What’s Your Character Arc?

At a dinner party yesterday, I was privy to listen to a heartfelt debate between several people about which Star Trek show is the worst.

I’ve watched the Star Trek movies, but not the television shows, so I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. But it was an interesting exchange, and a point about character arcs really stood out to me.

I think they were talking about Voyager at the time. One person argued that most of the characters in the show didn’t evolve or change at all during the half-dozen or so seasons the show aired. As an example, he mentioned a character who was angry all the time, from start to finish. Without change or growth, the result–in his eyes–was that she was a completely one-note character.

But then the other person made a really interesting point: Sometimes people are angry, and they stay angry. You can substitute other emotions for angry: happy, sad, afraid, horny, etc. Certain traits, emotions, and quirks are simply part of our personality, and it would be unrealistic to have every character in a show completely alter their personality.

Another way of putting it is that real life doesn’t necessarily work in character arcs, so why should fiction?

Coincidentally, character arcs were the topic of today’s Writing Excuses podcast. They discuss how many character arcs in fiction follow a 5-step process: denial, resistance, exploration, acceptance, manifestation.

Here’s my final take: When I consume fiction, I want to learn about a variety of characters who have their own paths. As satisfying as it is to see a timid character become courageous, I don’t want every timid character to become courageous. I want a mix of both, and I don’t even want that character to only be defined by his/her courage (or lack thereof). People are much more nuanced than that.

What do you think? Do you want all primary characters in fiction to have traditional arcs, or are you okay with some characters who stubbornly won’t change?


2 Responses to “What’s Your Character Arc?”

  1. Thanks for pointing to the Writing Excuses podcast—I gain a keeper and they gain a fan.

    I’m more than okay having some characters who stubbornly won’t change, because that situation adds interest for me. Often, the unchanging character becomes the challenge the other characters must overcome, in that they must come to terms with the fact of his/her fixedness and develop a work around—a familiar hard-to-accept real lfe situation, so it resonates with audiences.

  2. Joseph E. Pilkus III says:

    Jamey,

    I definitely want both. As someone who has been running D&D adventures for more than 30 years, I want the characters themselves to grow, but I also want them to experience the world around them with individuals (usually NPCs) whom they know…some change, “Wow, the acolyte we knew a few years ago now runs the church!” and some that don’t, “Hmmm, John Oxblood still drinks more than his share of the profits at the Golden Eagle Tavern.”

    Cheers,
    Joe

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