A character arc is the progression of a character through a story from the beginning to an end. This is the growth of the character and the stage of life that becomes relatable. Our lifetimes comprise of three basic arcs for the three basic stages of life. Other arcs exist within these, but we’ll address those another time.
We all have our own character arcs in which we have our discoveries about the world, about ourselves, and then about how we fit in the world. Those are the basic arcs of life. As we go through childhood, teenage, and adult stages, we connect with stories that portray characters going through the same arcs.
A Child’s Arc
As children we are exploring the world. As teens and young adults we are discovering who we are. Then our efforts are coming to understand how we fit into the world, how we contribute and where we belong. Then as we are old and dying we strive to understand what we have done for the world and what has happened to the world.
Discovering the world, is an arc that begins with an innocent or limited outlook. Some form of discovery breaks the facade and leads the character to come to understand the world in a new way. This may be a child discovering ice cream for the first time. Or encountering death and working to understand mortality.
Teenagers have a desire to come to know who they are, to be individuals. This tends to go towards rebelling and experimenting with looks and attitudes. In the end it comes back to a balance of who they are, based on what they like and what is important to them.
Examples of this would be the classic portrayals of teenagers trying out stilettos, a mohawk, or no deodorant. Taking self-expression to an extreme, before realizing that they are most comfortable being less dramatic, and letting their personality shine through in how they behave and do what they love.
An Adult’s Arc
Feeling like a part of the herd or machine, and needing to understand how to fit in the world. This is a search for a purpose. This is actually fairly similar to a teen’s arc, with a search for individuality that generally results in a balance of who they are and their roles and relationships.
The midlife crisis is wondering if “this is really what life is about”. The finish of the arc is finding value and purpose in life, whether they have to make drastic changes in life or just change attitudes. Books with these types of character arcs are what appeal to adults and becomes relatable to them.
Patterns of a Character Arc
There is always some form of discontent, then a breaking point, and finally a resolution with a balance. We tend to be a little drastic in how we react to things. The breaking point is taking the plunge into that drastic decision to embrace or discover world or self. The resolution is finding the balance between the breaking point and the discontent. This is where the resolution is often unexpected or simple, but is far more satisfying than the previous scenarios.
A child discovering mud will splash, play, and even eat it, despite and maybe because of protests of an adult. But then, as the child comes to understand the situation better, they limit their interaction to just jumping in puddles or just making mud pies. Teenagers try every major look – mohawks, stilettos, no deodorant – before they come to accept their own identity with a moderate appearance and attitude. A mid-life crisis is characteristic of a crazy or dramatic change in an effort to redefine life.