The best stories don’t just show us a sequence of events. They follow their characters on a meaningful personal journey that happens to include those events.
Crafting that personal journey requires us to think about character arcs: each major character’s story within a story. Character development, which reveals important details about a character, works in service of this arc. It builds emotional investment in your characters and provides the lens through which we view their behavior and choices. Complex characters with compelling arcs lay the foundation for an unforgettable story.
Character arc: your character’s story within the story
Woven into and around your main plot arc are several subplots. Alongside these are another kind of story: the character arc. Your major characters should have their own story with a beginning, middle, and end. Done well, this adds emotional complexity and a human interest element readers find irresistable.
Consider the character of Logan Echolls in the cult favorite television series Veronica Mars. He begins as a foil for Veronica and a prime example of her high school’s self-absorbed ruling class. However, as we learn more about Logan he transforms from a two-dimensional throw-away character to a complex fan favorite. His character arc takes him through periods of significant trauma, growth, healing, and change. It also adds significant richness and complexity to the main plot.
Character development: the many layers of your character’s identity
An emotionally gripping character arc like Logan’s relies on effective character development. To develop a character, the writer reveals an increasing number of details that:
- Show complexity
- Turn characters into individuals, not stereotypes
- Provide backstory to explain current behaviors and choices
- Reveal a unique set of personal values, beliefs, and motivations
- Develop inner conflict
These details show up in characters’ flashbacks, inner monologues, dialogue, and responses to external events and conflict. The more we learn about a character, the more we understand them on an emotional level. This emotional connection, in turn, makes us care about their character arc.
Character development + character arc = your emotional hook
Complex character arcs lend emotional weight to your story’s big events. Those events become not just interesting on their own, but fraught with meaning for characters we care deeply about.
At the beginning of Veronica Mars, Logan is irredeemable. Intense character development eventually makes it impossible to view him that way. Once we appreciate the complexity of his character, we find ourselves rooting for him. His setbacks become heart-wrenching rather than off-putting. His character arc becomes a critical element of the plot and a source of significant emotional investment.
These arcs keep readers hanging on every plot point because story events feel like they’re happening to a close friend, not just a hypothetical character. And when a story gets that personal, it becomes impossible to put down.