Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This monthly column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we kick things off with File 01, which explores two important questions: “What is character evolution?” and “Why is it important?”
So many elements comprise the art of novel-writing: plot, voice, setting, characters… The list goes on, and it’s impossible to say that one element is more crucial than the other. However, when I think back on some of my favorite stories of all time, many share one common element: a clear character arc. Perhaps the protagonist grows as a result of his journey, or he learns something because of his endeavors. Either way, he’s not the same person at the end of the novel that he was in Chapter 1. This kind of evolution can create a truly memorable story that sticks with readers long after they finish it.
So, what exactly is “character evolution”? What launches a character arc? And, why is it important to begin with? Before we dive too deep, let’s define our terms and ensure we have a solid foundation for building this series.
What Is Character Evolution?
Chances are you’ve heard of the term “character arc.” Character evolution is essentially the same thing. It’s the inner journey a character embarks on over the course of the story, with a significant change or growth as the end result. Maybe he has a lesson to learn, a past trauma to move beyond, or a “fatal flaw” that holds him back. That’s where the story comes in. Your novel is your chance to help the character become who he needs to be, for better or worse.
Why call it “character evolution” instead of the more well-known terms? It might make more sense once you consider this definition of the word “evolve” from Merriam-Webster:
[T]o change or develop slowly often into a better, more complex, or more advanced state
Evolution doesn’t happen in a fingersnap. It also doesn’t imply that a character will be totally different at the end. Instead, evolution is a gradual process to becoming not necessarily perfect, but more well-rounded and less flawed. It’s also ongoing, since a person never truly stops growing. We may not see what happens to a character after a story ends, but since characters reflect real people, it’s safe to assume he’d continue changing beyond that point. So, yes, “character evolution” is another name for a character arc, but it offers a different angle on the concept.
Of course, change via character evolution never comes easily. Human beings are naturally resistant to change. We usually don’t make those jumps unless life drives us to do so. The same goes for our characters. They won’t grow unless we give them that opportunity and then force them to fight.
Think about the stories you’ve read. What generally happens as the protagonist works toward his goal? Most likely he’ll encounter struggles, setbacks, and difficult decisions. He might also endure an incredible range of emotions and experience success, failure, and moral ambiguity. Baby steps or giant leaps, forwards or backwards – they’re all crucial parts of a character’s growth, as you’ll see in the next section.
How Does Character Evolution Work?
Traditional character arcs parallel a typical three-act story structure. For our purposes, let’s break it down into 10 stages, with names that closely match its structure counterpart while providing hints as to what will happen to the character during that section of the novel:
- Trigger (Inciting Event): Also known as the “inciting incident,” it’s the moment that draws the protagonist into the main plot and launches his inner journey. This usually occurs during the story’s first couple chapters.
- Comfort Zone (Act I): The first 20 to 25% of your story (beginning with the Trigger) introduces the protagonist’s world, current situation, and – most importantly – the lie or false belief that he clings to. It also provides insight to the reader on how the character can grow and change – insight that the character won’t have until…
- Point of No Return (End of Act I): At the end of the Comfort Zone (approximately the 20 to 25% mark), something significant happens to the protagonist. He’s then forced to make a decision that changes things forever – or have no choice at all, and be dragged into Act II kicking and screaming. Either way, this is when the character realizes that he might have to let go of the false belief he’s held onto for so long.
- Struggle (Act II, First Half): The character travels – or blunders, rather – through uncharted territory for the next quarter of the story (up to the 50% mark). He still carries his reaction to the Point of No Return, and will resist initial attempts to change. However, he’s given the tools he needs to make that eventual jump and is given his first glimpse of life without his false belief.
- Revelation (Midpoint): This halfway point (roughly the 50% mark) in the story marks the character’s switch from reacting to taking action. He hasn’t fully rejected the false belief yet, but he learns why the opposite truth is important and takes the first step in that direction. Some writers also call this second major plot point the “Mirror Moment” or “Moment of Grace.”
- Charge (Act II, Second Half): From the Revelation to the end of Act II (50 to 75%), the character takes more steps toward letting go of his false belief – but he hasn’t fully abandoned it yet. Instead, he’s pushed it to the backburner, so now he’s barreling forward with tunnel vision until –
- Dark Night of the Soul (End of Act II): BANG! Act II closes with the false belief confronting the character again. This crisis, in which the character must choose between the false belief and the truth, is the single most important part of the story.
- Aftermath (Act III, First Half): With the Dark Night over, the character now prepares for a showdown with the antagonist while still coming to terms with his decision to throw away the false belief. He still has his doubts, but deep down he knows it’s truly the right path.
- Moment of Truth (Climax): The last 10 percent of the story (up to the final chapter or scene) is the final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist. Here is when the focal character must not only defeat the enemy, but when he must take everything he’s learned during the story and use to prove that he has indeed changed.
- Emergence (Resolution): The final chapter or scene shows further evidence that the character has evolved and offers a look into how his life will be different now that he has fully let go of his false belief.
A lot of information to absorb, isn’t it? Don’t worry. We’ll go into greater detail about these ten stages plus the different types of character arcs in future Character Evolution Files. As I said earlier, introducing this information now will give us an initial understanding that we can build on later.
How Much Does a Character Need to Evolve?
That depends on your intentions with the story. How much do you, the writer, think your character needs to change? Does he need to shed only one flaw and adopt its opposite strength? Has he already hit rock bottom and now needs to completely recover or reinvent himself? Or, are you taking a relatively good person and preparing him to fall?
In most cases, writers work with the first scenario (one flaw for one quality), which means the protagonist will still be recognizable at the end. He can stay true to his values, have the same friends, or practice the same faith as he did in the beginning. However, by taking one negative aspect of his current identity (e.g., flaw, emotional wound, false belief) and giving him the means to let it go, you’ll change him in a way that seems so minor, but in reality makes a world of difference for him.
Take Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for example. When the story begins, Bilbo is a neighborly, well-mannered homebody who loves gardening, reading, and good company but isn’t know for his bravery. Once he embarks on the quest for Erebor with the wizard Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield’s company of Dwarves, his arc takes off. He practices courage through other qualities like loyalty and cleverness, which allow him to rescue the Dwarves from the Mirkwood elves and to charm the creature Gollum and the dragon Smaug. Had Bilbo not done so earlier, he wouldn’t have considered giving away the Arkenstone to avoid war between the Dwarves, Elves, and Men – and risk Thorin’s wrath and friendship in the process. When Bilbo returns home, he’s more confident and intrepid than he used to be, yet he still enjoys the same hobbies and simple joys than he loved before the quest. So, even though Bilbo evolves as a result of his quest with the Dwarves, he’s still very much the same character at the end.
Why Is Character Evolution Important, Anyways?
Some writers might argue that character evolution isn’t crucial to a story. All you really need is a plot and a complex, relatable character, right? Well… not exactly.
A novel without a character arc is like a novel without a plot; it’s less interesting when that element is lacking. Maybe readers don’t notice the absence of an arc so much, but the presence of one brings additional depth to the story and has a huge impact on readers. Here’s a quick summary of how it does:
- It gives readers an opportunity to learn a lesson she may not have learned in her own life yet.
- It gives readers a reason to care about the character by having them witness him struggle and grow.
- It makes readers more likely to root for a favorable outcome for the character (goals, desires, dreams, etc.) and remain invested in the story.
- Simply put, it urges readers to keep turning the pages and improves the novel’s chances of becoming unforgettable.
Character evolution is also important because it mirrors real life. People change over time not only because of age, but because of experience. And, our most noticeable or unforgettable “growth spurts” come during life-changing experiences. These events and their impacts on us cause us to change certain behaviors or adopt a fresh perspective. We evolve because of these experiences – and undergo our own “character evolution” as a result. If our characters are meant to reflect human beings, they should have the opportunity to evolve, too.
In short, character evolution can be the difference a good story and a great one. You can write a novel with lots of action, romance, and an ending where the character gets what they want. Countless other authors have done that. But if an arc is absent, your story might be missing out on any tension, internal conflict, and themes that could help it soar into the reader’s heart and linger for a long time. So, what kind of story would you like to write?
How important do you think character evolution is in literature? Do you think having a clear character arc helps strengthen or complete a story? Which novel(s) you’ve read in the past contain memorable character arcs?
Did you enjoy this first installment of the Character Evolution Files? If you did, come back in August for File No. 2! This will cover the three types of character arcs.