Writing a great character arc is a challenge. Great characters and their arcs are what drive a plot, make a story relatable, and memorable.

In this post, we’re going to teach you how to write a great character arc. We’ll also discuss some excellent character arc examples along the way. 

How To Write The Best Character Arc with Examples

What is a character arc?

Stories are about change, in large part because they are about the human experience which is fought with constant changed. Our oldest stories were tied to events like the change of seasons. The change in life patterns. Birth, marriage, death... etc. 

So the character arc is about manifesting an important change in a character. Most every story needs this. 

Character Arc Definition

What is a character arc?

A character arc is the quest, and subsequent personal change, of a character as they progress through the story. The character in question will grow from one type of individual into a very different one as a reaction to the obstacles presented in the narrative.

Most extreme examples in Film and TV history:

  • Murphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life
  • Darth Vader in Star Wars
  • Sarah Connor in The Terminator Films
  • Walter White in Breaking Bad
  • Michael Corleone in The Godfather Films
  • Roland Pryzbylewski in The Wire


Why are character arcs so important?

You might think a character arc is a tool exclusive to those character study type films, ones that feel drama heavy and lighter on action. 

But thats not the case at all. A character arc drives EVERY type of story. 

Character arc types

Types of character arcs

The beauty of character arcs is that they depend heavily on their character. Because of that, no one character arc looks the same. But there are a few different general forms they can take.

Positive character arc

This type of character change is arguably the most popular. A positive arc is where a character learns and grows. They end as a better person than they did when they were in the beginning of the story.

“Better” can mean a lot of different things. In The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the Grinch begins as a resentful curmudgeon, and ends as a loving hero of the town whose heart has literally grown.

But a character doesn’t have to start as a bad person to have a positive arc. Take Harry Potter, who begins as a loveable kid. Throughout the series, he grows into a powerful wizard with mental fortitude and selflessness. In other words, he goes from good to great.

Negative character arc

As you may be able to guess, this arc is where a character gets worse. It’s a little less common since Hollywood loves happy endings, and this type of arc typically makes that impossible.

Perhaps the most famous negative arc is that of Anakin Skywalker, who begins a bit like Harry Potter– a smart kid scraping by. But as he grows more powerful, he becomes resentful and clouded by rage.

Flat character arc

Sometimes, a character doesn’t change. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, contrary to what most screenwriting textbooks will tell you. A character who remains the same from beginning to end can be extremely useful in a narrative.

Think of Princess Mononoke. She remains steadfast in her beliefs as the story progresses in the famous Studio Gibli film. This lack of change highlights that her radicalism is actually correct, even though it seems foolhardy in the beginning.


Character arc example: The Godfather

We're going take one of the great character arcs of all time; that of Michael Corleone, to illustrate each step and how to use it. 

Gentlemen... start your engines!


When we meet him, Michael Corleone served in World War II and is a decorated hero. He’s dating the very un-Italian, All-American, Kay. And Michael keeps his family and (family) as separate from his own life as possible. 

Character Arcs - Plot Structure - Michael Corleone Hero

Plot Structure - Michael Corleone Hero

His father, Don Vito Corleone, prefers it that way. Michael is unsoiled by the dark deeds of the Corleone clan and the dream of a child with a legit future living the proper American dream seems within reach. 

But it's time for his character arc. And all good things have to come to an end. We're going to have to cause a lot of problems for him now. 

This is Michael Corleone at the beginning of the story, or as we like to say in Story Speedometer terms at IGNITION.

Character Arcs - Plot Structure - Michael and Kay at the wedding

Michael Corleone. An incredible character arc.


As we get into the story your character arcs begin to shift gears.

We know who they are when we met them, but now we’re getting to see a different side.

Events take place that force the character to recognize that who they were to start might not work for the long haul.

For Michael, there is an assassination attempt on his father, Vito. Vito is hospitalized, leaving the combustible Sonny in charge of the crime family. Fredo is useless, and Michael... well Michael might have to step up to the plate...

Character Arcs - Plot Structure - Clemenza

Can Michael "shift gears" to save his father?


The fast lane is where the rubber meets the road. Now your character is in a new lane, and they're starting to speed up.

Michael visits Vito in the hospital, and stops another assassination attempt there. A crooked cop breaks his jaw. It's getting personal. Michael wants to help Sonny, and agrees to murder the cop and a rival mafioso. 

Michael is now a part of the family.


This happens around the midpoint of your story. Your character is about 50/50 now. The old life and identity from ignition is still there, but so is this new life in equal part. 

The pit stop is where your character reassess who they are in this world.

Michael Corleone goes into hiding in Italy. He falls in love there- he tries to find a life in hiding far away from the misery and bloodshed of home. 

But that new 50% of him... the mafioso... it's not going anywhere. The dark side has him now. His wife is murdered brutally, because the violence will follow him anywhere. 

Back at home, Sonny is killed, and the aging Vito steps down... 


Pedal to the metal time, folks. 

The pit stop got us a new set of tires and it's time to burn. The character has recognized who they are becoming and who they must become. There is no looking back. 

For Michael...

The baptism of a new character

Well we have one of cinema's all time greatest montages. 

While Fredo is in line to take over, Michael sees the opening and "floors it." His family needs him. His life of crime is not only fully embraced, but he takes it to new calculated levels of brutality and violence.

All while becoming... a godfather. 


This is a step you'll find in all story crafting tools, to Blake Snyder and his famed Save the Cat Beat Sheet it's the dark knight of the soul. 

To Joseph Campbell and his philosophy of the monomyth in the heroes journey it's the atonement with the father. 

For the Story Speedometer, it's crash and burn. 

What is the crash and burn for Michael? Its Kay.

What he had with her at the beginning- the hope of a normal life that she represented, is now a steaming pile of wreckage...


From the pile of wreckage of your characters crash and burn limps a pheonix risen from the ashes. 

This new character barely resembles the one we met at ignition. They are now almost entirely changed. A good story and a good character arc does this without hesitation. Michael Corleone has his brother-in-law murdered. 

Let's appreciate the symmetry. 

At ignition Michael, clean cut in his decorated war uniform, was attending the wedding of his sister to this very man. The man who betrayed Sonny to rivals, the man who made Michael his son's godfather. 

Michael kills him, but lies to Kay about it. And the films closing image is Michael, closing the door on Kay, ensconced in the darkness of his fathers office, and profession. 

Now that, boys and girls, that is a character arc.

Character Arcs - Plot Structure - The Godfather End

"That's my family, Kay... not me."

Up next

Learn plot structure! 

You've seen the story speedometer in action, and you're ready to use it to create your own killer character arc. So get right to it!

Once you've got your character down you've also got the makings of your plot. But nothing helps a plot tighten up like the art of dramatic writing and dramatic tension. 

This one two punch will turn your ideas into page turners. So what are you waiting for! Get writing!

Keep Reading: How To Use Expert Plot Structure →
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