How to Craft Character Arcs for Your Trilogy
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Welcome back to our blog miniseries on crafting trilogies!
In last week’s article, we introduced the series and covered a few trilogy basics, including the three main types of trilogies and four ways you can plot your own. But focusing on plot alone won’t help you write a successful trilogy.
Today, we’re going to turn our attention to character arcs — specifically, the many types of character arcs you can utilize as you map out the inner conflict and development of your trilogy’s characters. Sound like a plan?
Make sure to check out part one of our blog miniseries before getting started, then come on back to dive into the wonderful world of character arcs below!
Exploring Character Arc Structures...
Let's start with a disclaimer. There is no single "right" way to complete any writing task — and that includes mapping out the character arcs for your trilogy.
However, just as there are plot structures you can use to make the process of plotting your trilogy a little less intimidating, there are also a few common character arc structures that can make weaving character development into your trilogy a breeze. Or, at least a little easier than going in blind…
Let’s break down these character arc structures today!
1. The Positive Change Arc
In a positive change arc, the main character begins the story with one or more doubts, fears, or character flaws that holds them back from achieving their story goal and/or finding happiness.
This doubt, fear, or flaw often directly ties into the Lie your character believes, which serves as the central conflict of your character’s arc. It’s this Lie — and thus the doubt, fear, or flaw that encourages it — that your character must overcome in order to resolve the story’s inner conflict.
In a trilogy, a positive change arc can play out in one of two main ways (we’ll talk about more complex arc structures that include partial positive change arcs below):
1) Either your character(s) experiences a full positive change arc in each individual book in your trilogy, or...
2) They experience one positive change arc that slowly plays out over the course of all three books.
Usually, a positive change arc is more likely to occur in each individual book if the trilogy acts as an anthology series, which we discussed in the previous installment of our trilogy blog series. A great example of this would be the Graceling Realm trilogy by Kristin Cashore. Spoilers ahead!
In Graceling, Katsa believes she was born to violence and questions whether she can ever be more than a killer. Through her journey, she comes to several internal realizations and emerges at the end of the book knowing that she wasn't born to kill at all, but rather to protect.
In the second book, Fire, the main character is a human monster who desperately wants to be better than what the tales and legends say of her kind. But because of several mishaps throughout her life, Fire wonders if she can ever overcome her nature, only realizing that she already has as she completes her physical journey.
In Bitterblue, the final installment, Bitterblue struggles to overcome the sins of her father and even questions whether it is possible, until at last she's able to right his wrongs, proving to herself and to the kingdom that she is a noble and worthy ruler.
That said, trilogies are far more likely to employ a single positive change arc that plays out over all three books (or one of the complex arcs we’ll talk about below). An example of this type of character arc is Aragorn’s journey in The Lord of the Rings. Spoilers ahead!
When readers first meet Aragorn, he appears to the Hobbits as Strider, an exiled man. In truth, he is of an ancient royal bloodline that was cast from power when his ancestor's greed allowed the Ring to corrupt his mind.
Throughout the series, Aragorn is confronted with the prophecy that one of his bloodline will once again be restored to rule. He resists taking up the ancient sword of his house and fulfilling the prophecy, believing that he is too weak and will only follow in the footsteps of his ancestor. He only overcomes this fear when his beloved people grow so endangered that love and duty outweigh doubt.
Aragorn takes up his sword, fulfills his ancient duty, and fights alongside his people until Sauron's army is at last destroyed and he is crowned king.
2. The Negative Change Arc
A negative change arc plays out in nearly the same way as the positive change arc we talked about above, though instead of overcoming the doubt, fear, or flaw that ties into their Lie, the character succumbs to it and subjectively becomes a more negative (e.g. immoral, emotionally depressed, unkind, evil, etc.) person by the end of the story.
While there are plenty of standalone novels that utilize negative change arcs successfully — think: The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, and other dark stories and tragedies — I can’t seem to think of a trilogy that utilizes this type of arc.
Still, I thought it was worth mentioning in this article since negative change arcs have proven so successful in many standalone books. If you have an example of how they're utilized in trilogies, I’d love to hear it. Better yet, why not write your own?!
3. The Flat Arc
Flat, a.k.a. static, character arcs are what define the static style of trilogy we discussed in the first installment of our trilogy miniseries.
In this case, the main character isn’t hindered by a Lie. Rather, they begin their story as a typical hero but face doubts, fears, and temptations along the way that threaten to lead them to a fall from grace.
The central conflict in this style of character arc sees your character fighting to remain true to their morals and beliefs while working to achieve their external goal. A popular example of this style of arc is that of Frodo Baggins' from The Lord of the Rings. Spoilers ahead!
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins volunteers to carry an ancient Ring into an evil land in order to destroy it. He begins this journey with a noble heart and pure intentions, albeit being quite naive of the more sinister true nature of the world.
Along the way, the Ring tempts Frodo, seeking to corrupt him so that its true power can once again be set free. Frodo struggles against this temptation again and again, each day proving more difficult than the last as he becomes increasingly solitary and mistrusting.
Finally, Frodo succumbs to the Ring's temptation on the steps of Mount Doom and places the Ring on his finger. However, Gollum, having been corrupted long ago, also desires the Ring and attacks Frodo in an attempt to regain it. In doing so, he accidentally falls into the Fires of Mount Doom and the Ring is at last destroyed.
Frodo is freed from the Ring's temptation, but its memory still remains. His spirit is in turmoil even as the world begins to heal around him, until at last he finds peace in sailing to the Grey Havens.
Frodo's arc in The Lord of the Rings is an especially good example because it shows that flat arcs can be nuanced. Frodo does change because of his experiences. He is not the same Hobbit as he was when he first set out from Bag End.
However, he is not necessarily a more positive or negative character than he first was. He still holds true to the same beliefs and values, having not overcome some doubt, fear, or flaw or experiencing a fall from grace, and therefore his arc still remains a static one.
Remember, events that break from your character's norm will always have some sort of effect on them. Change is, in most cases, inevitable. But that change isn't always for the better or for the worst. Sometimes, change is just change.
4. Complex Arcs
Not all trilogies utilize the same style of character arc in all three books. Instead, some authors choose to mix it up! This is what I like to call “complex character arcs”, and there are many ways in which they can play out. For example:
• A character can experience a positive change arc in one book and a static arc in the next.
• A character can fall from grace in book one but experience a positive change arc later in the series.
• A character can fight to stay true to who they are in one book, but lose sight of their beliefs in another.
• A character can successfully resist temptations in book one but only overcome the Lie they believe in the next.
And so on — options abound! While I won’t give examples for each and every option (we'd be here all day!), I do want to quickly outline two specific examples for you. Spoilers ahead for the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab.
In A Darker Shade of Magic, Holland is introduced as an antagonist, a foil for Kell who highlights the complexities of how an Antari can use magic. In this first book, Holland doesn't have an arc, though the seeds of his rich internal world are planted.
Then, in the second installment, Holland experiences a negative arc as he allows Osaron to use his love for his home world against him, convincing him to unleash powerful dark magic that Osaron plans to use for nefarious purposes.
In the final book, Holland realizes his fatal mistake and undergoes as a positive change arc as he overcomes severe self-doubt and fear and fights back against Osaron to right his own wrongdoing.
The Shades of Magic trilogy also features Rhy Maresh, a young prince introduced in the first book as a secondary character. Like Holland, Rhy has no arc in the first book but rather serves as both a source of motivation for Kell and as a point of conflict when he is assassinated and subsequently brought back to life.
In the second book, Rhy becomes a main character and undergoes a static arc as he struggles with the knowledge that his life is bound to another's, venting his anger via dangerous pursuits. Finally, he finds an outlet for his anger when he is charged with organizing a tournament and plots to disguise Kell so the Antari can take part.
When Osaron threatens his kingdom in the trilogy's finale, Rhy undergoes a radical positive change. He realizes his immature pursuits and comes into his full princely power as he overcomes his anger, insecurity, and foolishness and fights to keep his people safe.
Crafting multiple character arcs...
In most cases, you won’t write a single character arc for each book in your trilogy because trilogies often feature a cast of characters. Most of your major characters will be affected by the plot in some way or another. Where there is conflict, there's emotional turmoil.
Mapping out multiple character arcs may seem too complex a process at first glance, but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as it seems. First, identify which style of arc you’d like each of your characters to face. If you’re unsure, consider how your story’s events affect them on a mental, emotional, or spiritual level.
If your plot forces your character to face an insecurity, they’ll likely experience a positive change arc. If it challenges their beliefs, you have a flat arc on your hands. Or if it preys on their fears too heavily, it may make the most sense for your character to experience a negative change arc.
The important thing to remember is that plot and character are a push and pull. One will always affect the other. An event may force a character into action, but that action will always come with emotional consequences — whether they be positive or negative.
If you keep that in mind when writing — giving your characters the room to allow external events to affect them, rather than jumping straight from one conflict to the next — you truly can’t go wrong when crafting your trilogy's character arcs.