Creating Plot-Driven Character Arcs
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! As we continue our discussion on character arcs, we come to the topic of how to create a plot-driven character arc as juxtaposed to a past or history-driven character arc, tracing the development of a character in response to events going on around the character as opposed to the "hero's journey" as we saw in the last post.
Like the last post, we will be using examples from the tv show The Expanse as they have good examples of several kinds of plot-driven character arcs, but we will also add some examples from campaigns I've run in the past to show how players have built plot-driven character arcs into the fabric of the characters.
As we did in the last post, this post will be spoiler free. You'll learn a little bit about the universe, but otherwise nothing about the story or plot.
I. James Holden: A Mystery/Mystical Arc
James Holden is simultaneously one of the least interesting and most interesting people in the show, and it's for two very different reasons. On the one hand he appears more flat and uninteresting compared to the rest of his crewmates, and that works against him. On the other hand, he constantly displays unique abilities that fascinate the viewer and capture your attention in the scene.
This is because Holden doesn't have a personal arc that's based on his background (like Amos or Alex do): he has an arc that's based on the plot. This is dangerous when you make a character, as the strength of the character will ride on the strength of the plot element you tie it to, and in this case it's the alien/otherworldly elements of the show. When those elements are strong, his character is strong (the scenes involving him and his "muse" are gripping and moving). When those elements of the show take a backseat, he takes a backseat (which is kind of odd since he feels like he's the main character of the show, but very often he's not).
And of course this could take different forms. In a Lovecraftian world your character might be investigating things that are otherworldly/eldritch in nature. In a haunting mystery campaign you might build someone who has studied paranormal activity for years. There are a lot of ways to work this into your stories.
I was once running a campaign where a player wanted to run a conspiracy theorist, and so her character was built to sniff out odd symbols, strange dealings, and arcane power tied to a secret society known as Arcane Ascending. So as the party went on their adventures, she'd also be watching for other clues, and as they uncovered more and more evidence of this undercover group, the whole party began to realize that they were doing far more than just working jobs and making money: they were also stopping a grand conspiracy...unless it was nothing but coincidence. And that made that aspect of the game far more interesting for all of them, not just the player.
So if your campaign is centered around mystical or mysterious elements, you can tie your character's arc to those elements of the story. I recommend talking to your game master first, though, so that they know that your character's arc of growth will feature heavily around that, as you don't want to latch onto something that the game master intended as a garnish and treat it like it's an entrée.
II. Camina Drummer: A Political Arc
When this character was introduced, I thought she was just a side character in the story. And I guess in some ways she was, but the strength of the writing in the show is that even side characters get a lot of depth with good arcs to support them. Camina is a character caught at a cultural tipping point, where a new political faction is rising and she finds herself, quite unwittingly, near the center of it.
So what does she do? She develops heavily as a character, her arc becoming heavily entwined with the political developments in the story. The result is an interesting arc for a lieutenant-turned-leader, and a lot of room for future growth as the story continues.
I was once running a more linear campaign where the party was escorting a princess on her way to her uncle's castle because her father's castle was under attack, and one of my players built a griffon character who had served the family for years. The result was that he was heavily invested in the political aspect of the setting even though he was, well, a griffon.
The princess was the heiress - the sole heiress of the baron, and if she was captured or killed it would mean the end of life as he knew it. So he embraced the political ramifications of the campaign: he must do everything in his power to keep her safe.
If your game master has integrated political currents into the plot, a political arc can be very rewarding, albeit with the "Garnish v. Entrée" caveat above: if it's meant to be a substantial element of the story, feel free to pursue it. Political arcs give vast room for meeting new people, traveling to new places, engaging with different social rules and expectations, and more large-scale knowledge of the world and its factions.
So if that interests you, consider building off of the political currents of the story.
III. Bobbie Draper: A Historical Arc
I opted not to use Klaes Ashford for this section because frankly the guy needs his own post as he's one of the best characters in all of fiction, so I am going to turn to Bobbie Draper of the Martian Marine Corps instead. Bobbie finds herself in a world that is constantly changing: the old dreams and plans of Mars hit a crossroads in her lifetime, which turns the whole planet upside down.
For Bobbie, this leads to a lot of her character development: what does it mean to be a member of the Martian military? What does it mean to be a member of a society that values new things and forgets/disregards the virtues that were instilled in you from a young age? How do you move forward when everything around you is leaving you behind?
I had a player once who was running the same "escort a princess" module, and he had a character who was an undead bodyguard to the princess. His clan had sworn an oath to protect and preserve the queen and her descendants, and the queen had lived far longer than they expected. So even after they died their souls were still bound to their oath, and thus the guard continued to serve her well after dying.
This led to a constant tension: on the one hand, you have your oath to protect the princess. On the other hand, the war that is going on isn't exactly your war: it's the war that the husband of the queen and his brother are waging against a neighbor. So where do you draw the line? What are you required to do? And that made for a very interesting and unique character arc.
These are great questions for a good character to face and answer, and are attainable within the span of a story or roleplay adventure. The arc is heavily driven by the campaign's plot instead of your own backstory or goals: what the game master does with the world heavily impacts the way you play the character. But you still get a lot of personal touch through how your character reacts to everything, helping to shape the narrative and potentially change the course of the campaign's plot through how you act, what you say, and how you influence the actions of the party.
You want your character to grow - every good character does. Even if you are just doing a one-off campaign session, have an idea of where you want to anchor your character's development, be that their backstory or an aspect of the plot. In the case of a shorter campaign the plot may not be a bad idea, as you may not have as much time to build out a backstory for your character.
But plot-centric character arcs also work in longer campaigns. I'm currently playing a cleric in a D&D campaign who has as plot-centric arc: his island was saved by his friends (the party), and so he has a debt to repay each of them to aid them which he is slowly repaying through their adventures. And along the way he is learning a lot about what it means to rule (and what qualities it takes to rule), what it means to be wealthy (and how a wealthy person should act), and the importance of hearth and home (which will eventually carry him home and close out his arc).
I've been playing this character for two years now, and I don't see him being phased out (save by death, maybe) anytime soon as he still has debts to pay. So you can do this for a longer campaign as well, just make sure that the elements you tie to the development of the character are sufficiently large enough to keep you moving forward for that long.
Until next time,