No, not that ark!
Character arc: that subtle, almost subliminal, shift to a character’s personality over the course of the book. Why, one might ask, is this an essential element to the story? Isn’t it enough that there’s action, adventure and possibly an evil, blue tentacled alien? Why is more needed? Are you not entertained??
Easy Maximus. A story can still be good without this element, but it’s my opinion, and the opinion of many tenured authors, that it is vital to a great story. And isn’t that the point of this creative field, to write not an “okay” book, but a great one?
When we follow characters, it is expected that they will be changed in some way by the experiences, both ordinary and fantastic, that happen to them. That is, after all, what happens to us in our own little story called life. Events shape our perspectives, and thus, our way of interacting with the world and others around us. When we read, we take that journey with them.
There are, in general, three types of character arc in novels:
1. Character changes for the better
2. Character changes for the worse
3. Character stays the same but their original characteristics are strengthened
These can apply to either a protagonist or antagonist. A couple of clear examples from film that come to mind are “The Godfather”, a masterpiece of the soul’s corruption, and “The Lives of Others”, a personal favorite of mine, which was an incredibly moving depiction of the softening of the heart (Seriously, if you haven’t seen this one, go rent it/download it. It’s been years and the last line of the movie is still with me.)
Of course, for #3, I always think of that beloved Hobbit, Samwise Gamgee. At the end of the books/films, Samwise is still the same sweet-natured, loyal Hobbit that he was at the beginning, but yet he is changed by his experiences. In the face of terrible evil, he had to become stronger, braver in order to help Frodo reach Mount Doom and save Middle Earth from Sauron.
One can play with these concepts for secondary characters and antagonists as well. A bad guy can go from bad to worse when properly foiled and frustrated by the protagonist. An excellent example is the steady spiral from righteous lawman to despicable villain of Irish Detective Inspector Chester Campbell in the series “Peaky Blinders”.
Be vigilant in the way you integrate the change to your characters. It should not be all at once or it risks seeming contrived. Change is a process and long held perspectives take time to shift. Don’t give them, and your reader, whiplash.
Once they do begin to change, be sure they don’t suddenly revert to old ways out of nowhere. It’s an arc after all and once they’ve gone over that crisis pinnacle (usually in Act II) they are forever changed. Don’t undo all that great work by switching them back to old behaviors. Revision helps one to catch those spots and adjust them to the character’s new way of thinking.
In summary, experiences alter the lens through which we view and interact with the world. How can the reader come away changed by what they’ve read if the characters in the story itself weren’t? Without the arc, the journey feels less than full. Be a good travel guide and stamp their ticket for the full tour, not just a snapshot from outside the cathedral.