Character Arc

by | Jan 24, 2024 | Tips and Tricks

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When you’ve defined your story’s plot in broad terms (see Plot Defined, Turtles, All The Way Down and Plotting Through Character), you will have identified your protagonist, and given him a goal (a problem to solve), motivation for doing so, and some opposition through an antagonist (and thus, conflict.) 

Now consider for a moment a hypothetical perfect hero, invincible, from whose chest his foe’s bullets bounce off, who will be loved by his romantic interest (and everyone else), etc. etc. What have you got? A boring hero, and hence, a boring story. The reason isn’t hard to understand: a problem confronting such a protagonist isn’t a problem at all. It’s the reason Superman has Kryptonite, and why Achilles has his heel. Consider Diomedes as an Achilles without a fatal weakness. Ever heard of him? I thought not. 

So let’s give your protagonist a flaw. How do we do so? Having done so, how can it advance your story? 

To start with, consider your protagonist’s flaw as a problem in its own right. Such a problem is an example of a ‘person vs. himself’ conflict, an inner problem, as opposed to conflict types common to ‘outer problems’, such as ‘person vs. person’, ‘person vs. nature’, etc. An outer problem is the character’s struggle to achieve some physical goal— to solve a problem, to win the love of his life, to find a treasure. An inner problem is some want or need within the character himself, a need to grow or change. 

In a ‘person vs. himself’ conflict, your protagonist is his or her own antagonist. The antagonistic side may be a destructive trait or habit, such as an addiction, or two opposing traits might fight for control in one person’s soul. It can in fact be any trait that gets in the way of your protagonist and keeps him from his goal: overconfidence, lack of confidence, or the lack of a skill needed to succeed (and ignorance of that lack). This inner problem mirrors the outer story problem. The inner problem may be the real reason why the character pursues his external goal, even though the superficial reason he gives is quite different. The character frequently doesn’t know that he has an inner problem at the start of the story, and sometimes, in tragic endings, refuses to acknowledge or resolve the inner problem. 

The outer problem asks ‘what does the character want?’ The inner problem asks ‘why does he want it?’ The outer problem is tangible. The inner problem is intangible, invisible. The outer problem is solved when something is accomplished. The inner problem is solved when the character grows or changes. The outer problem is related to plot. The inner problem is related to character growth and theme. 

If your protagonist is to overcome his story problem, he must first overcome his inner problem. In other words, he must change. This change is not only the correction of a bad trait or acquisition of a good trait or skill, it’s also his awareness of that change. He is not the same character he was at the story’s beginning; he’s grown. This is his ‘character arc’, and it adds great richness to the plot. 

Often the protagonist can’t achieve this growth on his own; he needs help, either in the form of a mentor (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces), or by coming to see himself through another character’s eyes (a sidekick, a romantic interest, or even through the scornful eyes of the antagonist.) 

Character Evolves 

Creating a character is an evolutionary process. It doesn’t happen all at once, but incrementally. How could it be otherwise? Real life people don’t spring from the ground fully formed either; they live and grow. It’s that way with your characters, too. Let’s look at character growth for a moment. 


Unless the story idea is character-centered, you’ll generally give birth to a character to suit a story premise. The character’s story role (protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, love interest), role (detective, housewife, high school outcast), sex and age are about all you need so start with. As with a real infant, you could say that the character’s defined by its genes. 

As the premise develops, a protagonist or antagonist’s goal and moon take center stage. You love a baby not because of its complexity but, in part, because of its potential. So with your character. 


Genre and milieu determine, to a large degree, your character’s background. ‘Spaceship mechanic’ or ‘me machine inventor’ are science fiction, ‘former outlaw turned sheriff’ is western, ‘disillusioned stockbroker’ is mainstream. 

But none of these are fleshed-out characters, or even roles. A character needs a back story of his own. And the back story needs se4ngs and world-building to flesh it out. Character is not simply genetics, but also environment. As your world grows more detailed, so too will your characters. 

Adolescence is that period of life when, to borrow Logan Smith’s quote, you ‘try on one face after another to find a face of your own.’ It’s a me fraught with problems, and as you fit your character to your story problems, and particularly inner problems- his character arc- individual personality begins to show. He begins to exhibit a voice of his own. 


Your character is ready to step onto the story’ stage. At this point, goal, motivation, and conflict are key. Your character will be interacting with others and situations, will speak and act. Like a

parent, some of that maturity you’ll recognize- it’s how you raised him. Like a parent, you should

expect to also be surprised when his actions and dialogue aren’t quite what you thought they’d be.

Maturity, in characterization as in life, is independence.

Old Age

This is your character at the end of the story- and at the end of his character arc. He may not be

old in years, but one thing is certain: he should not be the same as he was at the tale’s beginning. Art imitates life. Or is it vice versa?