Arc Implies Change
So you’ve been told to improve you character arcs, or you’re just curious about how to write great ones. First of all, what are they? An arc is really a journey from one state to another. Transformation is something that has obsessed story tellers from the earliest days – look at Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Really everything that’s ever happened falls under the banner of ‘change’, and humans like to see things changing, or moving. So put your character through a process of change. Think of Walter White in Breaking Bad going from downtrodden high school teacher to biggest drug baron this side of the Rio Grande.
Arc Implies Learning
Another way of describing a change is to identify what the character has learned – this at least indicates a change in knowledge, and perhaps character. Each time a character learns something significant about themselves or the world, they may change a little. Think of Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad. That’s a change because it forces him to question his own nature. But also think of when Luke finally rejects the Emperor’s offer to take up the darkside, that’s a new kind of knowledge as well because he learns he would rather die than be evil. Finding this kind of moral certainty is a form of change.
Arc Implies Meaning
What the characters learn from your tale is often the moral of the story e.g. the importance of friendship. The importance of human kindness. If they don’t learn the most valuable lesson (Death of a Salesman), or learn it too late (King Lear), and they are destroyed by this misapprehension of the nature of reality, then you are in tragedy land. So in short, arc implies moral, or meaning.
Your protagonists will likely have arcs, but your smaller characters can too. Even if they wander on and learn something profound, then boom! You’ve got a little arc there. They can be punchy little lessons or changes that you can use to make effective social commentary. Enjoy!
Obstacles that Force Change
The quality of your obstacles will impact on your character’s arc. If an obstacle forces a change in the protagonist, so that they must learn something in order to overcome the obstacle, that’s a pretty good obstacle that will be contributing to your arc i.e. if the character must depend on a mate to get over this hurdle, and the ultimate lesson the character learns is the importance of friendship, then things are working nicely. Congrats!