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Editor Heather Webb – Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Character Arc

If I ask you who your favorite character is in a book or movie, who pops into your head? And why? Heather Webb [1] tells us about character arcs and making YOUR characters as unforgettable as your favorites.Heather Webb Smiling

I’ve been talking a lot about characters here at Romance University lately: (how our inner critics shape character voices [2]) and (discerning character motivations through actions & goals [3]). But what could be more important to a story? When you look back and think about your favorite books and favorite movies, what stands out in your memory? The plot points or the characters? For me, 95% of the time it’s the characters. So what is the magic ingredient to making them so endearing, believable, and alive?

The answer, in two words, is CHARACTER ARC–the way in which our protagonists struggles against their humanity to grow and change over time. Facing their demons, their failings, their past, endears us to our characters—whether they manage to overcome them or not. It’s their courage, fears, and strife, their broken hearts that we relate to; all of those emotions WE feel ourselves and wish we could overcome.

So how do you get started with this all important character arc? You’ll need to first choose the path your protagonist will take.


REVOLUTIONARY, or THE HERO’S JOURNEY: In this arc, our story opens with a protagonist that is the farthest thing possible from a hero or savior. Yet he/she typically possesses an inner drive or strength that the character has never been forced to access—until now. By the end of the novel, this character will undergo a complete metamorphosis of spirit, mind, and sometimes, body.

Example: Peter Parker, an average teen and science nerd, becomes superhero Spiderman

 INTERNAL GROWTH: In this type of arc our protagonist overcomes internal conflict—fear, anger, weakness, loss—all the while, facing down an external conflict. By the end of this arc, the character becomes a better version of himself (or herself), happier and more complete. Note the difference between the revolutionary arc and the internal growth arc. With internal growth, the character basically remains the same person, just a more developed and improved self.

Example: Harry Potter overcomes fear of his own power and his fate, as well as the loss of his parents, in order to become his true, fulfilled self.

PERSPECTIVE SHIFT:  In this arc, our protagonist moves sideways, so to speak. This may result from leaning something new, a different world view, or accepting a new role, but ultimately the character ends the story just “different”, not necessarily “better”. This doesn’t mean the character hasn’t arced or doesn’t possess good qualities. This arc is typical of stories with high levels of external conflict.

Example: Katniss Everdeen, though heroic ultimately, doesn’t change who she is and doesn’t become a better person. She simply makes a choice to accept her new world and Peeta’s love. She shifts to a new role with a new perspective of what holds meaning in her life.

TRAGIC FALL This arc follows the character’s unraveling. He/she devolves because of a series of faults and character flaws that dooms the protagonist and often others. Classic endings for these stories are illness, imprisonment, insanity, or death.

Example: Hamlet’s desire for power leads him to lie and murder, ultimately resulting in his haunted conscience and his own eventual death by poisoned sword.

Once you’ve chosen your protagonist’s path, choose which obstacles will ensure the protagonist’s renewal or change. Each story will have MANY obstacles, MUCH conflict. In fact, a scene without conflict is a dull one. Let’s look at examples of creating conflict.

Example: Peter Parker gains his powers from a radioactive spider, but ignores a victim being robbed. It’s not his problem. But the same robber goes on to shoot and kill his uncle. BAM. Peter Parker has a solid reason to use his powers, if for no other reason, to avenge his uncle’s death. Through the pain of loss, Peter makes the choice to change.

Example: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta are surviving in the cover of the woods and have had a quiet moment when Peeta shows his wound from a previous battle. The gash is severely infected. Now, Katniss must choose between leaving him alone, unable to fend for himself, or risking her life to venture back to the supply station. In the moment she realizes he will die, she knows how important he is to her. Her feelings change.

Be HARD on your characters. The moment they are comfortable, give them something to worry about, a YEARNING, something to strive for. Challenge them. Without challenge, your character will not arc, regardless of the trajectory you’ve chosen. Without challenge, WE don’t arc and grow.

Growth and renewal is painful, sometimes even brutal, but there’s nothing more beautiful. THIS is what makes unforgettable characters.


As a writer, what types of character arcs do you gravitate towards? And as a reader?

Join us on Friday for How to Use Social Media to Your Advantage as a Writer with Carrie Smith


Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance University.org and the award-winning WriterUnboxed.com.

Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE released to much acclaim in Jan 2014 and her second, RODIN’S LOVER, releases from Plume/Penguin as a lead title in 2015.

Visit her website: http://www.HeatherWebbauthor. [4]com or find her on Twitter @msheatherwebb [5]

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25 Comments To "Editor Heather Webb – Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Character Arc"

#1 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On March 12, 2014 @ 10:07 am

Great post, Heather – I really appreciate the examples. They are extremely helpful memory tools. I’ve bookmarked this for future reference!

#2 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 11:40 am

I’m so glad it’s helpful to you, Becke! I tend to learn best through examples as well, so I try to provide them when I can. 🙂

#3 Comment By Carrie Spencer On March 12, 2014 @ 10:12 am

Morning Heather!

Awesome post! I HATE to make trouble for my characters, something I really struggle with. But some of my favorite movies are Die hard and Face Off, where the heroes face nothing BUT trouble. Something I definitely need to work on!

I almost always try to follow the hero’s journey when writing.

Thanks for a fab post!


#4 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 11:37 am

It’s interesting how some of us gravitate toward a particular type of character arc. My first novel follows the internal growth arc and the protagonist in my novel releasing next winter has a tragic arc. My favorite to read? I like them all!

#5 Comment By Terri L. Austin On March 12, 2014 @ 10:16 am

Great post. Love the examples you used. Note to self: make characters suffer more! 🙂

#6 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 11:38 am

Oh yes, much suffering to be had by all or else the book is dull, dull, dull. But I think it pains us sometimes to put our beloved protagonists through hell. 🙂

#7 Comment By Beth Barany On March 12, 2014 @ 11:39 am

Heather, Thanks so much for this concise post. I so hate making my characters suffer, but I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize when I’ve written a flat scene. At this point in the first drafting process, I go forward with a bump up in the conflict. I’ll fix the flat scene in the rewrite. Do you find you discover the conflicts as you write or do you decide what they’ll be ahead of time? Thanks! Merci!

#8 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 11:41 am

Beth, I work the way you do–many of my protagonist’s stumbles I plot ahead of time, but there are always a few that pop up unexpectedly. I’d say those are what make fiction writing so magical.

#9 Comment By Beth Barany On March 12, 2014 @ 11:45 am

Heather, I agree. I love that process of discovery about writing fiction! PS> I signed up for your list. I tried to write a novel set in 1850s Paris but discovered I was more a fantasy/paranormal writer than a historical one! I even did research in Paris. 🙂

#10 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Very cool! 1850s Paris is an exciting time. It’s funny. I think fantasy and historical writers share a lot in common. We really love to build worlds and transport our readers there.

#11 Comment By Kelly Byrne On March 12, 2014 @ 11:59 am

Wonderful post, Heather. Thanks for the tips. It’s always great to be reminded about tension and conflict. They are what propel a story forward in my opinion. I love giving my characters more and more things to deal with. Put ’em up a tree and throw rocks at ’em. 🙂

#12 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

Ouch! LOL! Poor protags…

#13 Comment By Traci Kenworth On March 12, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

Great examples!! This post gave me a new idea for the direction my character should go and how to introduce another character.

#14 Comment By Heather Webb On March 12, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

Fantastic, Traci! I’m so glad it inspired you. 🙂

#15 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On March 12, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

Hi Heather,

I’m a fan of internal growth for the characters I create and those I enjoy reading about but I think that’s because I find common ground with them. However, the character arc for tragic fail makes for a very interesting character. Mr. Selfridge comes to mind. 🙂
Looking forward to your next book!

#16 Comment By Heather Webb On March 13, 2014 @ 6:56 am

Thank you, Jennifer! I hope you like it. 🙂 It was a very emotional book to write in so many ways. And I agree that a tragic fall makes for a very interesting character. I do tend to love internal growth arcs, myself, as well.

#17 Comment By Sherry Marshall On March 12, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

Mmm. Very interesting. Got me thinking that my main character in the book I am currently writing has got some of all these 4 of character arcs in them.It’s a fiction love story set in the Himalayas. Hope that’s ok?!

#18 Comment By Heather Webb On March 13, 2014 @ 6:57 am

Interesting, Sherry. Are you still drafting? I think, initially, we can be unclear about our protagonist’s path, but as you work through revisions a clear trajectory will make itself known to you. By the way, I love your pitch! The Himalayas? Swoon.

#19 Comment By Tanya On March 12, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

Thank you, Heather. At a conference last year, the speaker talked about putting your characters in a bad or an even worse situation and then put them there-the more conflict, the better-until the HEA since it was a romance writing conference.

I tend to gravitate to writing internal growth stories, but I like reading about the first two (a journey or internal growth).


#20 Comment By Heather Webb On March 13, 2014 @ 6:59 am

I think that’s excellent advice. Just when things are starting to look up for our protags, we hit them again to keep the story interesting and the reader yearning for more. Thanks for your comment!

#21 Comment By Adrienne Giordano On March 13, 2014 @ 11:48 am

Hi Heather. Awesome post! It’s going right into my plotting binder. Thank you so much.

Looking at this list I realized I always gravitate to the internal growth character arc. Which actually surprised me a little because I write romantic suspense and love to get into the external conflict of the story before I concentrate on the internal conflict.

I guess I thought I’d focus more on the revolutionary arc.

Great discovery!

#22 Comment By Heather Webb On March 13, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

Yay! Love the plotting binder, Adrienne. I know what you mean about the external conflict. I love it, too, because it keeps a story on the move. But yeah, the arc is separate animal. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

#23 Comment By Robyn LaRue On March 13, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

I’m definitely an internal growth character writer, though I write the others as well. Bookmarked and will use on the next story. Thank you. 🙂

#24 Pingback By Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Characte… On March 19, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

[…] What stands out in your memory? The plot points or the characters? For me, 95% of the time it’s the characters. So what is the magic ingredient to making them s  […]

#25 Pingback By Making Characters Unforgettable a.k.a. Characte… On March 20, 2014 @ 11:24 am

[…] What stands out in your memory? The plot points or the characters? For me, 95% of the time it’s the characters.  […]