The term character arc refers to the inner transformation of a novel’s character over the course of a story. A character begins the novel as a certain kind of person. As the plot progresses, characters react to developments in the story. By the novel’s end, each character is a different sort of person. The change may be positive or negative, but events in the story inform the transformation.
One exception is the unflappable protagonist who resists change, regardless of a story’s events. Think of the hero of The Fountainhead or the anti-hero of Cool Hand Luke. In each case, the protagonist’s resilience is the point of the non-arc.
But novelists may want to consider another kind of arc—the thematic arc. Theme is the underlying idea behind your story. Common thematic arcs involve the introduction of a question or questions. Issues are explored as the plot proceeds, and by the end, possible answers to the thematic question are identified.
The unchanging protagonist can still have a thematic arc. For example, Ayn Rand’s hero, Howard Roark, does not change. But themes of individuality and artistic integrity are thoroughly explored, and by the end, the way other characters regard Roark has changed.
In my baseball novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song, I explore ideas of team-building (and the related notion of community building). The story is about a minor league baseball team undergoing a change. The catalyzing event is the arrival of a female knuckle-ball pitcher. Though individual character arcs are important, the group undergoing a shared change signals that a thematic arc is in play.
Are character arcs and thematic arcs mutually exclusive? No—character arcs fit nicely within themed stories. The players on the Fort Collins Miners—my fictitious baseball team—share a change, but the change manifests itself in different ways. Having been part of a transformation, one player decides to become a coach. Another heads home to help out his family in a time of trouble. A third quits baseball to become a teacher! These decisions come from a shared experience resulting in personal growth.
When are thematic arcs more important than character arcs? Allegories or fables depend on theme. If your story involves a huge, transcendent event that overwhelms individual concerns (war, for example), you might give more attention to “the other arc” when telling your story. The same holds true with a novel featuring a large cast of POV characters, or a group of individuals who must work together to achieve a goal.
Either way, a thematic arc can give your novel an additional layer of complexity that will please readers and enhance your art.
Brian Kaufman divides his efforts between writing textbooks (for a living) and novels (for fun). The balance of his time goes to his wife Judith, his very demanding dog (Gus) and his blues guitar (as yet unnamed). He also cooks, lifts weights, and drinks only the finest craft beers. It is rumored that he does not sleep.
In honor of Brian’s appearance and his new release, I’m giving away one signed copy each of two very different Kaufman books to one lucky U.S. reader who leaves a comment on this post before midnight Friday, June 29th (Mountain Time). These are trade paperback books: The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song (a novel about a flailing men’s minor league baseball team, its new female pitcher, and the wacky but warm results of that mix) and Mary King’s Plague and other tales of woe (three dark novellas that you might want to read in broad daylight).