Does Every Lead Character Need An Arc?

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At a Bouchercon some years ago, Lee Child was part of a panel on characters in thrillers. An audience member asked him a question about character change. “Every character has to have an arc, right?”

“Why?” Child said. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”

Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.

Later on, Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed room. He talked about his decision at the beginning of the series to have Harry Bosch age chronologically. In each book Bosch is about a year older. And he has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! The series is still going strong and it’s a wonder to behold.

So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.

characterization, character arc, growth, change

When I teach about character work, I do say that a lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.

Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.

So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and finds new strength to endure.

A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.

In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, and also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

One of the most important questions you can ask at the beginning of your novel is whether the main character will undergo fundamental change or not. If not, then the story is about the character growing stronger.

Keep in mind, of course, that in some novels the character resists fundamental change and ends up worse off at the end. Or has a negative arc, from good to bad, as in The Godfather. The various ending “shapes” I discuss in my book The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.

Because unforgettable is what we want our books to be. Knowing the variations on character arc is an essential part of the process.

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Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.

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13 Responses to Does Every Lead Character Need An Arc?

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  3. Cathryn Cade says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Jim! I always learn so much from you. You have such a way of crystallizing the important pieces of a story.

  4. This is a question I’ve discussed with numerous writers over the years, so I’m glad you tackled it here, Jim. The fact is that there are plenty of popular protagonists who don’t undergo significant internal change throughout the story, particularly in certain genres.

  5. Sarah Brentyn says:

    Yes! Thanks for this post, Jim. Agreed 100%. Excellent points, all, and fantastic examples, too. Also, love the negative arc. Makes for interesting reading. 🙂

  6. Glynis Jolly says:

    “One of the most important questions you can ask at the beginning of your novel is whether the main character will undergo fundamental change or not. If not, then the story is about the character growing stronger.”

    Jim, I am working on a story where the MC doesn’t have an arc. But she also doesn’t grow stronger. My story is a dark drama about a woman who has mental problems and ends up in a mental institution. My MC grows weaker.

    What are your thoughts about this?

    • Would depend on the overall plot. If this character is fighting the mental health system, for example, there could be an element of heroism involved. If the character “grows weaker” because of a “tragic flaw” in the classical sense, that’s the mark of a tragedy. From what you’ve written, I’d be careful about letting “mental illness” be the unbidden driver of the story. A lead character needs to demonstrate strength of will as the driver, whether that turns out to be successful or not.

  7. Great post, Jim. I also love the aspect of one character’s level of commitment and values being so strong it changes someone else. Because it’s not about being brave in the face of a threat, it’s about what someone is willing to give up to achieve it. (I was recently reading Sacha’s 10 Steps to Hero and it was a nice reminder of the importance of sacrifice.) Congrats on the new book, by the way!

  8. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Interesting! And stories are often learning experiences, with the protagonist unraveling mysteries and gaining (or sometimes being reminded of) knowledge about the world, others, and himself. Such knowledge typically strengthens the character, but not always.

  9. Excellent points made. Thank you for sharing this important message.

  10. Laura says:

    I completely agree, especially with plot-driven stories. It is very difficult to change a person, even if they go through a major life event. Some great stories show a major character arc, for better or worse, but others don’t need to change in order for their story to be worth telling.

  11. Thanks for this post! I love the example of Reacher because he is a static character. He doesn’t have to change or really learn any new skill to overcome or solve whatever problem he’s faced with in each book, but he goes through a predictable emotional arc in each story – I think.
    He arrives as a don’t-care loner, gets drawn into some local drama and learns of an injustice his particular skills can help resolve — AND THEN HE CARES ABOUT THE PERSON HE’S HELPING. <- that change right there is why I read Reacher. I'm pulled into the story, to care as much as Reacher does, but at the end, there's no arc but rather a full circle, right. Because he inevitably leaves – still a loner – happy to be a loner. Interesting.

  12. Winona Cross says:

    Excellent post. Truly excellent. I’m sharing, especially with a 70 something new writer friend, but within some groups. Thank you for sharing.

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