by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Seeing a character grow in her internal journey is one of the most effective ways to show that the character has arced. While a protagonist learning or realizing something is not effective as a visual external goal, these are powerful internal goals that, by necessity, characters are greatly unaware of while they are being subconsciously pursued.
These processes of internal change are usually what we are referring to when we discuss a character’s arc. The character arc can be simply explained as a character moving from one internal place to another. We might say it like this: The protagonist goes from being _______________ to being _______________. Identifying the beginning and ending place of your protagonist’s arc is helpful in executing it throughout the course of your story. Here are seven templates or examples of arcs that your character might go on.
1. She goes from seeing the world in black in white to seeing the world in shades of gray
Knowledge of personality types are helpful when developing characters. Some personalities lean into binary thinking, needing the world to be simple and lacking nuance. Of course, a brutal truth of life is that most issues are complex and involve shades of gray. Helping a character to discover this affirms the audience in their own considerations around complicated matters. The protagonist, Elizabeth, must confront this reality in Miss Sloan.
2. She goes from solely taking care of others to also taking care of herself
The recognition that you can’t provide for others what you haven’t made room for in your own heart is central to the journey of protagonists with this arc. This process can be tricky to execute as the character may often need to continue to keep caring for others — her children, for example — but also find a way to have her own needs met. Alice Kinney navigates these waters in Home Again.
3. He goes from being afraid to being courageous
This journey involves giving the protagonist tools to overcome his fear. Often these tools involve experiences and examples in the form of other characters. Sam Friedman becomes courageous over time through the example set by Thurgood Marshall in the film Marshall.
4. He goes from having a closed heart to being open to love
The process of allowing your protagonist to open up his heart takes time and the involvement of another character that will make the risk worthwhile. Much of the journey will involve affirming the protagonist’s timidity before something forces him to make a decision that puts all his feelings on the line. Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin overcomes his avoidance of intimacy only after meeting Trish, the woman who could change everything for him.
5. She goes from doubt to belief
Doubt is universal. All of us have issues that we face doubts about. Sometimes those doubts concern the values that society and those around us hold. Other times, the doubts we face are about ourselves. Belief occurs through the events that convince us of the reliability of certain ideas and values. Ellie journeys from a comfortable place of scientific doubt to a vulnerable place of belief in Contact.
6. She goes from being naïve to being wise
Coming of age stories rely on the universal experiences of life to teach maturity. Moving a protagonist from naivety to wisdom takes time in the narrative. It involves the character making mistakes but then learning from them. Violet wises up after she moves to the big city and is taken advantage of in Coyote Ugly.
7. He goes from being selfish to generous
While protagonists on this journey are often well off, this is not always the case. Sometimes, selfishness not only involves financial resources, but also time, or even affection as is the case with Vincent in St. Vincent. His journey is subtle and slow but ends with his character in a much different place than where he began.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.