6 Elements to Help You Develop Your Protagonist’s Character Arc

The character arc is the degree of emotional transformation the protagonist undergoes as a result of the events, conflicts, problems, and crises he is forced to face as the story progresses. The hero’s value system, opinions, feelings, and overall worldview may shift based on the character arc. Some main characters may change significantly, while others barely at all.

Type 1: The Clearly Defined Character Transformation
These protagonists react to the external elements. The conflicts, crises or problems force the hero to change and adapt to new circumstances and responsibilities. When the last scene fades, the audience has a clear understanding of how the protagonist has transformed and can usually predict what his or her life will be like after “Fade Out”. The majority of produced screenplays present a hero with a clearly defined character arc. 

Type 2: The Work-in-Progress Character Transformation
These protagonists act independently of the external elements. Regardless of what the specific conflicts, crises, and problems are, the hero is forever evolving. Whatever scenario the screenwriter chooses to “drop” the hero into does not matter, this character remains in constant flux – with each step he is forced to reconcile newly revealed facets of his personality or confront ongoing inner demons. Often, the viewer is unable to predict what action the hero will take. At the end of the film, the audience may be left guessing what the future holds for the hero. These protagonists are often the most compelling, engaging, and memorable.

Type 3: The Minimal or Nonexistent Character Transformation
These protagonists are not affected by the external elements. The hero can withstand whatever crisis, conflict, or problem is thrown at him. His worldview is not phased by the external elements. At the end of the film he is basically the same guy or gal he or she was at the beginning. Many action-adventure films embrace the minimal or nonexistent character arc, which easily allow for sequels.

6 Elements to Help You Develop Your Protagonist’s Character Arc Effectively:
  1. Know where your hero is emotionally when the story begins.
  1. Know what the protagonist wants most at the start of the story.
  1. Know if the hero’s goal will remain consistent throughout the story or if it will change.
  1. Know if the hero will achieve his goal – will it be more, less, nothing, or something else.
  1. Know how much, or how little, your character will evolve from his experiences.
  1. Determine what plot points can best be used to show the progression (or retraction) of the hero’s transformation.