Wednesday, July 19

Three Reasons You Don't Need a Character Arc

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Character arcs are a wonderful part of many stories, but not all novels need them. That might surprise you since so much of the writing advice out there (even on this site) extols the virtues of a strong character arc. It’s good advice if your story contains and will benefit from a character arc. If not, it’s advice that won’t help you and might even hurt your story.

Not every protagonist needs to learn a lesson or grow as a person, it’s just a trend right now and very much in fashion. Let’s look at three reasons you might skip that arc in your novel:

1. You’re writing a story that’s more about the plot and less about the character.


If the point of the story is to solve the plot problem, and the readers’ enjoyment comes from the puzzle and the intellectual exercise of the plot, they don’t usually care if the protagonist grows over the course of the novel. It’s about the adventure, puzzle, or problem.

The hero of nearly every adventure story is in it for the adventure, not the emotional growth. The classic police detective of the police procedural genre typically solves the case and goes back to his life. The disaster movie shows how ordinary people deal with disaster. We love Die Hard's John McClane because he defeats the bad guys by being a good cop. Sherlock Holmes captures our attention because he’s brilliant and we want to see how he solves the mystery. We wanted to see the soldiers in Kelly’s Heroes get to that Nazi gold and escape as rich men.

2. Your protagonist is the moral or ethical center of the story.


Some stories use the protagonist as the moral rock the world is trying to break. The story isn’t about the protagonist changing, but their being the catalyst to change the world. The growth comes from everyone else in the novel, while the protagonist does not change.

My favorite example here is Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Steve “Captain America” Rogers has no character arc in this movie. He’s the steady, rock-solid World War II hero he always has been, only now he’s in the twenty-first century and dealing with the changing morals and ethics of a new world. His role in this story is to be the moral center, the reminder for everyone else who has lost their way of what it really means to be “the good guy.”

Steve knows what’s happening around him is wrong, and he does what he can to stop it and make his friends realize the dark path they’re heading down. He saves the world by not changing and encouraging others to live up to his example.

If your protagonist is the one who represents what’s right, and everyone else is wrong, then they probably don’t need to change. If the entire point of the story is to have the hero be the example everyone else finally comes around to, thereby narrowly avoiding “disaster” (however that happens in your story), it’s their job to stand fast. They must face the ethical choices and take the hard path, even if it costs them a lot personally. They bring about the change.

(Here's more on what makes a character heroic)

3. You’re writing a series with stand-alone books.


Certain series in certain genres have protagonists who never change—which is why readers love them. James Bond is always James Bond. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is the same every book, and he never undergoes any deep, meaningful soul searching to learn a powerful lesson. The protagonist might become better at what they do over the course of the series, but they don’t change who they are every book.

On some level, you could even argue many romances fit this category. They're two people falling in love. In some romances, those people need to change to find love, but in others, they need to overcome whatever external issue is keeping them apart. They fall in love despite the obstacles in their way because of who they are and that never changes.

If you’re not sure if your story is one of these, ask if if would still make sense even if you read the books out of order. If each book is its own story and there isn’t a stronger multi-book plot for the entire series, odds are you don’t need a character arc. But if each book builds on the previous one and the series doesn’t really make sense unless read in the right order, there’s a decent chance you do.

(Here’s more on writing a series)

Some stories are about change, but many are about the adventure or puzzle. If you have a tale that doesn’t need the protagonist to grow and change to be entertaining, don’t shove a character arc in there just because someone told you to.

Does your WIP use a character arc? What are your favorite examples of stories without an arc?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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2 comments:

  1. I'm glad someone finally said it! While I agree that character arcs are a great tool for many books, not every book needs one. Thanks for taking the road less traveled.

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