How To Arc Characters Not Break Them

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Written by JJ Barnes

Arc characters in your story by making sure they are are different people at the end to the start. Events and characters in your story have impacted them and shaped who they are as people.

You might find that you get to a point where you realise it would really suit the story for one of your characters to do something that’s really convenient for your story, but completely out of character for that person. I’ll be talking about how and why we arc our characters, and the differences between arcing and breaking them.

How To Arc Characters, The Table Read Writing Advice
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Arc Characters With Foreshadowing

Characters will change throughout your story. Sometimes that’ll come about by pre-planning, other times because it really suit the moment. You may want a character to do something dramatic for the sake of the plot, such as kill somebody. Anything can work, but you need to foreshadow that as a possibility for them.

If you don’t foreshadow it, the character change won’t make sense. You’re making your character behave in a way that is atypical to how you’ve previously established that person to be, which will throw your audience out. They don’t need to like your character, but they need to believe your character would do what you make them do.

If you want to send your character on a journey towards killing, you can do it with absolutely any character. Even the most innocent and gentle character can be pushed into circumstances where they would kill. If you want to show a character was supressing or hiding a desire to kill you can do that too with their behaviour. But it has to be foreshadowed. You have to let your audience in on the experience your character is having.

How To Make It Believable

In TV shows you often find they need a romantic relationship for drama and conflict, so they decide to throw two characters together. You might get a couple of episodes where they start checking each other out. Then bam, they’ve shoved them together. It alienates audiences when it doesn’t need to.

Build up to a relationship between your character slowly. Show them interacting and making one another feel good. Develop the sexual tension between them. You’ll find audiences much more willing to go with a developed love interest, no matter how abstract it might seem at first.

How To Arc Characters, The Table Read Writing Advice
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Secondary Characters Need The Same Care

You’re less likely to break your Protagonist and Antagonist characters. They’ve been the story focused and you may have planned their story arcs in advance. You know who they are and they’re consistent, moving through the story as solid people in your mind.

Your character breaks will happen in with people circulating around them, your secondary characters. They are developed devices to help move the story along and for your Protagonist and Antagonist to interact with. Because your secondary characters are less important, you might have them behave in ways that are just convenient. Perhaps pick a fight with your Protagonist for scene level drama, or flirt with your Protagonist’s love interest.

Any of these scenarios are fine as long as you treat each character like the Protagonist in their own story. Ensure any behaviour is either consistent with the character from the beginning, or arced to.

Arc Characters By Building To A Plot Twist

Build to a plot twist or development, such as a murder or a relationship, via foreshadowing. Write gradual change as pressure builds or tension grows between characters.

You’re taking your audience with you on that curve between one emotional or mental state to another. You are showing your audience why your character is behaving in a certain way.

With a well constructed character arc you’ll have your audience accepting even the most extreme circumstances you decide to put your characters in. Breaking your characters will lose your audience because if they don’t believe in your characters, they won’t believe in your story.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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