Character Arcs Or Character Development? What’s The Difference?

Character Arcs Or Character Development? What’s The Difference?


In this post, we look into character arcs and character development. We figure out what they are and if there is any difference between the two. 

Character Arcs Or Character Development

So, I wanted to know what a “character arc” was, and, how I had never heard of one for the first thirty odds years of my life.

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole on this one, but it turns out that it’s simple. The short answer is that in British English a “character arc” is usually referred to as “character development”.

  1. Character Arc (American)
  2. Character Development (British and American)

It seems basically to be a “spelled”/“spelt” situation.

However, there is evidence that a character arc is more specific than character development. So, let us go through them both and sort out this confusion.

This is how I understand it:

What Is Character Development?

This is how a character changes over time within a story. It is intrinsically linked to the plot.

A good example is Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. He starts out as a timid person who wants nothing to do with adventures. He is thrust into a grand story. At every stage of this journey, he is forced to re-evaluate his beliefs and confront his fears. Eventually, he looks back with the realisation that he is not only changed, but could even be considered a hero. For the rest of his life, he is a changed Hobbit. He looks at the outside world with wonder instead of fear.

This is a classic hero’s journey where the protagonist is often reluctant, even introverted, or just terrified to start their journey. But, by the end of the story, they have changed so much that they are for all intents and purposes a new person. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is a perfect example of this.

Character development does not have to be positive. Breaking Bad, for example, show the descent into crime and violence of an otherwise mild man.

Character development should be satisfying for your audience. It should leave a reader with a feeling of having eaten a good meal. By this I mean they should not want more or have an empty feeling at the end of the story.

Regression in character development often makes people mad or at least annoyed. Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is a perfect example of regressive character development. He goes from the hero of the galaxy to a pitiful coward too scared to confront his past or even leave his house. If you do this, you should have a redemptive moment to justify the destruction of a character.

Character development, if done well, will provide cover for many other failings of a story. People will want to follow the growth of their favourite character even if the story has stagnated. We see this in long drawn-out TV shows.

You can find a definition here: Character Development

What Are Character Arcs?

A character arc is the structure of how a character changes over time within a story. It is intrinsically linked to the plot.

Essentially, it is the same as character development. From the outside, the reader will not be able to say, “Ah, this is an arc and this is development!” They will just see the change.

For example, if we look at Thor from the Marvel films he has several distinct character arcs. Firstly, he learns not to be a bad person. Then, we see the slow loss of his family members and his growing anger and resentment at the universe for treating him poorly. Finally, we see him come out of a deep depression and have some closure about the death of his family. Then, we see his rise back to heroic status.

Now, this is all character development, but the fact that it is broken up into segments, or arcs, over the course of the narrative is what makes it different.

This has allowed several different authors to take a story and work with a pre-existing character, changing them slightly in each arc. They develop them into a very different person than the one we first encountered.

From an author’s perspective, it is useful to view each character in a book as having a character arc. A character in a trilogy of books will also have an arc.

If we look at The Magicians books (by Lev Grossman) or TV show, we see that Quentin is a depressed, sad excuse for a human being at the beginning of the story. But, through three or four character arcs, he becomes driven, then distracted and searching, and finally a completely formed and mostly content person.

You can find a definition here: Character Arc

Do you think you will use arcs in your next story or are you just sticking to good old character development?

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by Christopher Luke Dean (Archetypically ill-defined)

Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean

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