Arc: the continuous portion of a circle
Character arc isn’t just about change. It’s about having to come back and face who you were, and see that you no longer fit inside that old life. It’s not a 180°, it’s a 360°.
When you read “how to write” advice, everyone will tell you to imagine the worst thing possible happening to your character and then put them through it. Boom. Character developed. Truth is, you’re only halfway there. Your character has just experienced their “transformative event” or “faced the first trial”.
Now you make a choice.
Listen carefully to what I say next. Your character’s behavior does not have to change at this point. Your character’s UNDERSTANDING OF THEMSELVES does. That is the arc. The arc is “There is who I was, here is who I am now”.
Perhaps your character goes right back to doing what they always do; that’s still valid for story purposes. Don’t believe me? Read Factotum, by Charles Bukowski. Read The Dark Tower series. The whole damn thing. Just because a character experiences an awareness of self or a transformative event doesn’t mean they choose to change. They can choose to remain just as they are, on the same path as always. Only now they’re on the backside of the mirror, looking out: “Here is who I am now, there is who I was”.
If you choose to make your character evolve, spurred on by the burdens of knowledge and experience, good for you. It’s vastly more satisfying. It’s a beautiful, simple equation:
Hero + experience = better person
It’s tidy, it’s fun to read. It leaves no one unsettled.
If that word unsettled sticks at you a little, if it unsettles you, then good. Consider this with me. In this season of “this year will be different, this time I’ll change”, what makes a more realistic, relevant character? The hero that changes his ways and pushes right through to the next level of enlightenment? Or the recurring doofus who continues a slow, downward spiral of the best intentions, mixed with a light dusting of self-loathing?
Note: Your job is to entertain. I don’t want you to think I’m advocating dour, downer fiction. My favorites are nothing like that. but to make a character’s progression really, truly resonate, give that arc some loop-the-loops. Give your character a moment to make the change and move forward, and let them turn away. Let them sink a little deeper. Let them wallow in the familiar dismay of self for just a teeny bit. It will mean so much more when they recover. It will feel more like us, your fallible, habitual and oh-so-messed up readers.