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If your protagonists character arc has the ability to deepen your story, then just

think how much more depth you can create if all your minor characters have arcs!
Dizzying concept, isnt it? And it raises the (somewhat trepidatious) question:
Should all your minor characters have arcs?
Its a fair question. After all, we want all of our supporting characters to be just
as dimensional and lifelike as our protagonists. We want them to be the heroes
of their own stories. Doesnt that mean they should all have arcs of their own?
Maybe. But maybe not too.
Can Too Many Character Arcs Be Too Much of a Good Thing?
Heres the thing about giving full-fledged arcs to all your minor characters:
Youll go bats.
Seriously. Just the thought of charting a full-on arc for every single character in
my latest work-in-progress makes my eyes cross. Its arc overload!
Okay, so its a lot of work. Got it. But faint heart never won fair book contract,
right?
Also true. But heres the other thing about giving full arcs to all your minor
characters: Its overkill.
Unless youre writing a generational epic with dozens of main characters, then
you simply dont need to chart arcs (positive, flat, or negative) for all your
characters. Readers arent going to notice if every character has an arc. Even if
they do, they may end up overwhelmed and confused.
Full-fledged arcs are there to guide your plot and theme. To create a tight, well-
woven story, every single arc needs to be not just complete and coherent in its
own right, it needs to tie together with every other arc. Very few stories can
handle the weight of complexity from more than a handful of full arcs. Just as
importantly, very few stories need more than a handful of full arcs.
Feel free to breathe a sigh of relief now.
Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs?
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Minor Arcs for Minor Characters
That said, every prominent minor character should have an arc. Just not a full
arc. Major charactersyour protagonist for sure and maybe a few others well
discuss in just a secget major arcs. But minor characters get (of all things!)
minor arcs.
Basically, a minor arc is just a very condensed version of a full arc. In Writing
Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge directs writers to ask themselves,
Is there an arc to each primary characters story? In other words, do
your [antagonist, sidekick, and love interest] all possess clear outer
motivations [goals], and are those desires built up and resolved by
the end?
In short, minor arcs require nothing more than the basic framework of any good
story (or scene, for that matter!). This is not to say all your minor character arcs
must be this sparse. But as youre running through your checklist of story must-
haves, at least make sure all prominent minor characters have individual goals,
which are met with obstacles/conflict, which are eventually resolved one way or
the other by storys end.
Whether or not these characters have to change (positively or negatively) in
quest of their personal goals is entirely up to you and the needs of your story.
But before you start fleshing out any character, remember that all minor
character goals need to be pertinent to the plot. And the more in-depth their
arcs, the more obviously those goals must contribute to a cohesive thematic
whole.
Which Minor Characters Should Have Complete Arcs?
So how do you know which minor characters deserve more than just dinky minor
arcs?
Theme. It all comes down to theme, my good man.
The antagonist and the sidekick (and the love interest, if there is one) will all
play a major role in influencing your protagonists arc. How? By providing
comparative and contrasting arcs of their own.
The Antagonists Arc
Earlier this week, one of you asked me if the antagonists arc will always be a
negative one. Youd think it would be. After all, hes a negative character. But
nope.
So whats the determining factor in what kind of arc the antagonist will follow?
The protagonists arc will decide the arc of every other character in the story.
Hes the main attraction after all. Everything else must be built around him in
order to create just the right atmosphere to guide his arc.
With that in mind, the antagonists will always function as a reflection of the
protagonists. It is his similarities, as much as his differences, to the protagonist
that defines their relationship. But the image is reversed. As a result, the
antagonist's arc will often be the opposite of the protagonists. If the
protagonist is following a positive change arc, the antagonist may be following a
reflective negative arc, in which he fails to overcome a similar Lie and ends up
destroyed instead of savedas does Inspector Javert in Victor Hugos Les
Miserables, who follows a disillusionment arc. He starts out with a mercy vs.
justice Lie similar to Jean Valjeans. But unlike Valjean, when Javert finally faces
the Truth, it destroys him.
Your antagonist may also end up following a flat arc, in which he clings to his
own Truth (very possibly a destructive Truth). This is especially likely if your
antagonist is also your impact character.
The Impact Characters Arc
Last week, we talked about how the impact character is the catalyst for all
change arcs. The impact character can manifest as any one (or more) of your
characterswhether mentor, sidekick, or love interest. But, very often, the
antagonist himself will function as the impact character.
Whatever character fills the impact role, his arc will be flat. He knows a Truth,
and he will use that Truth (consciously or subconsciously) to goad the
protagonist into overcoming his Lie. If the antagonist is the impact character,
then his very opposition to the protagonists goal will act as a goad. This can be
a very powerful way to approach the antagonist, since his ability to influence the
protagonist so profoundly (even if he may not intend it for the protagonists
good) gives him tremendous weight as a character of complex morality.
Detective Alonzo Harris in Antoine Fuquas Training Day is a great example. Hes
evil, but he provides so much moral complexity that he ends up jarring the
protagonist out of his complacent, idealistic view of the world and into a new, if
painful, Truth. In the end, of course, Harris pays for impacting the protagonists
life so profoundly.
Can Minor Characters Have Multiple Arcs?
Lets make things even more complicated, shall we? Some of your characters
may end up following multiple types of arc. This always comes down to how
many Lies and Truths they know in contrast to other characters Lies and Truths.
For example, because your impact character already understands the Truth your
protagonist seeks, he will follow a flat arc in this respect. But this doesnt mean
he has to have all Truths figured out. He may be hanging onto or overcoming
Lies of his own. Same goes for your protagonist. He may be a mess when it
comes to his central character arc and its Lie. But he may have a different kind
of Truth figured out, which he can use to help minor characters in their own
change arcs.
Used with care, multiple arcs can create characters of great depth and
complexity. But heres the rule of thumb to always keep in mind: No arc can
overshadow the protagonists primary arc.
Never forget the protagonist is the heart of your story. His arc is the story (and
if its not, then hes not the protagonist). All other arcs must be subordinate to
that arc. They must support that arc and contribute to its specific moral premise.
In other words, all arcs must weave together to create a single tapestry. You
cant have one character learning about mercy while another character is figuring
out its important to take care of the planet (unless those subjects end up tying
together in some thematic way that is unclear to my brain at this particular
moment).
So how many character arcs should you plot in your stories?
Pay attention to the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick, and the love
interest for sure. The protagonist gets a full arc, with the antagonists arc
subtextually reflecting and contrasting that arc. The impact character(s) will
probably follow smaller, supporting arcs. And every other character will receive,
at the least, a thematically pertinent goal, conflict, and resolution.
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 Out-
law, 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.
www.kmweiland.com
www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com