Character Arc

 This blog post is about one of the most important elements of storytelling; character arc. Before discussing types of character arc, 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 change in detail below.

Here is the 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 is 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 the 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.


Positive-change arc

The classic example for learning the positive arc is \textsl{A Christmas Carol} (1843) by Charles Dickens. Initially, Scrooge is a selfish, greedy man who believes money is happiness. He wants money (Want = money)

Three Christmas ghosts visit him—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This visit redeems him. How? Scrooge learns money is not happiness, and he begs for another chance to live. He was redeemed from his Want (remember: want = money). Here is the crucial point. Scrooge needed to learn something new which was money is not happiness. This was his Need (Need = learns that money is not happiness).

On Christmas day, Scrooge is another person. He has learned about his Need and abandoned his Want.

To make a positive arc, we need two ingredients: Want and Need. The character starts from Want. The Story teaches him that his Want is a wrong attitude and guides him towards his Need. Finally, the character is changed. Want and Need should be related, otherwise, the change has no meaning.

For me, it was great help to write down Want and Need. And by writing down, I mean taking paper and a pencil. Until the moment I wrote them down, I didn’t know that my manuscripts do NOT have a sound character arc. One of the critiques I often got was that my characters were lost in the middle of the story. I knew the critique was correct, but I lack the skill to repair the broken Arc. This happened because I didn’t know where my character ought to go, so the character rambled around events. I had no destination for my characters, and by destination I don’t mean an event or an state that character should arrive at. The destination is the result of the character’s growth.

The character’s Need assists you like a lighthouse. It tells you in which direction the story should sail to reach the harbor. Otherwise, your story will get lost in the stormy ocean!

A good example in a picture book is When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree (2019) by Jamie L.B. Deenihan. The Protagonist is a girl whose grandmother gives her a lemon tree for her birthday. The girl is unhappy because a lemon tree was not in her wish list. Her wish list, illustrated on the first spread, consists of technological devices like Robot dog and all for herself. Her Want is Tech-devices for me. At the end of the story, the girl buys flowers and plants for the garden to share its beauty with others. Thus, her Need is to learn was happiness is in sharing. Abandoning selfishness and thinking of others is a timeless character positive arc.

 

 

 

It worth mentioning here that both positive and negative arcs are a gradual change. Think of the word \textsl{arc}. It is neither a leap nor a jump. If the book or the film fails to present a gradual change, the audience doesn’t relate to the character.


Negative change arc

In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort is a negative character; an innocent orphan boy started in Hogwarts and ended up as a ruthless soulless man!

A negative arc character shouldn’t be necessarily the antagonist of the story. Michael Corleone in the Godfather film is the Protagonist with a negative arc; 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.

A negative arc character can be simpler than the above examples; a person who doesn’t learn a life lesson and faces consequences is also a negative arc.

By reading stories, we learn from both positive and negative arcs. We see how the character’s decisions change the journey, and this is the goal of storytelling.

In picture books, with very limited page numbers, we don’t have enough room to develop two arcs. Thus, you have to choose one of them for your Protagonist: positive or negative. The question is how much a young child (between 4 and 8 years of age) can learn from a negative arc? Is a child able to close such a picture book with a logical conclusion or the black theme of the story leaves an undesirable influence on the child?

For example, This Is Not My Hat (2012) by Jon Klassen is the story of a little fish who has stolen a gigantic fish’s hat. The little fish confesses that it has stolen the hat.

 

 

Yet, it insists on keeping the hat and goes hiding. A crab sees the little fish and helps the gigantic fish to find the little fish. Gigantic fish eats the little fish and gets its hat back! The Protagonist didn’t learn the lesson and got eaten! From the point of view of story analysis, it is a good story. However, for me as a mother, I never read this to my 4-year-old son! The punishment is extreme, and there is no trust in the story.

 


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 post on this series will be flat-arc character, in which I will discuss the importance of this type in writing picture book biographies and walk through some examples. 

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 the blog page. I publish a quarterly newsletter.  If you haven’t subscribed so far and you’d like to receive it, please subscribe here.

 

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