Writing Advice: People Don’t Arc

There’s a sort of misunderstanding in the writing world which has become a myth.

The myth is that a character must have an arc.

Before I get too deep into why this is a myth, let’s define what it means to “have an arc.”

In case you’re new to writing, the “arc” that some advisors to writing are speaking of is the imaginary curvature of the character’s character. Confusing, if you think of it like that. But I’m simplifying the concept a bit. Essentially, some people in the writing world believe a character should start in a story with a single, simple problem.

There are more hindrances to this idea than there are benefits.

For one, people don’t have single, simplistic arcs in their lives. Have you ever done any people-watching? People don’t speak in linear fashion, they don’t walk in a straight line, they don’t think about one problem at a time, they don’t worry about only one thing, they don’t even stand straight most of the time.

The majority don’t even try to solve their own problems. They look for someone else to do it.

Now, don’t go thinking there are no arcs whatsoever in writing fiction. There are. The story can and should have an arc. A plot, or a throughline if you like, can follow the standardized path of an “arc” very smartly when constructed right. Even though it’s unrealistic to write characters with an arcing maturity path, the story as a whole could benefit from being fit into the pattern. It could begin rather calamitous, take the multifaceted character through a load of learning experiences, press them with conflict, require solutions, then record how the character might have matured from all of the above in such a way that they are totally impressive, and all of that with one plot arc.

Here, too, I should add, the character does not need to mature in every way through a story. Even though the plot problem is resolved at the end of a good story, the character’s multiple flaws or problems should not be totally or completely resolved.

If you took a normal person and followed them through an arc in their lives, then cataloged it, reported it in fiction fashion, you could end up with the shortest story ever, or the longest. Consider the time it takes most men to mature from boys and you’ll understand what I mean. Ever heard a really old man tell a fart joke? He’s eighty years old and his arc has yet to begin. At least for that portion of his life, for that part of his development. Maybe the same man could look a large-breasted woman in the eyes when he talks to her. The arc is complete for his respect of breasts, perhaps. So in one case, he has completed the arc, and in another, he has not.

You might be thinking, “I thought you said, ‘People don’t arc.'” You are so right, but doesn’t the above example show that people have multifaceted problems? Multiple problems require a variety of solutions. Some are solved readily, others take years. People in reality don’t have single arcs, they have many. Trying to pinpoint one and create a character from it usually (not always) makes a character unappealing. A character with only one arc in their lives isn’t only unrealistic, but unbelievable too. Readers understand this while reading. Audiences understand this while watching. A writer should understand it while writing and avoid making characters too simple.

One of the jobs of a writer is to diminish the doubt of a reader. If the characters a writer creates are too unbelievable, the reader will have overt doubts about the characters.

Job failure.

However, creating characters with multiple concerns, multiple troubles, a variety of internal flaws to overcome, will diminish the doubt.

Job success.

Published by Kurt Gailey

This is where I'm supposed to brag about how I've written seven novels, twelve screenplays, thousands of short stories, four self-help books, and one children's early-reader, but I'd rather stay humble. You can find out about things I've written or follow my barchive (web archive, aka 'blog) at xenosthesia.com or follow me on twitter @kurt_gailey. I love sports and music and books, so if you're an athlete or in a band or you're a writer, give me a follow and I'll most likely follow you back. I've even been known to promote other people's projects.

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