Can a Character’s Arc Be a Subplot?

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.

Creating Character Arcs

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Is that even possible? Is it workable? Or is it a sign that your story is flabby, shallow, and sure to bore readers?

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.

Peter Quill Starlord Chris Pratt Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Marvel Studios.

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.

Tangential Arcs

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.

Jurassic Park Dr. Alan Grant Sam Neil Alexis Tim

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

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.

Extra Arcs

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.

Jurassic Park Dr. Alan Grant Ellie Satler Ian Malcom John Hammond

Jurassic Park (1993), Universal Pictures.

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?


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Is used a riches to rags character subplot. Even if it’s only minor and not life threatening, my characters always go from a higher stature than they were in the previous chapter.

    Because I executed the story through sequentially interconnected short stories, I was able to make it gradual enough so feels more less like theme.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Subplots (or even main plots) definitely don’t have to be life-threatening to be interesting.

  2. Since humans are always changing on some level, I think it’s fair to at least consider an arc for each character. I think those sub-arcs don’t all need to be on-screen and prominent. They can be implied or delivered to the reader in other ways too, such as in dialogue at a later time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Arcs don’t have to be super-obvious to be effective. Minor characters can display Lies of their own even if they happen to know the Truth in relation to the protagonist’s Lie.

  3. Dale Szewczyk says

    I tend to be a very character driven writer. I just can’t write a story about a 2D character without making them 3D, and for me it always has to do with the main plot. Although I am thinking in some cases it might be kinda subplot, I tend to write about many things tied to the main plot, so the subplots seem more like subish. lol Now you got me thinking though. I suppose it is not a bad thing for the character arc being a subplot. Although in terms of the main protagonists, not the supporting characters, I think it does help to have their arcs to some degree entangled with the main plot. Although Allen Grant’s character could have done just fine without the kid plot, if his characteristic that was brought out really affected the result of the plot, I’d find that even more fascinating.

    I like to take opposite characters and put them in a situation where their subplot stories are kinda tied to the main plot. To me it just seems like the stakes are even higher. If it isn’t bad enough you have the Big Bad to deal with, now you have to deal with your short comings/illness/weakness/relationships at the worst possible moment. And maybe some of those traits are good and will lend a hand to overcoming the main plot. But one could argue that is what happened with Dr. Grant, and to some degree, yes.

    But Subplot can have a hand in driving the main plot too. I suppose as long as you write it well, and edit it well, it’s all good in the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The best subplots are always so integral to the main plot that they’re hard to separate out. Our goal should be to write so tight that our readers have a hard time picking out the subplots even when they consciously think about it.

  4. thomas h cullen says

    “Always start off by trying to incorporate your character’s arc conspicuously in the main plot.”:

    This is The Representative’s beginning…..the most wonderful of infusions, tying together the most pure of love stories with the most high of status stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a good way to begin any novel.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Or a presentation – in this case.

        (It’s now this that I’ve come to settle on labelling The Representative – a first of a kind literary presentation.)

  5. I think in a lot of series, character arcs take a backseat. They may be there, but they’re much more subtle, and frequently sub-plots, or even micro sub-plots.

    In my own series, sometimes Darby’s change arc is prominent in a story, and other times it’s barely there, more linking between other stories with greater changes in them. Especially if you have an exit strategy in place for the series, you can treat individual novels as you described the Star Wars movies–each trilogy had its own character arc. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true – mostly because you can only develop a character so far. Either they keep messing things up (which gets annoying after a while), or they generally have things figured out (which isn’t as deep or interesting, but which sets up long-term stories much more effectively).

  6. Eric Troyer says

    As I was reading this piece, I thought of Han Solo’s character arc in Star Wars (the very first film). Definitely a subplot, but also one that proved critical to the main plot. Someone else could have come in and helped Luke win the day, but it was so much sweeter because it was Han Solo.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Good observation you make: improves how I perceive the film now even more.

      Dialogue. Structure. Visual effects. Narrative momentum….

      A truly wonderful work of art, the original Star Wars film.

      (Just like all the other five.)

  7. This article was extremely helpful to me. Thank you so much. I am working on a novel. This answered some questions I had.

  8. I’m working extensively with subplots in my trilogy, because of the main theme that everything is in relation. That’s Tricky, sometimes, but trying to make everythign click it’s a lot of fun 🙂

    I have a numebr of character’s arcs and I’m trying to tight them all to the primary arc of my MC.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When you can bring lots of different strings into the overall tapestry – and keep them tight – the end result can be magnificent.

  9. Katie–
    I understand what you say about a character arc being integrated into the main plot, but NOT altering it (as with Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park). That’s clarifying for me.
    I imagine you’ll think my POV toward character arcs in general is dubious, but: the characters in my Brenda Contay suspense novels don’t change. But if I’ve succeeded, they’re still interesting enough so that the reader wants to see how they’ll respond when the circumstances change. For me, this makes more sense in terms of realism: people don’t change, but they can surprise themselves (and others), and they can discover untapped resources in themselves. I think of this in terms of discovery more than as transformational “change.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with characters who don’t change. Flat arc characters are morally static, but they impact the world around them.

  10. Love this post! Can you share a handful of other recent blockbuster examples of loner-to-savior stories that come to mind… especially ones where the protagonist isn’t explicitly a “chosen one” (a la Harry Potter)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Off the top of my head: Baby Driver, Outlaw King, King Arthur, Pacific Rim, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, James Bond of course. The degrees to which any of them are loner or savior varies, but the archetype is the same.


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