This blog post is about one of the most important elements of storytelling; character arc. Before discussing types of character arcs, I would like to invite you to rethink the difference between Narrative Arc and the Character Arc:
Narrative Arc vs. Character Arc
One of my biggest confusions, when I started writing, was that I didn’t know that the Character Arc and the Narrative Arc (some call it Narrative Structure) are two very different things. I assumed that if I got the Narrative Arc correct, the story was fine to go!
The Narrative Arc is the path of the overall story, from the first page to the last one. The narrative arc includes setting, events, description, and whatever binds the elements of the story together.
The Character Arc, on the other hand, is the journey of each character. A good example is the Harry Potter series. We have got many character arcs; Harry has the biggest and strongest character arc. Both Ron and Hermione have character arcs. So does Hagrid. So does Neville. These character arcs vary in terms of length and depth; Harry changed more than Neville. However, from the analytic point of view, these are all character arcs. And, all of these character arcs reside inside the narrative arc.
If the Narrative Arc is a cake, the character Arc is the flour—one of its ingredients.
The reason that many confused the Narrative Arc for Character Arc is that these two arcs are inseparably twisted; you cannot make a character arc, ignoring the Narrative Arc. For example, you cannot establish the character’s emotional wound in Act III (some call it the End) because the character’s building should be done in Act I (/Beginning) of the Narrative Arc! The Narrative Arc and the Character Arc should move hand-in-hand, and this is the difficulty. I try to learn them one at a time; first the Narrative Arc (see section 1 on the blog page) and then the Character Arc which is the subject of this post.
Most picture books have only one character arc. Because of the short length of a picture book, you cannot fit more than two character arcs (So far, I haven’t seen more than 2 arcs).
Now we are going to look at the types of Character Arc along with picture book examples.
Types of Character Arc
When you think of a character in terms of the character’s growth, there are only two options: the character either does change or doesn’t change. We call it a dynamic arc if the character changes. And, we name it flat arc if the character doesn’t change.
I underlined the phrase character’s growth because there are different ways to categorize characters in a story. And not funny at all, the word “flat” is used in another category. I made the chart given below for myself and would love to share it with you. The image’s quality is not good. You can download it here.
Change is either positive or negative; in most stories, you see a positive change; throughout the story, a character learns something new, and at the end, the character is stronger (either spiritually or emotionally). I will discuss positive change and negative changes in detail below.
Here is an interesting point: on the top left side of the chart, you see personality with its two subcategories: Flat and round. Flat means a one-dimensional character that the author didn’t develop that character on purpose. Thus, the reader doesn’t know that much about that character and doesn’t emotionally bond with that character. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Draco Malfoy is a flat character. We know only very little about him and his family. Draco is only needed to make trouble for Harry, and through those troubles, Harry grows out of his fears. It’s pointless to invest time in building Draco’s character. The story needs some problems for Harry, and those problems don’t materialize from thin air. Some other characters should cause those problems. Who? Draco and his father or another example are Argus Filch (Caretaker of Hogwarts). A flat character isn’t necessarily a negative person. If your manuscript is about a student whose teacher helps him to overcome bullying, the teacher is a flat character! Help to the student doesn’t come out of the blue, and the story needs a one-dimensional character to represent this help, which is the teacher!
A flat-arc character is a different thing; first and foremost, it is a multi-dimensional, fully developed character. Second, if you select your Protagonist to have a flat-arc, he is the center point of focus, not like Draco, a marginal character. Flat characters are mostly minor characters, not major characters.
Many confused the flat-arc character with a flat character and concluded that a story with a flat-arc protagonist should be boring and tasteless. I will discuss the flat-arc characters in a separate section below.
Now, let’s overview the dynamic character: change is either positive or negative; in most stories, you see a positive character arc; throughout the story, a character learns something new and at the end, the character is stronger (either physically or emotionally). In a negative-change arc, a character is in a better place at the beginning of the story compared to where it ends up at the end of the story. A good example of a negative-arc character is Michael Corleone in the Godfather film; at the beginning, he is the innocent third son of the family. In the end, he is an immoral criminal like his father and has no obstacle in killing more people.
If you want to learn more about the positive arc or decide to write a negative arc in your picture book, I strongly suggest that you take a look at Creating Character Arcs (2016) by K.M. Weiland. This is the best craft book—as far as I know—on discussing character arcs, and you can read about three different types of negative arcs.
The next blog posts on this series will be about the positive-change and negative-change arcs (link) and flat-arc characters (link). I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog post and looking forward to reading your comments.
You can read my previous blog post on the craft of writing picture books on PictureBookPedia I publish a quarterly newsletter. If you haven’t subscribed so far and you’d like to receive it, please subscribe.