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Youve written an amazing story. Your premise is high concept.

Your plot
structure is brilliant. The whole thing is killer. But the main characters arc seems
to be, well, lacking. Its there all right. It just doesnt get much screentime. Its
more of a, ahem, subplot.
Is that even possible? Is it workable? Or is it a sign that your story is flabby,
shallow, and sure to bore readers?
Ive been filtering through some of the questions you all have been raising in
response to my recent series on positive, negative, and flat character arcs. One
of the frequent questions Im encountering is whether or not a characters arc
can be a subplot.
The short and sweet answer is: Yes. Yes, it can.
Not every storyespecially action-oriented storieswill feature huge character
arcs that get all kinds of screentime and prominently showcase the Lie, the
Truth, and the characters pit stops in between. These stories are no less
credible than those with prominently developed arcs. Indeed, their smaller arcs
can be every bit as powerful as those that get higher billing.
Consider three different instances of character arcs that might figure better in a
subplot than the main plot.
Shallow Character Arcs
Some character arcs are the stuff of legend (harking back to my earlier examples
from A Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights, and True Grit, among many others).
But some are just background color, there to raise the main character to a higher
dimension. They exist in perfect structure, but their major catalyst points are
much less defined than they might be. Same goes for the characters arc itself.
He may shift more than change.
This is a frequent option for many action movies. In the recent romp Guardians
of the Galaxy, protagonist Peter Quill experiences an ever-popular version of the
change arc, which takes him from immature selfishness to selfless heroism. His
Ghost (his mothers death and his abduction), Lie (that the only way to survive
Can a Characters Arc Be a Subplot?
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is to look out for Number One), and Truth (that the only way to be a complete
and fulfilled person is to care what happens to others) are all obvious. But they
serve more as subtext for the character than as avenues of propulsion for the
This type of subplot usually functions best when it is based on an arc that is
already familiar. Quills journey from loner to savior is arguably the most familiar
in modern adventure stories, so most viewers can fill in the blanks and feel the
arc without needing many blatant examples of the characters evolution.
This is easily the least effective presentation of any character arc, since it offers
so little material to play with. But it can still prove useful in adding an extra
layer of depth to stories that need to focus primarily on the action.
Tangential Arcs
The true character-arc-as-subplot variation is the tangential arc, in which the
characters arc is full and prominent, but is only obliquely related to the main
plot. It affects and is affected by the main plot, but only indirectly. For the most
part, it can stand on its own, apart from the main adventure, and could
conceivably occur as the result of any number of catalysts.
Jurassic Park, which I referenced (and plotted out point by point) in my positive
arc series, is a good example. Dr. Grants change arc revolves around his belief in
the Lie that children are annoying. Over the course of the story, he bonds with
Lex and Tim and comes to realize that theyre worth taking care of, even to the
point of risking his own life in saving them from the dinosaurs.
However, this change arc is tangential to the main plotin which Dr. Grant
actually displays a flat arc, based on his belief in the Truth that nature is
ungovernable. If we pulled the subplot from the story, wed lose a lot of its
heart, but the main plot would remain unchanged. The change arc itself could
have conceivably occurred as the result of any number of non-dinosaur
adventures in which Dr. Grant might have found himself having to care for the
Even when writing tangential arcs, strive for a tighter link between the subplot
and the plot. The more integral the two, the more prominent your characters arc
will beand the more cohesive your story as a whole. Still, Jurassic Park is a
good example of how even a dramatically unnecessary change arc can be used to
improve the overall story.
Extra Arcs
Jurassic Park is also a good example of a story in which the protagonist
experiences two arcs, one of which is integral to the main plot and the other of
which is a subplot. The flat arc Dr. Grant shares with Ellie and Dr. Malcolm
powers the main plot, while his change arc is only a prominent subplot.
Extra character arcs will often show up in relationship subplots. They can work
extremely well when they play off the Lie/Truth in the main plot by presenting
different facets of the same theme. However, this is a technique to be used with
caution, since you can easily end up with a sloppy story thats all over the place.
When Should a Characters Arc Be a Subplot?
Stories are almost always better off for featuring prominent character arcs.
Always start off by trying to incorporate your characters arc conspicuously in the
main plot. However, length is one factor that may play a role in your decision.
The shorter your story, the less room youll have in which to play with varied
elementsand your characters arc may have to take a backseat. The longer your
story, the more depth and dimensions you can explore.
Should you decide to incorporate a characters arc as a subplot, plan it just as
thoroughly and specifically as you would if it were in the main plot. Its plot
points and revelations may not be as blatant, but they should still be evident
subtextually, in order to give your story its greatest possible psychological
Despite their comprehensive requirements, characters arcs do offer a lot of
flexibility. Consider your story from all angles to figure out how much prominence
your character's arc will need to enhance the plot to its full advantage.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.