Creating a Strong Story With Character Arcs

A lot of work goes into writing a well-developed novel. Planning, plotting, outlining (even pansters need a general story idea). An author must create interesting characters and settings, write scenes that keep the reader interested… The list goes on.

Writers need to know proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Even when sending to an editor, the cleaner the manuscript, the better. Yes, there is lots of work involved in writing a book. But today, I want to talk (write) about character arcs.

If you want to grip your readers, the main character (or protagonist) should undergo a transformation or inner journey during the story. Make the character believable. None of us are perfect, neither are our characters. If we make them appear that way in the beginning, and nothing changes, readers are likely to feel disappointed. In some cases, they may choose not to finish the book.

Over the holidays, my husband and I watched several movies—some  of them old favorites. These days, I tend to view films from a writer’s perspective, paying close attention to the main characters.

During our movie-watching binge, there were three characters whose transformation stood out in my mind.

The first is Lt. Daniel Kaffee (A Few Good Men). When we first see this character, he seems selfish and more concerned with playing baseball than defending his clients. However, he is handed a high-profile murder case because of his skills as a litigator. In nine months, he successfully plea bargained forty-four cases. The trouble is, he’s never been in the courtroom.

During the film, we learn Lt. Kaffee is afraid of not being able to live up to the expectations of his now deceased father, a former Judge Advocate General of the US Navy.

After being called a coward by one of his clients and a confrontation by co-council, Lt. Cdr. JoAnn Galloway, Kaffee decides to take the case to court. When Galloway makes a crucial mistake, and an essential witness commits suicide, we see a hint of Kaffee’s selfishness, wishing he had gone through with a plea bargain.

But Galloway convinces him to put the base commander on the stand, and Kaffee perseveres in getting the witness to admit the truth. In the end, the two clients are cleared of the more serious charges, and Kaffee gains confidence in his skills as a lawyer. We see that he genuinely cares about his clients.

The next is Aragorn (Lord of The Rings). We first see Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring at a tavern in Bree. He goes by the name of Stridor and is a ranger, one of the wandering people of Eriador. They protect the lands, but because of their secretiveness, the people of Bree and The Shire are distrustful of them. Although he watches after the hobbits and quickly displays his leadership abilities, he’s reluctant to claim what is rightfully his—the throne of Gondor.

Why? Fear that he would follow in his ancestor’s footsteps and not be able to resist the evil of the ring. In the second film, The Two Towers, Elrond (a leader of the Elves) presents Aragorn with his re-forged ancestral sword and tells him, “Put aside the ranger, and become who you were born to be.”

Near the end of the third film, Return of the King, Aragorn leads the people against the evil forces of Mordor to give Frodo time to destroy the ring. His speech encourages all who follow him. He acts like a king and is no longer the secretive ranger.

The third character is Rick Blaine (Casablanca). In my opinion, this is one of the best character arcs ever written.

Consider an early scene in which Ugarte brags to Rick about having possession of two “letters of transit” that he obtained by murdering a couple of German soldiers. These documents would allow anyone to travel to Portugal and are priceless to anyone stranded in Casablanca.

Ugarte asks Rick to hide the letters. Rick does so but later refuses to help when authorities come to arrest Ugarte for the murder.

“I stick my neck out for nobody.”

But then his ex-lover Ilsa comes to Casablanca with her husband, Victor Laszlo, a renowned Czech Resistance leader. She admits to Rick she is still in love with him. Laszlo tries to convince Rick to use the letters of transit and take Ilsa away.

However, Rick’s plan is for Victor and Ilsa to use the letters to leave Casablanca for Lisbon. Rick gives up the love of his life for the greater cause of freedom, knowing Isla is “the part that keeps Victor going.”

Far different from the man who “sticks his neck out for nobody.”

What would have happened to Kaffee’s clients if he hadn’t overcome his fears and taken the plea bargain? If Aragorn hadn’t accepted his destiny and fought against the forces of evil? If Rick had remained the same self-serving café owner? In all three cases, the outcome would have likely been much different.

Two clients would have faced time in Leavenworth or received a death penalty. The forces of evil would have overcome Middle-Earth, obliterating anyone who stood for what was right. The course of freedom could have changed for Europe. Maybe even America.

Fortunately, the authors and/or screen writers made certain the main characters underwent a transformation. And in each case, the character arc made the story stronger.

47 thoughts on “Creating a Strong Story With Character Arcs

  1. The second I saw the picture under the title, I knew I was going to love this post. Casablanca might be the best film ever made. I still watch it sometimes at night when I can’t sleep. (I have it saved on my Directv receiver.)

    I also read and watch with a critical eye. My family hates that I know “whodunit” before the first commercial. I don’t share my opinions any longer, but they’ll look at me and say, “It’s him, right? No? Yes? You’re smiling. It’s him.” I think they like figuring out if I’m right more than they like figuring out the actual events of the show.

    I’m definitely in the character-driven camp rather than the plot-driven, although my favorite fiction is a story that has strong characters and a strong plot. (But come on; who doesn’t like that?) You’re absolutely right—a character who is perfect from the start is no fun to read about (or watch). It’s the arc (redemptive or otherwise) that makes the character, and therefore the story, compelling. Fabulous post, Joan.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You might know we share the same taste in movies. Casablanca is one my, if not my favorite movie of all time. (I own the DVD.) I read somewhere (can’t recall for sure but I believe it was in one of JSB’s books on writing) that the original script was a convoluted mess. But boy did the screenwriter turn this into a gem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Outstanding post today, Joan. Character arc isn’t something that comes to us in our first stories. I think it takes some seasoning as an author before we figure that out. Posts like this can really help the newer writers among us.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post. I do the same thing with movies and shows in that I think like an author. Maybe this is why I pay more attention to characters and enjoy even a bland story if there’s some great development/personalities. It’s interesting how supporting characters can steal the scene as well. I’ve followed plenty of stories where it isn’t the main protagonist who has me coming back. Never figured out why this happens, but my best guess is that we feel less pressure on these characters and can be more free with how they operate.

    (I’m being told by my wife to point out that the downside to watching movies/shows with an author is that very little surprises me. I’m under orders not to yell ‘that’s the bad guy’ within the first 5 minutes of her crime shows.)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Funny how writer’s think. I point things out to my husband when we’re watching movies or shows regarding plot, characters, and what is likely to happen. I always tell him “I know–I’m a writer!” It’s actually gotten to the point where he sometimes pigeonholes things before I do and beats me to the revelation–what comes from living with a writer for so many years. 🙂

      When it comes to fiction–whether I’m writing or reading it–it has to be character-driven (vs plot-driven) so growth of the character is vitally important. As writers, I think the challenge is also to make the character’s journey believable. The reader needs to experience for themselves how and why the character changes. You gave some great examples in your post, Joan. And one of these days I’m actually going to get around to watching Casablanca!

      Liked by 4 people

    • I understand what you’re saying. Sometimes I root for the underdog. Not necessarily the antagonist, but the not so nice one. (Guess I try to see the redemptive value in people.) My husband doesn’t want me to reveal my thoughts five minutes into a movie or show. He’s pretty good at figuring things out, but not as quick as I do.

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    • This writer thing within us does tend to change how we look at things. But it can also be helpful and we can learn from it. You’re right, when nothing changes, a book/movie/tv show is boring. Thanks for sharing this today!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I found myself watching movies and tv series with a writer’s eye too these days. It’s incredibly useful. But somehow it takes away some of the pleasure, doesn’t it?
    I don’t have issues with character’s arch in my stories (at least, I think so). The main characters are bound to go through a transformation. I end up with an arch without much thinking about it. The pint is often “is it the right arch? Or I’m forcing a character down a path he shouldn’t take?”

    Liked by 4 people

    • Sometimes that can be infuriating but watching with a critical eye can also be helpful.

      I’m a firm believer in allowing characters to choose their own path (with some semblance of control, of course). When writers try to transform a character into something he or she isn’t, the results can be disastrous. We just have to trust our writing and go from there. Thanks for stopping by today, Irene.

      Liked by 3 people

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