Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs

Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs?

If your protagonist’s 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, isn’t it? And it raises the (somewhat trepidatious) question: Should all your minor characters have arcs?

Creating Character ArcsIt’s 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.” Doesn’t 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?

Here’s the thing about giving full-fledged arcs to all your minor characters:

You’ll 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. It’s arc overload!

Okay, so it’s a lot of work. Got it. But faint heart never won fair book contract, right?

Also true. But here’s the other thing about giving full arcs to all your minor characters: It’s overkill.

Unless you’re writing a generational epic with dozens of main characters, then you simply don’t need to chart arcs (positive, flat, or negative) for all your characters. Readers aren’t 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.

Minor Arcs for Minor Characters

That said, every prominent minor character should have an arc. Just not a full arc. Major characters—your protagonist for sure and maybe a few others we’ll discuss in just a sec—get 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 character’s 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 you’re 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 story’s 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.

For a complete understanding of how (and which) minor characters affect theme, you’ll want to take a look at this post from a couple months ago. But, for now, suffice it that the antagonist and the sidekick (and the love interest, if there is one) will all play a major role in influencing your protagonist’s arc. How? By providing comparative and contrasting arcs of their own.

The Antagonist’s Arc

Earlier this week, one of you asked me if the antagonist’s arc will always be a negative one. You’d think it would be. After all, he’s a negative character. But nope.

So what’s the determining factor in what kind of arc the antagonist will follow?

The protagonist’s arc will decide the arc of every other character in the story. He’s 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 antagonist’s will always function as a reflection of the protagonist’s. 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 protagonist’s. 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 saved—as does Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who follows a disillusionment arc. He starts out with a mercy vs. justice Lie similar to Jean Valjean’s. 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 Character’s 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 characters–whether 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 protagonist’s 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 protagonist’s good) gives him tremendous weight as a character of complex morality.

Detective Alonzo Harris in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day is a great example. He’s 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 protagonist’s life so profoundly.

Can Minor Characters Have Multiple Arcs?

Let’s 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 doesn’t 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 here’s the rule of thumb to always keep in mind: No arc can overshadow the protagonist’s primary arc.

Never forget the protagonist is the heart of your story. His arc is the story (and if it’s not, then he’s 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 can’t have one character learning about mercy while another character is figuring out it’s 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 antagonist’s 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.

Tell me your opinion: Do you any of your minor characters have prominent character arcs?

Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    It would be to oppose reality, making three dimensionality too rampant:

    In the real world, people aren’t as different from one another as can be common perception. There’s also neither the amount of mystery and interest in it as art and literature make out – not even remotely.

    The key is focus; less characters the better, less contrivance the better. (The closer you can get to state of true reality – depressingly, and brutally uniform – the more your chance of telling a better story.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Human commonality is what makes fiction work. But it’s our differences that make it interesting.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        True, difference is essential to art, however it’s an undeniable truth also that the best of art derives from sincerity; from showing and telling “actual reality”.

        Depressingly, and brutally reality is uniform; that’s why the same rules have to be applied to everyone – everyone has to have a job, everyone has to pay for their house, and everyone has to speak from the same script….

        The closer you get to reality, the more you realise how hard it is: repeatedly telling stories, and yet staying true to reality.

  2. Hi, Katie.
    This series (of series?) has been SO helpful to me in figuring out a few things before getting back into my main WIP.
    To answer your question, my protagonist undergoes a (mostly) positive change arc. The antagonist (also my impact character) has a flat arc, as expected. Two of my main supporting characters have positive change arcs, facilitated by my protagonist, and integral to the overall story.
    Two more minor characters have minor positive arcs and while largely tangential to the story in this novel, they set up integral sub-plots for future novels in the series. One of those has a negative arc in the second book.
    It really is like weaving a tapestry. Wish the local college offered a course in that. I’m sure it would be helpful 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice! I love that you know the intricacies of all your characters’ journeys. I can sense the richness of your tapestry all the way from here!

  3. Only arc the ones you want your readers to invest in. At least, that’s my approach. I scarcely name minor characters. Unlike the majors, to me they don’t learn, so there’s no true arch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good rule of thumb. And not naming inconsequential characters is a great way to keep them out the readers’ way, so to speak.

  4. Katie–
    Your reaction to the very idea of developing full arcs for all minor characters–“”You’ll go bats”–speaks for me. I am basically a pantser writer, in other words a romantic. As such, I operate on the assumption that a story grows like a plant, rather than being assembled like a clock. I want the arcs to be organic within the story, to emerge as events unfold. Sometimes, after time has passed, I am able to see more clearly whether the arc process has actually taken place effectively. But I now make sure to get an “expert opinion” before assuming I’ve got things right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s interesting, because I would actually have assumed it would be less bat-inducing for pantsers, since they just let the story and characters happen – versus a plotter like me who would have to actually plan out every arc on a conscious level before writing the story. #insanity

      • Katie–
        I suppose it IS less bat-inducing for a pantser–at first. But after time passes and the smoke clears, the bats can definitely come home to roost. The pantser is pleased with himself and what he’s accomplished, operating on what he “feels” as the story advances. But the cold, clear light of day does not always reveal what seemed a done deal not so long ago. And when doubts are confirmed by an outside editor (who isn’t given prompts beforehand), then it’s time to get back to work.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Gotta love objective readers. All their sensibleness can be downright annoying sometimes, but they make us and our stories so much better!

    • “Pantser.” That’s a new term for me. Is it related to “flying by the seat of your pants?” Because if it is, I can *completely* relate to your description there. “A story grows like a plant.” I like that image. That’s pretty accurate to how I write, anyway. In one story that I’ve been working on, I’ve described setting certain plot points and character development points as “planting seeds for future use,” and then I occasionally check on its progress as time goes on, adding a little more “growth” to it.

      I agree to the thought that there should be limits to character arcs based on how many major/ minor characters you have. I know epic fantasy will have huge cast lists and each character gets so much of the spotlight…. I’m still reading the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams, currently on the last book, and I love it but mannnn, it has taken a long time to get here! I’ve never ever in my life had to quantify the length of time to finish reading a book in *years* of all things. @_@; It’s worth it so far (I think), but I don’t know if I’ll ever read another epic again.

      I certainly can’t imagine myself trying to write in *that many* character arcs into one story. So “yes” on the limited minor arcs for minor characters, but “heck no” on the arcs for every story character. Give your reader some space to breathe. XD

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The ‘planting seeds’ analogy: that’s where the best art derives from.

        There’s no payoff like when a reader respects you through their having recognised your doing this.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yep, “seat of the pants” is the origin of that term – the idea being that “pantsers,” who prefer not to outline ahead of time, like to just sit down and write “by the seat of their pants”!

  5. Catriona McKeown says:

    My protagonist is a 45 year old woman, struggling to come to terms with some issues from her past. One of the minor characters is her teenage daughter, who is beginning to be confronted with similar issues (that the protagonist faced) in her life. The daughter’s arc is in the background but is a fairly full arc, as her character development is revealed in snippets throughout the story. But my mentor character (another minor character) doesn’t really have a clear arc – is it important she has one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Mentor characters typically (but not always) follow a submerged flat arc. The arc is submerged in the sense that about the only thing that needs to be obvious to readers is that the mentor has a grasp on the Truth the protagonist struggling to find.

  6. In my current project my MC is fighting against tyranny and has the flat arc, that affect positive changes in tho another characters: his sceptical sidekick and another character, who begin in antagonistic way but then changes her mind and sides with protagonist. Also there is antagonist whith negative arc. And I have one more character with positive arc: it is protagonist’s father figure, who is OK with protagonist’s Truth, but not OK with him acting on it, because he has his own Lie, kinda parental stuff, like “his kid can only be safe under his control, so he should not be allwed to act on his own, especially not to go around and save the world”. This Lie has nothing to do with the main conflict, but I believe that still connected with the main theme because this character is sort of tyranyc himself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice! It’s always amazing when all the minor character arcs end up supporting the protagonist’s arc (such as that of your protag’s father). The overall affect can be incredibly strong and layered.

  7. Arcs come in different sizes? Characters can have more than one arc? You make me so happy. I needed a little validation of my esoteric ideas this feels-like-Monday morning 😀 Thank you for bringing up some important points in this article. Keep writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think we sometimes view stories as black-and-white, either-or propositions. But even with the “rules,” there is *so* much wiggle room.

  8. The basic idea of my trilogy is the Native idea that everything is in relation, so of course I have many characters, many arcs and they all intertwine. Took me a lot of work to figure this out, and I’m still working hard on keeping clear that this story IS about my MC. I wrote the story like a pantser, I deconstructed it many times, tried to figure out clearly what every arc is about and how it connects to my MC’s arc (this was/is more of a plotter’s work) and then reassembled it into a more cohesive story.

    To me, deconstructing it was essential. Writing the story as a pantser gave me the central core of it, but then I needed (and still need) clear mind to weave all the arcs together in a comprehensive way.

    Part of the change my MC goes through depends on the changing arcs of other characters, but he’s also causing change in other characters’ arc. Sounds a great mess, I know, but it’s fun… and I promise it won’t be a mess once this is done 😉

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Articulate. Expressed perfectly. (I say so because it’s harder than one expects – communicating such precision, in a correct “written” form.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sort of like outlining after the fact, eh?

    • jeff chandler says:

      Jazz Feathers, I completely know what you mean about the way you wrote and now are deconstructing. I wrote my story complete in part time phases over a decade only to find out it was totally the wrong POV. Now while changing POV for the whole thing I’m also having to change character arcs and several plot twists. How do you get the bees to stop living inside ones head?! Bzzzzzzz

  9. I see an interesting relation between the flat arc and other arcs here.

    If one of the qualities of the flat arc is that it influences other characters to change, it seems logical that a positive arc protagonist should have a flat arc side kick, mentor or similar that will influence them to go positive.

    And the same should be true for a negative corruption arc: that there is a flat arc character but that character believes in a lie instead of a truth, and they influence the protagonist to go negative.

    I guess disillusionment and fall arcs might also be influenced by flat arcs.

    And then of course, when the protagonist is a flat character, some other characters will go through positive arcs… and perhaps negative arcs as well… hmmm…

    Or, what do you think? Am I getting entangled here?

    It would be interesting if you had any articles on arc interplay!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent observation! The “flat arc” character in a positive-arc story is the “impact character.” More on him here: The Impact Character: Why Every Character Arc Needs One.

      • Impact character! Yes! Thanks!

        I just had a thought about having more than one character arc for the same character.

        In psychology there’s a theory that we all have slightly different personalities depending on who we’re with. (Compare your relationship to your parents, your friends, and your spouse…)

        And of course, we’re also able to deal with different problems depending who we’re with.

        If I wanted the same character to have two character arcs in the same story, I might find two groups of people around the character, one for each arc (with impact character, allies and foes for each group/arc), and the character would deal with different problems depending on what group of people he interacted with.

        For instance he has a flat arc towards his greedy money grabbing father and a positive arc towards his neglected girlfriend.

  10. My character Amelia has now gotten over her lack of self-confidence and learned to trust her instincts, and is starting to think that Vance might be her dream guy. Can that be an arch? He might be the sidekick, since he’s often the one who participates in her adventures, but he did help train her and has helped her when she needed it.

    • If I understand Katie correctly and your character is following a positive arc, she would “get over” her lack of self-confidence in steps with relapses. She would only truly be self-confident just before or in the climax of your story.

      If she follows a negative arc she might never be self-confident.

      You might also want to think about wether Vance being her dream guy is the thing she needs or the thing she wants.

      If she’s thinking having him in her life would make her self-confident he’s probably the thing she wants, rather than the thing she needs. Instead she might need the ability to be self-confident without depending on anything external…

Trackbacks

  1. […] that we know all about character arcs from K.M. Weiland’s various series on the topic, should every character in your novel have an arc? Hmmmm . . . That way lies madness, […]

  2. […] The problem is simple enough I think. I just don’t care that much about what is going on with the secondary characters. I’m just not attached to them. I want to be. I have this fantasy of my own, of a very vivid world one populated full of back stories, each as important to the right readers as they would be to the characters themselves, a real place populated by real people. It’s what I want, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable. After all, it would become an oni, never done, always needing more. What happens to the person who sweeps the walk? That corpse on the steps has to have a life story. It sounds exhausting. […]

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