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Top 10 Tips to Create a Character Arc
by Samantha Stone

Just as in real life, characters on a page change and develop throughout your story. This is natural and should happen. You can write a story without any character development, but those types of stories are usually noted just for that reason – a character's refusal or inability to learn or respond to the events around them.

Don't let your character drift around in this developmental arc. Plan your character's growth and reactions with events, interaction with other characters, and from inner turmoil or conflict. Often characters are at war with themselves or their beliefs, and this can affect their overall character change.

Use these 10 tips to keep your character arc on track for believable development.

1. Who Is the Character at the Beginning?

Decide who your character is and why they need to change. In the Christmas favorite A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes from a cantankerous, heartless man into a caring and generous one. Think of Dr. Seuss's Grinch.

2. Inner Demons

Secrets your character hides can be a driving force in who they are. Denial can keep your character falsely happy and guilt can haunt your character into madness. This was one of Shakespeare's favorite devices.

3. Perception of Self

Your character's self-image may be their worst enemy. Something your character sees as a fault may be exaggerated or may not exist at all. A character thinking they're too fat, too ugly, stupid, or even superior to others are perceptions that can be changed or altered within the storyline. In the play and movie The Seven Year Itch, a pulp fiction editor sees himself as a skirt-chasing fiend trying to corner the blonde from upstairs – but he's not. His fantasy life is exaggerated in his mind and has invaded when his wife and child are away for the summer.

4. Show the Character Changing

Give the reader the eyewitness view of the character changing. Show the obstacles overcome, the decisions made, the failures and wins. It doesn't always have to be pretty.

5. Desired or Undesired Traits

Good traits in a character can change, too. Maybe your character becomes a less desirable person as the story unfolds. Usually heroes or heroines become better people, but the opposite can also happen. Maybe your character loses and becomes bitter, unredeemable, a monster. Rhett Butler told Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind that he wanted her to become the girl she used to be before the war had changed her. She had become independent to survive, but also a bit unfeeling.

6. What Does the Character Become?

Depending on who your character is at the beginning of the story and what happens to him or her along the way may result in a very different character. Is your character more caring? Less trustful? Jaded? Callous to others? Does the shrew turn into a good wife?

7. Is the Change Natural?

In most cases, character change is gradual and progressive. Abrupt changes can also be natural, such as a catastrophe that leaves a character destitute. Natural changes should come from the character's makeup, reflecting how they would respond to an event whether sudden or gradual.

8. Resistance to Change

Some characters will resist change. Denial, rebellion, shock of disbelief – all these can be used to stall change. The will to refuse change is also powerful. Although only in movie format, the film The Clockwatchers (1997) shows the main character resisting change – even a change for the better – preferring to remain in her low-paying job as an office temp rather than promote into a prestigious company.

9. Don't Contrive Events

The changes and development of a character work best in your story's confines when they seem natural, not from overtly contrived events. Forcing development will appear as just that – artificially manufactured, even coerced. Don't let your character be ‘out of character'.

10. Who Else is Affected?

Your character's choices, refusal to make decisions, and changes will affect other characters, too. This will set off other character developments, agendas, and reactions. Most people don't live in a void; your character probably does not either.

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