Understanding Character Arcs: A Full Guide for Writers + Actors

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Photo Source: “Breaking Bad” Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Vince Gilligan famously pitched “Breaking Bad,” the influential drama series that saw mild-mannered teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) become a meth kingpin, by saying: “You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”

That, in a nutshell, is a quintessential character arc. Below, we dive into what the concept means for both writers and actors, as well as how to create the best journey possible.


What is a character arc?

A character arc is the change a person experiences throughout a story—be it spiritual, emotional, physical, moral, or otherwise. By the conclusion, a character’s entire personality or worldview may have evolved. Alternatively, they may have only shifted slightly from where they started. Either way, so long as they’re living with a new status quo, that’s an arc. 

Most projects focus primarily on the arcs of a protagonist, but any role can have one. It’s all about what works best for your story.

How to write a character arc

Coming up with your dramatic statement 

You should ask yourself this simple question when conceiving a character’s arc: What is the point? Writers write because they want to say something about the world, whether it’s a grand philosophy or a tiny idea. That’s your dramatic statement—and your protagonist’s arc is its embodiment. 

For example: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” has a lot on its mind, but the film is largely concerned with the ways in which absolute power corrupts people. Our protagonist, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), begins the movie in the opposite direction—he believes he can stay unattached to his family’s criminal empire, even introducing his family to a new girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), a symbol of an optimistic future outside the Mafia. However (spoiler alert), over the course of the film, Michael is drawn deeper and deeper into that world, buying into its ethos, until he’s leading the family. The last time we see Michael, he literally shuts the door on Kay, closing off what he used to believe in. 

RELATED: Character Development: A Guide for Screenwriters

Writing your character arc 

Some writers like to start at the beginning and work their way through. Others nail down the end first and work backward. Either way, keep these core elements in mind when crafting an arc. 

Motivation: What does your character want? A person’s desires determine their actions and agency, so it’s crucial to convey that information as early as possible—without it, your story feels aimless. The trick here is to work on two levels: First, come up with an external want—the actual, tangible goal they’re pursuing, such as a new job, a love interest, or a big win. Then, think of their internal need—what do they require on a fundamental level that will fix a flaw within them?

Core beliefs and fatal flaw: What does this character truly believe in at the beginning of the story? That true love is a myth? That underdogs can’t win? That the supernatural doesn’t exist? This belief will usually manifest itself as your character’s fatal flaw, or the deficiency holding them back from their full potential. In great, satisfying storytelling, their arc ends with them understanding (but not always embracing) a different perspective on the world.

Conflict and obstacles: The core of every story is conflict—and every bit of that conflict should be in service of your character’s arc. Construct the exact scenarios that would shake up their worldview the most. Push them out of their comfort zone. Smash them against conflicting perspectives. Bring them as low as possible, so that the only way forward is up.

Setting: Your setting should inform the details and logic of your character’s arc. For example, a woman in an advanced sci-fi setting would have a different worldview than one in a medieval fantasy. Even in a grounded setting, the culture and time period will shape them from the ground up. 

Plot: It’s easy to confuse plot with character arcs, but you should keep some distinctions in mind. A plot is the overall chain of events that progress a narrative, but arcs develop in response to those events. Plot is what happens; an arc is the reason

Picture your arcs as individual points on a winding thread rather than one long, smooth curve. Each point is a specific instance of change brought on by external events that are then internalized by the character. Just like in real life, growth (or regression) doesn’t usually happen after a single action. Audiences crave complexity and nuance in stories. If you want a well-rounded arc, you should include peaks and valleys of growth and degeneration before reaching the conclusion.

In a classic three-act structure, these events are usually punctuated at your inciting incident, the plot point that begins Act 2, the midpoint, the plot point that begins Act 3, and your climax. 

How to keep your audience interested 

Ready to keep digging? Long-form stories, such as serialized shows, often have protracted character arcs that pay off over time. Each episode should contain its own mini-arc—think of them as a stepping stone to a greater whole. Your protagonist should be changed in some way by the events of each episode, but not entirely. The same goes for every scene—your character should want something from every interaction, and getting it (or not getting it) should have consequences.

“In every interaction something else is going on,” says writer and actor Amanda Jane Stern (“Perfectly Good Moment,” “1 Angry Black Man”). “[Decide] why, and what’s going on? When did this relationship start? Where in the relationship are we? Who’s in control in this relationship?”

Stern notes that writers need to consider not just depth and consistency, but also how you’ll maintain the viewers’ attention. “You have to think about length,” she says. “If you drag [an arc] out too much, you’re going to lose people.”

Think about HBO’s landmark series “The Sopranos,” which lasted seven years, six seasons, and 86 episodes. Audiences stayed invested in the arc of mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) because the writing team knew how to bring their protagonist to the brink of change before drawing him back. A significant part of that success is in the storytelling device that is Tony’s therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Tony keeps returning to therapy, essentially “doing the work” of someone who wants to get better, and then contradicts that desire at every turn. 

Writers need to give that same careful consideration to a 90-120 minute movie as well. Think about director John G. Avildsen’s iconic boxing film “Rocky.” The story of a talented boxer who decides he wants to be the best and beat the champ is fine, but it’s largely uninteresting and flat. Instead, Sylvester Stallone’s script expertly intertwines the sports drama with real life: Rocky is down on his luck, he’s the complete opposite of the flashy Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and he’s just starting a tender romance with Adrian (Talia Shire). His skill in the ring is just a metaphor for perseverance in life, which makes his motives—and his arc—so much more relatable than simply chasing a belt.

Types of character arcs

Luke Skywalker

“The Mandalorian” Courtesy Lucasfilm/Disney+

Broadly speaking, there are two types of character arcs: positive and negative. Joseph Campbell’s concept of “the hero’s journey” is a classic example of a positive progression. It starts with a protagonist who is inexperienced, naive, and adventurous. They set out into the world and, through the story’s trials and tribulations, become wise and empowered. You’ve probably seen Luke Skywalker walk this path in the first three “Star Wars” movies.

By contrast, characters can also end up in a worse place than where they started. For example, let’s look at Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He begins as a meager but eager stockbroker trying to make money while being ethically and morally upstanding. By the end of the film, he’s a greedy, wealth-obsessed con artist. He may have gotten power and riches, but he sells his soul to get there and is left as a worse person. 

More rarely, writers utilize what’s known as a flat arc, where a character doesn’t change from beginning to end—but the world does change around them as a result of the story. Think of Sherlock Holmes, a cynic after every mystery, or Marty McFly from “Back to the Future,” whose journey literally alters reality but not his personality. Again, it all goes back to your dramatic statement. If you choose to write a flat arc, you need to understand why. What is interesting to you—and by extension, the human condition—about a person who goes through a dramatic experience and comes out the other side unchanged?

Keep in mind that not everyone needs to undergo dramatic transformations. Many secondary or background characters are static for two main reasons: First, it would take up too much valuable script space to give them an arc. Second, static characters highlight growth in others. When Frodo Baggins and the rest of the hobbits return to the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” they find that the residents haven’t changed at all. But they have, and the contrast emphasizes how much their journey affected them.

How actors can better play character arcs

As an actor, it’s your job to “give the audience or even whoever you’re auditioning for as many shades and as many colors of this person as you can,” says writer and actor Chris Russell (“The Doorman”). This means fully understanding their arc. Collaborate closely with your director, writer, and fellow actors to understand the subtext of each moment and how they contribute to your character’s journey.

“What your character wants versus what they’re saying can be two different things,” Stern says. “It’s really fun to pick that apart with your costars and your director, and go through all of those bits and pieces and figure out: Okay, here’s what it says on the page. Here’s how we’re blocking it. What do we think this means?”

It’s the writer’s job to express your character’s arc through exposition and the decisions they make. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with ways to signify those changes to the audience. Think about your physicality. How are the internal transformations happening within you affecting you? Maybe you stand a little straighter, or shrink back more often. Or perhaps you can hold eye contact thanks to a new burst of confidence, or there’s a shake in your hands due to fear.