelling story.
What Is a Character Arc?
A character arc definition is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. It is the measure of how a character changes over time.
These arcs are linear, meaning they always have a beginning and an end. However, they don’t have to coincide with story arcs. For example, a story arc may start at its linear end, but that doesn’t mean the character arc begins at its end too.
The change that happens to a character over the course of a story can be either internal or external. It could be a grumpy curmudgeon becoming a ray of sunshine or a naïve teen growing up. Someone with a strong moral compass may be tested until they ultimately choose villainy, or a rebel learns to be part of a team.
The protagonist is often the character who undergoes the most significant change, but this is not always the case. It is essential to note that a character arc is not just about change; it is about the journey the character takes to get there. It is about the events that happen to the character and how they respond to those events.
A compelling character arc requires a character to face challenges that force them to confront their flaws and weaknesses. It is through these challenges that the character grows and changes. The character must also have a goal or desire that they are striving towards, which gives the character arc direction and purpose.
The 5 Types of Character Arcs
Characters can undergo various arcs in a story. Let’s explore the five predominant types:
1. Positive Character Arc
A positive character arc involves a character who starts out flawed or lacking in some way, but overcomes their flaws and grows as a person by the end of the story. This type of character arc typically involves a character who learns from their mistakes and becomes a better version of themselves.
Stories often depict heroes or protagonists undergoing positive arcs, where they confront challenges and ultimately attain their objectives.
2. Negative Character Arc
A negative character arc involves a character who starts out as a good person, but gradually becomes corrupted or consumed by their flaws and negative traits. This type of character arc typically involves a character who is unable to overcome their flaws and ultimately suffers the consequences of their actions.
Negative character arcs are often seen in stories with an antagonist or villain who starts out with good intentions but ultimately becomes consumed by their own desires.
3. Flat Character Arc
A flat character arc involves a character who does not undergo significant change or growth throughout the story. This type of character arc typically involves a character who remains consistent in their beliefs and values from beginning to end.
Flat character arcs are often seen in stories with supporting characters who serve a specific purpose in the story, but are not the main focus.
4. Ascending Character Arc
An ascending character arc involves a character who starts out as a weak or powerless individual, but gradually gains strength and confidence over the course of the story. This type of character arc typically involves a character who faces challenges and overcomes them to become a stronger and more capable person.
Ascending character arcs are often seen in stories with a hero or protagonist who starts out as an underdog.
5. Descending Character Arc
A descending character arc involves a character who starts out as a strong or powerful individual, but gradually loses their strength and confidence over the course of the story. This type of character arc typically involves a character who faces challenges that they are unable to overcome, and ultimately suffers a downfall.
Descending character arcs are often seen in stories with an antagonist or villain who starts out as a powerful figure, but ultimately loses everything due to their own actions.
The 5 Character Arc Components
For a captivating character arc, consider these pivotal components:
Each character is propelled by a distinct need, serving as their motivation to act and advance the narrative. It can be a physical need, like food or shelter, or an emotional need, like love or acceptance. Whatever the need may be, it is what sets the character on their journey.
The character’s goal is what they are striving to achieve throughout the story. It is often tied to their need and is what they believe will bring them happiness or fulfillment. The goal should be specific and measurable, so the character knows when they have achieved it.
The lie is the false belief the character holds about themselves or the world around them. It is often what is holding them back from achieving their goal. The lie can be something the character tells themselves or something someone else has told them. It is what the character needs to overcome to transform.
The weakness is the character’s flaw or limitation. It is what makes them human and relatable. The weakness can be a physical, emotional, or psychological limitation that the character needs to overcome to achieve their goal.
The transformation is the internal change the character undergoes throughout the story. It is what makes the character arc compelling and satisfying. The transformation should be a direct result of the character overcoming their lie and weakness. It should be a positive change that allows the character to achieve their goal and find happiness or fulfillment.
By considering these 5 essential components, you can create a character arc that is compelling, satisfying, and resonates with your viewers.
Character Arc in Filmmaking
In filmmaking, the character arc stands as an indispensable element. It refers to the transformation of a character over the course of a story. The character may begin as one type of person and gradually change into a different type of person in response to changing developments in the story. Character arcs are essential in creating a believable and relatable story that captures the viewer’s attention.
Character Arc in Film
In film, character arcs are used to create a sense of progression and development in the story. They are often used to create a sense of suspense and anticipation as the audience waits to see how the character will change. Character arcs can be used to create tension and conflict, and they can be used to create a sense of resolution and closure.
Filmmakers use character arcs to create compelling stories that capture the audience’s attention. They use character arcs to create characters that are relatable and believable. A well-developed character arc can make the difference between a forgettable movie and a classic.
Character Arc and Story Structure
In scriptwriting, harmonizing the plot structure with the character arc is essential. Character arcs are the internal journeys that characters go through over the course of a story, and they are often closely tied to the structure of the plot.
The first act of a story typically introduces the main character and sets up the conflict that they will face over the course of the story. This is also where the character’s initial arc begins. At the beginning of the story, the character may be content with their life or unaware of the challenges they will face. As the conflict is introduced, the character is forced to confront their flaws and weaknesses, and their arc begins to take shape.
The second act is where the bulk of the rising action takes place. This is where the character faces a series of challenges that force them to grow and change. As the character’s arc progresses, they may begin to develop new skills or perspectives that help them overcome obstacles. However, they may also face setbacks and failures that force them to reevaluate their goals and motivations.
The third act is where the character’s arc reaches its climax and resolution. This is where the character faces their greatest challenge and must use everything they have learned over the course of the story to overcome it. As the character’s arc comes to a close, they may have achieved their goals or come to a new understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
Overall, the structure of a story is closely tied to the character arc. As the character faces challenges and grows and changes, the plot also moves forward. The rising action and falling action of the story are often tied to the character’s arc, and the resolution of the story is often closely tied to the resolution of the character’s arc.
By understanding the relationship between character arc and story structure, you can create a compelling and satisfying story that resonates with your viewers.
5 Character Arc Examples
Here are 5 examples of character arcs in popular movies, TV shows, and literature:
1. Walter White in Breaking Bad
Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who turns to making and selling methamphetamine after being diagnosed with cancer. At the beginning of the show, he is a mild-mannered and law-abiding citizen, but as the series progresses, he becomes more ruthless and violent. He becomes more and more consumed by his power and wealth, and eventually, his actions lead to his downfall.
At the beginning of the series, Walter is introduced as a law-abiding, overqualified, and underpaid high school chemistry teacher. He struggles with financial difficulties and is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Faced with the prospect of leaving his family in debt, Walter’s initial motivations are rooted in desperation and love for his family.
The diagnosis acts as a catalyst, pushing Walter to partner with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, to produce and sell high-quality methamphetamine. This decision marks the beginning of his descent into the criminal underworld.
As the series progresses, Walter adopts the alias “Heisenberg” and becomes increasingly involved in violent and illegal activities. While his initial justification is to secure his family’s financial future, it becomes evident that Walter is also driven by pride, ego, and a desire for power. The lines between right and wrong blur as Walter rationalizes his actions, leading to internal and external conflicts.
Walter’s empire grows, but at significant personal cost. His relationships with his family deteriorate, especially with his wife, Skyler. The dangers of the drug trade escalate, leading to confrontations with law enforcement and rival drug dealers. Walter’s transformation is complete when he admits that he pursued the drug trade not just for his family, but because he enjoyed it and felt alive.
In the series finale, Walter confronts his remaining enemies and ensures the financial future of his family. Acknowledging the destruction he’s caused, he takes responsibility for his actions. The series concludes with Walter, injured and alone, succumbing to his wounds in a meth lab, symbolizing the world he created and was ultimately consumed by.
2. Sherlock Holmes in A Game of Shadows
Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant detective who uses his intellect to solve crimes. At the beginning of the series, he is a cold and distant person who is more interested in solving puzzles than in connecting with other people. Over the course of the series, he learns to empathize with others and becomes a more well-rounded person.
Sherlock Holmes is already renowned as London’s greatest detective, known for his brilliant deductive skills, eccentricities, and a penchant for the dramatic. While he’s solved numerous cases, the shadow of a new challenge looms as he begins to connect the dots to a larger conspiracy.
Holmes discovers a series of seemingly unrelated events, from bombings to business acquisitions, all pointing to one man: Professor Moriarty. Realizing the depth of Moriarty’s influence and the scale of his plans, Holmes becomes obsessed with stopping him, drawing Dr. John Watson, his best friend, into the fray.
Throughout the film, Holmes is pushed to his limits. Moriarty’s intellectual prowess matches Holmes’, making their encounters intense psychological battles. Holmes’ usual confidence wavers as he confronts not just external threats but internal doubts. His methods, often unconventional and bordering on the unethical, are further tested as he navigates the gray areas of morality to stop a greater evil.
The climax unfolds in a Swiss mountain fortress, where Holmes and Moriarty engage in a literal and metaphorical game of chess. As the pieces move, their conversation reveals the depth of their rivalry and respect for each other. The game culminates in a physical confrontation, with Holmes making a sacrificial move to ensure Moriarty’s defeat.
While the world believes Holmes perished during his final confrontation with Moriarty, he cleverly survives, unbeknownst to even Watson. The film concludes with Holmes, in disguise, leaving a clue for Watson, hinting at future adventures and solidifying his reputation as a master of deception and strategy.
3. James Bond in No Time to Die
James Bond is a spy who works for the British government. He is known for his charm, his wit, and his ability to get out of tough situations. Over the course of the franchise, Bond has evolved from a womanizing, hard-drinking agent to a more introspective and human character.
In No Time to Die, James Bond confronts past demons, rekindles old relationships, and faces a new, technologically advanced adversary, all while grappling with his own legacy and the changing world of espionage.
Retired from active service, Bond is leading a quiet life in Jamaica, away from the chaos and dangers of the spy world. However, the shadows of his past, particularly his relationship with Madeleine Swann, linger.
Bond’s peaceful retirement is disrupted when his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, seeks his help to rescue a kidnapped scientist. This mission unveils a much larger threat: a new bioweapon and a mysterious villain named Safin. Bond’s personal and professional worlds collide when he discovers connections between Safin, the bioweapon, and Madeleine.
Throughout the film, Bond wrestles with trust issues, especially concerning Madeleine. The lines between allies and enemies blur. Bond, known for his stoicism, confronts deep-seated emotions, vulnerabilities, and the realization that the world of espionage has evolved, with technology playing a pivotal role.
Bond’s pursuit of Safin leads him to a remote island facility, where the full extent of Safin’s plan is revealed. In a series of intense confrontations, Bond not only battles Safin and his henchmen but also grapples with personal revelations that challenge his understanding of loyalty and love.
In a heroic act of sacrifice, Bond ensures the destruction of Safin’s facility and the bioweapon, saving millions. However, this comes at the ultimate cost: his own life. The film concludes with Bond’s allies and loved ones honoring his legacy, marking the end of an era for the character and, symbolically, for Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the iconic spy.
4. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
Luke Skywalker is a young farm boy who becomes a Jedi Knight and helps to defeat the Empire. At the beginning of the series, he is naive and idealistic, but over the course of the films, he becomes more mature and confident. He learns to trust in his own abilities and becomes a true hero.
Luke starts as a restless farm boy on the desert planet of Tatooine. He dreams of adventure and joining the Rebel Alliance, but feels bound by his responsibilities to his uncle and aunt. His life is ordinary, and he’s unaware of his true lineage or potential.
Luke’s life takes a dramatic turn when he discovers two droids carrying a secret message from Princess Leia. After his family is tragically killed by the Empire, he embarks on a quest to deliver the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi. This decision propels him into the larger conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire.
Throughout his journey, Luke faces numerous moral and ethical challenges. He learns of his connection to Darth Vader, the saga’s primary antagonist, which shakes his understanding of good and evil. As he trains to become a Jedi, he grapples with anger, impatience, and fear. These emotions threaten to lead him to the Dark Side of the Force, especially when confronted with the truth about his family.
Luke’s character arc reaches its zenith in “Return of the Jedi.” After intense battles and confrontations, he faces Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Instead of succumbing to anger and hatred, Luke chooses compassion, believing there’s still good in his father, Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader). This act of faith and love leads to Vader’s redemption and the defeat of the Emperor.
The original trilogy concludes with the Rebel Alliance’s victory and the restoration of balance to the Force. Luke’s journey from a naive farm boy to a wise Jedi Master symbolizes hope, resilience, and the enduring struggle between light and dark. His legacy continues in subsequent films, where he trains a new generation of Jedi and confronts the challenges of the past.
5. Michael Corleone in The Godfather
Michael Corleone is the son of a powerful Mafia boss. At the beginning of the first film, he is a war hero who wants nothing to do with his family’s criminal empire. However, after his father is nearly assassinated, Michael becomes more involved in the family business. Over the course of the films, he becomes more ruthless and violent, and eventually becomes the new head of the family.
Michael starts as the youngest son of Vito Corleone, the head of the Corleone crime family. Unlike his brothers, Michael is college-educated, a decorated Marine from World War II, and seemingly detached from the family’s criminal enterprises. He’s introduced at his sister’s wedding, telling his girlfriend, Kay, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”
The dynamics shift when an assassination attempt on Vito Corleone leaves him critically wounded. With the family’s leadership in jeopardy and facing threats from rival gangs, Michael steps in, making the pivotal decision to retaliate. This marks his descent into the world of organized crime.
Michael’s transformation is marked by a series of morally complex decisions. While his actions are driven by loyalty to his family and the desire to protect them, he becomes increasingly ruthless. He orchestrates the murders of key rivals, consolidates power, and even orders the killing of his brother-in-law.
The film’s climax is a masterful juxtaposition of two worlds. As Michael becomes the godfather to his sister’s child in a church ceremony, his orders to eliminate the remaining threats to the Corleone family are executed. This sequence, intercutting between sacred vows and violent acts, encapsulates Michael’s dual role as both family man and mafia don.
By the end of the film, Michael has fully embraced his role as the new head of the Corleone family. He consolidates power, moves the family’s operations to Nevada, and distances himself from the old guard. The final scene, with Kay watching the door close as Michael’s subordinates pay their respects, symbolizes Michael’s complete transformation and the insurmountable divide between his personal and criminal lives.
How to Create Memorable Character Arcs in Your Films
To create a compelling character arc, you need to understand your character’s motivations, goals, and flaws. Your character’s journey should be driven by their desires and needs, and the obstacles they face should challenge them to grow and change.
One effective way to create a memorable character arc is to give your character a clear goal or objective that they are striving towards.
This goal should be something that is important to them and that they are willing to work hard to achieve. As your character faces obstacles and setbacks, they will be forced to confront their flaws and make difficult choices that will ultimately shape their arc.
Another important aspect of a compelling character arc is the concept of change. Your character should not be the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They should undergo a significant transformation that is driven by the events of the story and their own internal struggles.
A well-crafted character arc can be a powerful tool for engaging your viewers and creating a memorable film. By understanding your character’s motivations and goals, and challenging them to grow and change throughout the film, you can create a compelling and memorable character arc that will stay with your viewers long after they have finished viewing your film.
Character Arc FAQ’s
How do you identify a character arc?
You can identify a character arc by looking at the character’s behavior, thoughts, and actions at the beginning of the story, and then comparing them to how they behave, think, and act at the end of the story. If there is a significant change in the character’s personality, beliefs, or values, then there is likely a character arc present.
Why do they call it a character arc?
Character arc comes from the idea that the character’s transformation throughout the story is similar to the shape of an arc. The character starts at one point, goes through a series of changes, and ends up at a different point.
Within visual storytelling, character arcs symbolize the profound transformative journeys. Whether it’s the moral ascent of a flawed individual or the tragic descent of a virtuous one, these arcs breathe life into narratives, making them resonate deeply with viewers alike.
They are the heartbeat of every memorable tale, reflecting our own life experiences, challenges, and growth. As visual storytellers, understanding and crafting compelling character arcs is not just a skill—it’s an art. It’s the bridge that connects the audience to the heart of the story, reminding us all of the timeless power of change, redemption, and self-discovery.