Let’s start with the basic definition: a character arc is the journey a character takes from the beginning to the end of a play. Given that it’s panto season, let’s use the example of Cinderella. She begins the play downtrodden and bullied by her sisters. By the end of it, her life has transformed completely: she has found her true love, riches and happiness.
Even in a fairy tale, it would be stretching logic to suggest someone can suddenly go from misery to “happily ever after” at the flick of a switch… or the wave of a wand. That’s where the concept of the character arc comes in: rather than a sudden jump to the conclusion, each step of the story moves Cinderella gradually to the end of the narrative. Whatever version of the fairy tale you use, Cinderella’s journey takes a number of beats to move ever closer to the ending…
- Cinderella is bullied by her ugly sisters
- When the Prince invites everyone to the ball, Cinderella wants to go but her sisters stop her
- Alone and at a low point, she is visited by her fairy godmother and given an ultimate makeover
- Cinderella goes to the ball and falls in love at first sight with Prince Charming
- As the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella flees from the ball before the spell wears off. She leaves only her glass slipper behind
- Cinderella returns to her old life of being bullied by her sisters
- The prince, searching for Cinderella, finds her and asks her to try on the glass slipper
- The shoe fits and the Prince and Cinderella are reunited
- They get married and live happily ever after
Despite the apparent simplicity of the story, other characters have their own arcs too. These run at the same time as Cinderella’s, intertwining and interacting with her journey.
For example, Prince Charming falls in love at first sight, loses Cinderella at midnight and then is reunited again with her at the climax. Meanwhile, the ugly sisters bully Cinderella, try to win the prince for themselves, and end up rejected.
Those moments where character arcs intertwine and bounce off each other bring a greater depth to the story. In the same scene, characters can have very different motivations and very different goals. By being clear of your characters’ motivations and goals at each point in the play – however minor the character may be – you can give the actors more to work with and help them bring depth to their performances.
As an exercise, it can be useful to plan your character arcs using a timeline of the events of your play. Add a post-it note to the timeline for each step in a character’s journey, using different colours for each character. This will help you to identify those moments where those journeys collide and help you develop how the characters might interact at that point.
It’s important to remember that how you present your character’s arcs may be different from how the characters experience them. For example, you may choose to write your play out of chronological order, flashing back and forth between different times to show the character at different stages of their journey.
Perhaps the key thing to keep in mind is that – as in life – no character knows the end of their own story. As a writer, you might know that Prince Charming and Cinderella live happily ever after from the very first page. However, the characters have no idea – the downtrodden Cinderella at the start of the story could barely imagine a prince falling in love with her.
The characters may not know their own arcs, but you need to know where they’re heading to bring a greater sense of depth, believability, and cohesion to your story.