Characters lie at the heart of every magnificent story. Think of the best and most memorable movies or books that you’ve experienced in your life. Chances are, the first thing that you remember won’t be the theme, setting, or even the plot — instead, it’s the characters that have set your imagination alight.
Of course, a truly great character always comes hand-in-hand with a great character arc, or the change that a character undergoes in order to arrive at the end of the story. Which is why we’ll take a look at four terrific character arcs in film and literature in this post. Ready?
Note: I based the character arc maps off of the structure in this post, which posits that an arc is made up of three things: a character’s Goal, the Lie hindering the character, and the Truth that a character either ends up accepting or rejecting.
Walter White from Breaking Bad
Otherwise known as everyone’s favorite anti-hero, Walter White is the man at the epicenter of Breaking Bad. You’re probably already aware of Walter White’s backstory and the changes that he undergoes throughout the run of the show, but let’s recap it here in case you’re one of the few people who haven’t watched Breaking Bad.
Beginning: Walter White is a high-school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has Stage IIIA lung cancer.
End: Walter White is a clandestine drug lord who goes by the alias of “Heisenberg.”
Walter White’s Character Arc Map: He knows the Truth about the world → He pursues a goal believing he can hold onto Truth → He succumbs to the Lie and rejects the Truth → He embraces the Lie and loses.
So what can we learn about writing character arcs from Walter White? Indeed, the entire show’s whole reason for being is to study Walter’s progression: showrunner Vince Gilligan famously said himself that he wanted to portray Walter’s character arc as “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and that was how he pitched the show to the studio.
So what’s particularly riveting about Walter White’s arc is the stakes at hand throughout the transformation. As he turns into a cold-blooded murderer, audiences are forced to wonder what this might mean for his family, his friends, his legacy — and himself. When you’re planning your own character arcs, it’s good to keep these stakes in mind. They might not be as visibly hazardous as Walter’s, but they should have deep personal ramifications for your character.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather
Immortalized as one of the best film trilogies ever made, The Godfather remains the pinnacle of a character study in the realm of crime stories. I’ll be talking purely about Michael Corleone’s character arc in the first Godfather film, as it’s one of the most intricate and fascinating character journeys ever shown on film. Again, let’s recap it quickly here.
Beginning: Michael Corleone is the best and brightest of the Corleone brothers: a war hero who is respectable, clean-cut, and distanced from the family’s crime world.
End: Michael Corleone is “Don Corleone” — the new mafia boss and head of the Corleone family business.
Michael Corleone’s Character Arc Map: He believes a Lie about the world → He leaves his normal life and enters a world that reinforces the Lie → He is confronted with the Truth and the world is not what they thought → He is disillusioned by Truth and he loses.
To go from the only child in the family with a shot at “legitimacy” in the world to a criminal mastermind with a ruthlessness that outstrips even his father’s, Michael Corleone needed to undergo a series of changes. However, we can trace the first instance of this change — the moment that Michael chooses his new path — back to one moment. Specifically, it’s when he visits his ailing father in the hospital and tells him, “I’m with you now.”
This is perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from his character arc in The Godfather. Though change is often subtle, don’t be afraid to have one decisive turning point for your character that clearly shows audiences where his or her heart truly lies.
Pip Pirrip from Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is one of the greatest novels in the history of literature for a good reason — and that reason’s name is Pip Pirrip. The protagonist at the center of Great Expectations, Pip has fascinated audiences and critics for more than a century (and not just because of his fantastic name, one of Dickens’ best creations). Indeed, his character arc sets an archetypical example for us to study.
Beginning: Pip Pirrip is the poor orphan of a blacksmith who dreams of becoming a true (and rich) “gentleman.”
End: Pip is a reformed man who understands that respectable clothes and a wealth of money does not make one a gentleman.
Pip Pirrip’s Character Arc Map: He believes the Lie that he needs a certain thing to be happy → He sets out on a journey to achieve this Lie → His journey shows him the Truth, and that he’s been chasing a false goal → He believes the Truth and he wins.
What makes Pip so enduring is the strength and relatability of his character arc. (If you haven’t ever wanted to be rich, or thought that the grass was greener on the other side, you’d probably be the odd one out!) In particular, what made it so profound and gripping is the tension between its opposing forces. In Pip’s case, it was a struggle between family and money, respectability and class, and goodness and “greatness.”
This principle can be applied to all stories. The more defined the tensions are in a story, the richer your character’s internal conflict — and character arc — will be.
Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit
Strong character arcs are universal to all genres, and The Hobbit is proof. J.R.R.’s fantasy masterpiece heralded a rollicking cast of characters that included dragons, hobbits, wizards, and lots of grumpy dwarves. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite hobbit comes attached with not one of the most popular character arcs out there! But before I get ahead of myself, here’s a run-down for those who aren’t acquainted with Lord of the Rings.
Beginning: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who lives quietly in his hole in the ground, detesting adventure.
End: Bilbo Baggins returns to the Shire a hero: bolder, braver, and fulfilled.
Bilbo Baggin’s Character Arc Map: He believes the Lie that he’s unworthy of journey → He is overcome by obstacles on the journey because he continues to cling to Lie → He is forced to confront the Truth about his inner strength → He believes the Truth and he wins.
This arc of positive change is, as I mentioned, one of the most widespread ones on which author depend. This is largely because there’s nothing so satisfying as a hero who prevails in spite of external conflicts and internal flaws — all to become a better person. It serves as a reminder that sometimes the tried-and-true approach works! There’s no need to go avant-garde and create a tortured anti-hero (as in my first two examples) if your story calls for something more orthodox.
All of this to say: character arcs are integral to the growth of every protagonist, and you’ll never go wrong if you give it some serious thought before you start writing. Not least because it’ll help you get one step closer to an iconic character who reverberates in readers’ minds, long after they’ve closed your book.