What Character Arc Really Means

When asked to define character arc, most people think it has something to do with how the Main Character changes within a story. While in some respect this is correct, it is inaccurate to assume that this means every Main Character needs to undergo some major transformation. Understanding the difference between growth and change is essential to the proper implementation of character arc in a story.

Without a doubt, Main Characters need to grow. A story cannot develop organically if the principal characters within it do not grow and adapt to the shifting dramatic tides. When an act progresses from one area of exploration to the next, the Main Character needs to progress as well. That’s how stories work. Therefore, it is easy to see how growth, and in particular the Main Character’s growth, is inherent in the mechanisms that run story.

But when you talk about change and how the Main Character “has” to change, you’re making an assumption about the nature of that growth. Not all growth is transformative. Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them. This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world.

You’ll find a video collection of Main Characters who do NOT fundamentally change over the course of the story attached to the end of this article.

When the Main Character reaches the crisis point or climax of a story they are faced with a very important question: are they on the right path or the wrong path? Some stories are about characters who realize they have been doing things wrong the whole time. These characters change and adopt a new way of seeing the world. Other stories are about characters who realize that the way they have been doing things is in fact the right way to approach their problems. These characters remain steadfast. In both cases, this realization that they arrive at is an extension of, or better yet, result of their growth.

Now whether or not their decision turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing is a completely different area of discussion. The takeaway here is that in assuming that every Main Character has to change, you are effectively ignoring or discounting fifty percent of the stories out there. And we’re not talking about weak stories or stories that have problems. Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown, the list goes on and on. These are fantastic stories that are on the top of every Top 100 list. Non-transformative growth can be a powerful means of expressing an author’s point-of-view.

Again, understanding the difference between growth and change is the key. Not all growth requires a different mindset. As the video above clearly shows, there is great meaning to be found in stories where a character’s “arc” requires them to stand their ground.

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