When you’re working on your outline, it can be tempting to focus on the external actions. But a really good story also has internal plot arcs. When we talk about your protagonist, villain or other characters’ growth and changes over the course of the story, we’re talking about character development.
The plot arc covers the changes in your protagonist’s external situation. The character arc centers on the changes in your character’s internal world of morals, beliefs, attitudes and relationships.
For example, in the fairy tale “The Three Little Pigs,” the plot arc is that the pigs go from living peaceably in their three houses, to being threatened by the wolf and having their houses destroyed, to having destroyed the wolf. Believe it or not, even a simple fairy tale like that also has a character arc. In traditional fables and fairy tales, the character arc usually functions as the moral of the tale.
In “The Three Little Pigs,” the character conflict is focused on laziness versus industry. The two pigs who chose their building materials to avoid working harder learn the value of investing more effort.
It’s the same moral and character arc as “The Grasshopper and The Ant,” except the pigs survive (at least some of them, in most versions of the story). In most versions, the Grasshopper pays the ultimate price for his lazyness and lack of forethought.
Fairy tale and fable character arcs are meant to instill character traits that are desirable within the cultural context of the story. They’re a cultural teaching tool. The lessons that the characters learn get transferred to the reader, so hopefully the reader doesn’t have to learn from experience.
When I retold “The Three Little Pigs” as a steampunk story for Blowhard, I decided to follow the basic plot arc of the original pretty closely. But I changed the character arc. I mostly discarded the familiar “don’t be lazy” moral arc, and focused on a relational arc instead.
At the beginning of the story, the three brothers Hamm are stuck in an unresolved conflict. The events of the plot arc force the characters to reexamine their attitudes and opinions. By the end, the relational conflict between the brothers, as well as the situational threat to their homes and livelihood, are resolved.
When you’re working on a story, remember that in addition to the external events, you need to pay attention to the internal reactions of your characters.
- Does he change? If so is it a big change, or a small one? Often small shifts in your character’s perspective can make a big impact and seem more realistic.
- Does your character stay resolutely the same despite everything that happens? If so, you need to spell out the cost or benefit, otherwise your readers will find themselves questioning why the story mattered.