"'There are rules for artificials, but there are no rules for humans - not for things that matter. We just go around wishing and hoping, putting our love in the wrong places, forming ideas based on other people's ideas and sticking with them regardless of what happens or what we learn. I don’t know why you’d want to be a part of that.'"
-Alan Turner, Tiny Instruments
Note: This is a short, but extremely complicated post that ties in my two favorite fields of study, philosophy and psychology. Please re-read as needed to fully grasp the importance of what is being said.
Good characters go through cycles. People have been analyzing these cycles since the beginning of fiction, but they aren’t as complex as most books would have you believe. Of course character arcs exist! If characters aren’t changed by the events around them, the events obviously aren’t important are they? If, for instance, a monk blessed by inner peace finds himself involved in a series of incredible events, but is never EMOTIONALLY involved in those events, we, the readers, will care just as little as he does… but why?
Before I get into that, let’s ask an even greater question: what is the goal of all fiction, everything from novels and poems to film and theatre? What is its purpose? Simply put, it is to trigger emotions in people who would not otherwise experience them. The only way to do this is through allowing your audience to identify with the fictional people the world has dubbed, “characters”.
So, from a psychological standpoint, in order for me, as a writer, to make you feel an emotion - let’s say, anger - I have to trigger your own natural sense of anger. I need to hijack your own natural response. If I write a story about a good man who worked and bled for his family, but still, despite countless sacrifices and endless loving devotion, his wife carried on a heartless affair behind his back - that might make you angry. The reason is because, through writing this character, I am offering you to step inside him and see for yourself how unjust his world is. Would you be angry if you gave everything you were to someone and they betrayed your trust? If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll get angry reading about it. If it’s “No”, you don’t. As with the monk, the importance of an event is seen through the eyes of our characters.
Most authors will give you this basic “formula” to explain your character’s arc--
Your character is a person shaped by their past lives. They start out with a unique perspective on life.
Character in Turmoil
Many if not most of your character’s beliefs are called into question. They try to use their various perspectives to confront their various problems.
Your character, having found that many of his beliefs were either wrong, or were simply not ideal for survival in the world, has now changed.
I often see this model peddled as the quintessential piece of information needed to create a successful character arc… but the people who peddle it are wrong. Maybe some of them are good writers (I really have no idea), but they lack a fundamental knowledge of how character arcs work.
Change, the thing that defines a character arc, is important because it is a representation of emotional trauma. Again, from a psychological standpoint, we don’t change our perspectives unless we have reason to believe that what we’re doing isn’t working. It is something that we can relate to at a deep subconscious level. Growing up, you might have thought it was okay to steal until you realized that your actions might harm others. The truth is, you believed a great many things that changed as you had the experiences that made you who you are.
Change, therefore, is not some necessary part of a magic formula - it is what separates a character from a person. The “character arc” that your creation conforms to is actually what gives them life. With each change, you are inviting your readers deeper into the subconscious of a living being - which is what allows you to incite their emotions in the first place. It is an endless circle that you would do well to familiarize yourself with.