I’ll answer that right away: No.

But let’s look at them anyway.

According to all the advice on how to write a screenplay in fifteen minutes, or whatever, there are three types of character arcs and no matter what, you must choose one for each of your major characters:

1. Positive

Your character starts out in some bad or humble place and through overcoming various obstacles ends the story in some improved condition. That character wins.

2. Negative

Your character starts out at least okay and through failing to overcome various obstacles, ends the story somehow worse off. That character loses.

3. Flat

The character ends up in the same place, having been largely or entirely unaffected by various obstacles along the way to whatever then constitutes the end of the story.

Examples of these are so easy to cull out of novels, movies, and TV it’s not really worth bothering to do here, and it’s not a new concept, in general, anyway. Consider this from “Little Gidding,” Number Four of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot:

There are three conditions which often look alike

Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment

From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference

Which resembles the others as death resembles life,

Still, if these three arcs help you understand your story going in, I’m absolutely fine with that. Last week I encouraged you to write, or continue writing, some—any—version of an outline, so you have your “battle plan” going in. Can this include a sense of a character arc? Of course. Why not? But remember the constant caveat I try to wrap all advice like this in:

Always give yourself the freedom to have a better idea.

Does your outline call for a positive character arc but somewhere along the line you realize hey, you know what? Everything is pointing to this character winning the day, so wouldn’t it be surprising or interesting or moving (etc.) if that flips over right here? Now you’ve turned a positive arc into negative one. Or another idea turns a positive arc into a partial negative arc with some flat arc aspects to it as well. Okay, now you’re talkin’!

Now you’re thinking.

Now you’re creating.

Instead of filling in blanks.

In my own work, The Watercourse Trilogy, my protagonist (and no, he was never concepted as any form of “hero”), Ivar Devorast, has a positive arc in that he starts out in a humble place, young and unknown, but overcomes numerous obstacles to finally finish his great work, the canal.

Groovy—it works!

Except Ivar also has a negative arc. He starts out with at least one good friend, and full of potential, but by the end blows up everything in his life that approaches a relationship until he ends up isolated and friendless, having achieved only a hollow, entirely personal victory at enormous cost to himself and anyone who’s come in contact with him.

Uh oh… two arcs?

Actually, let’s make it a trifecta. Over all three books he has a flat arc in that he begins somewhere on the autism spectrum, or in D&D terms: Neutral Neutral (which is what I set out to play with), and ends in exactly the same way, never having altered his basic outlook or behavior patterns in any way.

The Character Arc, like the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, Aristotle’s three acts, my own favorite: The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, and other writing shortcuts and bugaboos that endeavor to remove the creative from creative writing, is not unhelpful if understood as a set of vague, general prompts, something to get you thinking. But once you start rigidly applying structure to fiction, well… okay. You can follow those rules, hit each beat on exactly the right page, and finish the project. I’ve done pretty much exactly that kind of writing: Finish the Project, which is a much more accurate name for the Save the Cat method. It will get you to done. And if that’s all you’re going for, or you’re writing screenplays and that’s all anyone expects, fine. Like I said—been there, done that.

But if you’re hoping to create a novel that goes beyond done and at least starts to approach the undefined, unknown territories of Good, or Groundbreaking, or Interesting… rigid adherence to any of those formulas are only going to hold you back. And not because they’re evil or wrong or not in many ways well-meaning attempts to answer the unanswerable, but because once a rigid framework is applied to any work of art—and yes, folks, prose science fiction, fantasy, and horror are works of art—we leave art behind and enter the Land of Product.

So… is that what you want to do? That’s what I set out to do writing a computer game novelization in less than two months, and I successfully got to the end of the project and have been regretting it ever since. I project managed a bunch of other books that made it through an often technically impossible production schedule on time, but no one really looks back on as great works of art. In as many cases as I could possibly muster, I’m happy to report that I did midwife some amazing works of fantasy that I will happily and steadfastly put up against the greatest fantasy novels of all time.

And in all my time as an editor I’ve never sat down and broken any finished manuscript up into fifteen beats, five acts, or arcs. Not one time. By the time I’m reading a first draft, I assume the author has or hasn’t worked through all that formula stuff on their own, and I take every word of the novel at face value. Are these characters all performing their preassigned arcs? I don’t care. I want to know if it feels right, and that feeling only comes from all of the different character beats, plot beats, worldbuilding, and the writing itself working together to create this story, written by this author, not The Story, written by Anyone.

In his foreword to Steven James’s book Story Trumps Structure, agent Donald Maas wrote:

You see, there are big chunks of the craft that most writers do without thinking. They’re good at explaining what they’re conscious of but unaware of what they do intuitively. They avoid mistakes and add flourishes as they write because it just feels wrong—or right. A draft passage on the page smells bad or looks good in the way food does as soon as you open the refrigerator door. Before you’ve picked it up, taken a look, peeled off the plastic cover, and sniffed… well, you just know. Either it’s good to eat, or it will make you sick.

There are rules for how to use a semi-colon, but not how to use a character. We’re at the point where a computer can write one of these formulaic stories, so more than ever it’s up to us flawed, flailing, weird, confused, creative humans to make art that surprises, delights, and inspires other humans—formula be damned.

—Philip Athans

More on characters, and one about formulas…

Why? The Heart of Character Motivation

What Readers Respond to in a Hero

The Single Most Important Element to Every Character

“Write Better Character Description,” Said the 6’3”-Tall, 349-Pound, Bald Writer With Brown Eyes and Glasses, Who Was a Male Human

Fog: Exploring Weird Tales Vol. 5, No. 1—Part 18

Did this post make you want to Buy Me A Coffee

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

Friend me on GoodReads

Find me at PublishersMarketplace

Check out my eBay store

Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting?

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in authors helping authors, authors to writers, best fantasy blogs, best genre fiction blogs, best horror blogs, best science fiction blogs, best websites for authors, best websites for writers, Books, characters, Dungeons & Dragons, fiction writing blog, fiction writing websites, freelance editing, help for writers, helping writers become authors, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, Story Structure, websites for authors, websites for writers, writers to authors, Writing, writing advice, Writing Community, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s