You’ve written an amazing story. Your premise is high concept. Your plot structure is brilliant. The whole thing is killer. But the main character’s arc seems to be, well, lacking. It’s there all right. It just doesn’t get much screentime. It’s more of a, ahem, subplot.
I’ve 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 I’m encountering is: “Can a character’s arc can be a subplot?”
The short and sweet answer is: Yes. Yes, it can.
Not every story—especially action-oriented stories—will feature huge character arcs that get all kinds of screentime and prominently showcase the Lie, the Truth, and the character’s 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 character’s 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 mother’s death and his abduction), Lie (that the only way to survive 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 plot.
This type of subplot usually functions best when it is based on an arc that is already familiar. Quill’s 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 character’s 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.
The true character-arc-as-subplot variation is the tangential arc, in which the character’s 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. Grant’s 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 they’re 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 plot—in 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, we’d 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 kids.
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 character’s arc will be—and 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.
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 that’s all over the place.
When Can a Character’s Arc Be a Subplot?
Stories are almost always better off for featuring prominent character arcs. Always start off by trying to incorporate your character’s 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 you’ll have in which to play with varied elements—and your character’s 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 character’s 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 impact.
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.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever featured a character’s arc as a subplot?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).