If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.