‘A long time ago, in a land far, far away, the God of Writing said “there shall be character arcs!” and thus character growth and development was born, turning those drab two dimensional characters into something three-dimensional and fabulous.’
I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote from, like, the Bible, or something,
A lot of people hear the phrase “character arc” and they go, “That means how the character changes right?” Well yes, but there’s a little more to it than that.
(And here comes the science bit! Don’t worry it’s really short!)
A character arc is the status of a character’s personal development as they continue through their journey in the story. Some people confuse character arcs with the 12 step hero’s journey — however, the hero’s journey is the arc of the storyline, not the actual character. What needs to be remembered is that to create a good arc you don’t need a rags to riches character who has an epiphany halfway through the book. The arc we’re talking about here is about actual changes happening within the character that change them as a person.
The important thing to remember is that if you’ve got your arc right, your character should be able to carry the story, rather than letting the storyline drag them along. Good character arcs make your storylines character-driven! And that’s what you want.
Now if you Google “character arc” you’re going to get a bunch of images come up like this:
But this isn’t always necessarily the case. It’s not wrong, not by any stretch, but it’s not the only kind of character arc out there. In fact there are three defining arcs…
#1 The Change Arc — This is a good old-fashioned hero’s journey. You’ll see an unlikely protagonist turn from zero to hero using some kind of inner strength that was within him all along. Example: Harry Potter — a scared, lonely little boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs, steps up to the plate and kills the world’s most dangerous dark wizard.
#2 The Growth Arc — The protagonist has to overcome an internal opposition (weakness, fear, etc.), while facing an external opposition (villain, difficult task, etc.) and by doing this they usually become a better, more well-rounded person. Example: Batman — he overcomes his fear of bats and uses his one weakness to drive himself to become Batman, the saviour of Gotham City.
#3 The Fall Arc — The protagonist manages to doom himself — and/or others — to a horrible fate/untimely death. Example: the really terrible captain from Titanic. He sunk a whole ship. Do I really need to explain any more than that?
(And what do you mean, “Titanic really happened?” Whu?)
But what is it about a good character arc that makes them so delicious? As human beings, we actually get pleasure from seeing people change and improve. We get enjoyment from watching someone (even if they’re entirely fictional) become a better people. Likewise, we get the same kind of pleasure from watching it happen completely in reverse, seeing a character spiral into despair and become the bad guy (because we’re all giant masochists at heart…! Yay!) because we, the human race, are the height of hypocrisy. And if you don’t think that makes any sense, then imagine how I’m feeling. I just had to write all of that…
But anyway, that is the science part of this evening’s entertainment out of the way. Now onto the fun bit!
We are back in full Olympic Medallist swing, ladies and gents, because tonight I am counting down my top three Villain to Hero character arcs, and it’s going to be awesome.
Am I building this up too much? Probably.
LET’S DO THIS!
(This blog post is rated ‘Mother Of God!’ for spoilers. You have been warned.)
BRONZE MEDAL: DAMON SALVATORE (growth arc) — THE VAMPIRE DIARIES SERIES, WRITTEN BY L.J.SMITH:
He’s got it all, hasn’t he? Strong jawline, high cheekbones, those smouldering blue eyes and that crooked little grin…
What was I saying…? Oh yeah, he’s gorgeous. Typical bad-boy gorgeous. Like, do you have any idea how hard it was not to use a picture of him topless? The struggle is real.
But gorgeousness aside, the point I’m trying (and failing) to make is that he looks like a villain. He’s not a pretty-boy with the square jaw and the big, toothy, Hollywood smile. No, you look at Damon and you go, “Ohh… he must be the sexy villain, right?”
Right. And he’s a damn good one too. Damon Salvatore enters the first TVD book as the main bad guy. He’s a 200 year old vampire, killed by his father and turned into the monster he is by his brother, Stefan, and after years of avoiding his past, he’s finally come back to their home town to wreak havoc.
He wants to kill his brother and steal his girl from him. Part of being a vampire means Damon can turn off his emotions, and after running around for two centuries without a conscience, killing people to get his own way is second nature.
But it all changes when Elena Gilbert comes onto the scene. Equally beautiful (everyone in this town is gorgeous apparently) and delightfully human, Elena becomes Damon’s moral compass. She is the only one who can talk him down. She’s the only one who can make him switch his emotions on again. She’s the only one who makes him want to be the better man, and he falls for her.
With a reason to be a good again, and with the love of his life to suddenly protect, over the course of eleven books Damon transforms from baddie to goodie (even if he is a bit of an anti-hero), putting aside his differences with Stefan, and helping Elena and Co. fight off all paranormal villains and ne’er-do-wells that are weirdly only attracted to her.
Sure he makes some slip-ups along the way. He kills a few people (a lot of people) and he accidentally sends Elena and her friends to hell and back a few times, and he also steals his brother’s girl away from him… but he’s good at heart.
And let’s face it, if Damon was all good would we even still love him as much? He said it best himself, “If you’re going to be bad, be bad with a purpose. Otherwise you’re just not worth forgiving.”
He proves his heroism right at the very end by giving his life to save Elena. There was gross sobbing all round.
SILVER MEDAL: SERVERUS SNAPE (fall arc) — THE HARRY POTTER SERIES, WRITTEN BY J.K.ROWLING:
Okay, so admittedly, this picture of Snape isn’t the scariest picture I could find. There were loads of other ones, where he’s frowning, and looking all mad and broody, but the sentimental sop in me had to choose this one. Because of reasons.
And alright, before you Potterheads start throwing Order Of The Phoenix at me (because I can hear you out there rubbing your hands together, hoping for me to get this wrong), I know what you’re going to say: “Snape wasn’t really the bad guy. Snape was a good guy all along. Everything he did was to protect Harry.” Yes, I know all this, I’m a Potterhead too.
The point is, when you first start out reading the books, you don’t know Snape is a good guy. As far as you’re concerned, Snape is Harry Potter’s evil potions professor who likes scolding him in front of the class, ratting him out when he’s up to something, and giving him detention. And no one would blame you for thinking he’s the bad guy — we all did.
Throughout the first half of the series he comes across as one of those everyday villains. He’s that mean teacher we all had at school, the guy who just hated us for no reason, and although we wouldn’t wish any serious harm on the man, we’d still like to see him get his comeuppance.
And then you get to the second half of the series and you learn Snape is a Death Eater working closely with Lord Voldemort (gasp!) and you’re sitting there going, “I knew it! I KNEW IT!” and all the sudden you hate him. Because now you KNOW he’s a proper bad guy, his villain status granted the moment he kills Dumbledore.
It’s not till right at the very end that you discover he was a good guy all along, and the guilt you feel for hating him for all those years is almost unbearable. You find out that he was desperately in love with Lily Potter, and everything he did was to protect Harry, and that Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him all as part of their plan to take Voldemort down.
And you don’t find any of this out until after he’s dead and you’re already sending yourself on the guilt trip from hell for hating him for the last seven years.
Read Harry Potter, they said. It’ll be FUN, they said.
GOLD MEDAL: BILLY-RAY SANGUINE (change arc) — THE SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT SERIES, WRITTEN BY DEREK LANDY:
Okay, so first off he just looks like a bad guy. He’s got the cool shades, the expensive suit, and the sly little grin. This man practically oozes I’m-Up-To-No-Good-Ness and it’s beautiful.
Billy-Ray Sanguine, a self-professed psychopath and evil sorcerer from the heart of Texas, is a recurring villain throughout the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Originally only meant to appear in the second instalment, Playing With Fire, Sanguine is living proof that some characters really do live beyond the pages of their books.
But why is he such a baddie, Laura? What’s he done that’s so evil? Well now, where do I begin…?
- He’s a hitman deluxe who kills people for fun as well as the money.
- He used to be a detective but gave up when he kept killing his clients out of boredom.
- He’s tried to kill Skulduggery and Co. more times than I can count on both hands.
- He kidnapped Valkyrie (well, someone had to…)
- He worked under notorious evil sorcerer, Baron Vengeous, for a large portion of Playing With Fire.
- He released Springheeled Jack from prison.
- He helped bring the Grotesquery to life.
- He’s partly responsible for bring the Faceless Ones back.
- Worked for the evil group, The Diablerie, for most of The Faceless Ones.
- He once punched Valkyrie so hard he broke one of her teeth.
- He helped his father, Dreylan Scarab, try to blow up Croke Park with 80,000 people inside it.
- He worked as part of the Revengers Club (still laughing about it, even now) for most of Dark Days.
- He started dating (and eventually got engaged to) Tanith Low when she became possessed by a remnant, taking her away from Ghastly and ruining hundreds of OTPs (One True Pairings) everywhere.
- He went on a scavenger hunt/killing rampage set up Tanith (still possessed) to find all the God-Killer weapons and destroy them.
- And plenty more…
And after all that he’s still my favourite character.
But then it all begins to change when he starts to actually fall in love with Tanith. It’s on the scavenger hunt for the God-Killers that he realises he can’t go through with it. As much as he wants to please Tanith, and as much as every instinct in his body is telling him to do the wrong thing, he just can’t justify getting rid of the only instruments on earth that are able to kill the soon-to-be-at-large, all-powerful, totally evil, Darquesse. He put it best himself when he said, “There wasn’t a lot of point in helping someone you love bring about the end of the world, if the end of the world meant you couldn’t be with the one you love.”
It’s not until the final book, when it’s crunch time, that Billy-Ray finally crosses into the hero threshold for good, and gives his life to save Tanith, the woman he loves, even though he knows she never loved him, and never would.
Billy Ray died a hero.
A lot of tears were shed that day.
And there you have it. My top three Villain to Hero character arcs, each of them stretching over the three different types of arcs (because variety is nice), covering growth, change, and tragically, the fall.
If you had as much fun reading this blog post as I did writing it then leave me a message in the comments section below telling me what you thought. But it’s goodbye for now. So… uh… bye!
Seriously though, Snape couldn’t be a little nicer to Harry while he was at Hogwarts? It’s not Harry’s fault his mum didn’t want to pork him.