Planning Good Character Arcs
So my wife and I have been watching The Expanse recently (if you haven't seen it and are okay with tv language, violence, and occasional explicit scenes, you should watch it), and I was bemoaning the disparity between the quality of some character arcs in the show. The show is very well-written, which owes in large part to how well the books are written: characters make decisions (on the whole) that make sense, and they naturally contribute to the drama of the scene.
But they don't always nail it, and unfortunately most of the arcs that don't nail it are female characters, and I'm honestly not sure why that is. In the near future I'll do a full unpacking of how female character arcs are often underutilized or oversimplified but for now we're just going to focus on three character arcs (spoiler free!) from the show to point out good and bad ways to run character arcs for characters in your story or roleplay group.
I. Amos Burton: Tough Guy Done Right
Amos is one of the most popular characters from the show, and for good reason: he's very complex. He's the "muscle" of the party, but he's also read Don Quixote. He's a good shot with a gun, but is also the prime philosopher on the human condition in the show. He's complex, and that makes for a good character.
But his backstory and "roleplaying" isn't all of what makes him so good (as my advice would then basically boil down to, "your players need to do a better job making their characters more complex" which is less helpful here, though more on that in a future post). What aids in making him interesting is how the plot develops his arc.
He's a strong guy, and there are situations where a strong man is needed (so he feels like a good member of the party). But then there are situations that are beyond his ability to punch or shoot his way out of, and in those moments we get to see who he really is. His loyalty is one of his best qualities, so it is his loyalty that is challenged by the plot.
And in none of these circumstances is Amos ever prevented from doing what he's good at: he can always fire a gun, punch someone, etc. The question is whether it will fix the issue, haunt him for the rest of his life, or destroy what he has worked so hard to create. And that's what makes it so good.
So ask yourself: if you have a player at the table who could be challenged and taken to the next level, in what ways can you challenge the core of the character without removing the core of skills that they roll? In what ways can you weave the plot to forge the character into the next and better version of themselves, and in what ways can you integrate the party into the solution?
I had a game master recently who challenged my character really well in this regard. I was playing a cleric who served a nature goddess and devoted his life to helping the world flourish, banishing evil and nurturing what was good. He also served as an "off tank" for the party, protecting the more vulnerable members of the group from the mooks while the heavy hitters dealt with the primary villain.
So my character got bit by a rat, no big deal, right? Until his dreams became full of violence, and one night as the moon was growing more full he awoke to find himself covered in blood, surrounded by dead animals (which, as a person who had helped a lot of animals, this really freaked him out). He started showing signs of lycanthropy, something he couldn't fix by himself, and challenged the very nature of who he was.
And those sessions as the party worked to free him from the curse were among the best roleplaying sessions I've ever played. It really forged Alaric into the character he is now, and cemented his bond to the rest of the party. He already had a good reason to help the rest of the party with their objectives; the campaign began with the party saving his home island from a hag, so he was already devoted to repaying them for that. But as the story progressed Alaric's debt to the party continued to be deepened through arc developments like lycanthropy, and it kept his development steady as the story progressed.
Do things like this. Find what matters to the character, what makes them what they are, and challenge them there. Let them do the cool stuff they love to do, but make it so that whatever that is - prophecy, marksmanship, smooth words - isn't enough. And then let them reshape and reforge the character into something more beautiful.
II. Naomi Nagata: Lightswitching the Arc
Naomi has an arc that flicks "on" and "off" like a lightswitch based on the season. In some seasons she has an arc that is well defined, well constructed, and well executed. In other seasons she seems to kind of languish in poor dialogue, poor character interactions, and actions taken to "push forward the character arc" that really don't make a lot of sense. This is what I mean by "lightswitching": the arc is either "on" (really good) or "off" (really bad), and it shifts back and forth as the story continues.
Now, to be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with lightswitching (though I don't think it's as effective as a character arc that is always "on"). If you have a side character who is hardly in the story, their arc doesn't need to be "on" all the time. Similarly if you are game mastering for a roleplay group and a player cannot make specific sessions, it's okay for their arc to be "off" during that time.
But if a character's arc is "off" for too long it can lead to a disinterest in the character and that can be bad for the story/gaming group. So be careful of this.
Do you have players in your gaming group who have "fulfilled their goals" or, still worse, don't have any goals? These are the prime suspects of lightswitching. They are not really headed anywhere, so it feels like they are less important to the action and the plot. I recommend 1) talk with the player about goals for the character, and 2) come up with a few hooks every now and then that may catch the interest of the player. A player may just not realize where the potential interesting story points are for a character, and by providing prompts you may spark something new.
III. Alex Kamal: Faceting the Arc
Alex is a former naval pilot for the MCRN, and starts the show as a proud Martian who works on an ice hauler beyond the inner planets. As the show progresses he is our primary tie to "Old Mars" (whereas Draper is our tie to "New Mars"), looking at what Mars used to be and juxtaposing it to what it is becoming.
A lot of Alex's character arc is focused on his past and how it intersects with his future, but not in the way people typically do this by just showing how things he grew up with have changed (that's Draper's development). Instead it centers around the virtues he has always held, and how those are challenged due to decisions he has made.
Whether it was needing some time alone and the resulting strain on personal relationships, past injuries that give him trouble trusting new people, or a desire for positivity amidst a world in chaos, Alex's arc is centered heavily on the tenets he holds dear and how they are challenged from one season to the next.
Do you have a character who has embraced a code? Whether this is a Mandalorian walking in the way of the Mandalore, a holy warrior who has sworn oaths to uphold a religious faith and its tenets, or a pirate who embraces a code of "honor amongst thieves," they are all prime suspects for growing their character arcs by testing their devotion to the code. And it makes the progression of their arc more meaningful.
In a future post we'll talk about James Holden and characters whose arcs are tied heavily to game master-created plot arcs, as that will focus a lot more on the depth and intricacy of your plot rather than adding arcs to your plot that are meaningful to the character (alongside characters like Bobby Draper and Carina Drummer, who both fall into that same category). So if you enjoy the show and want to see more Expanse content coming, let us know!
Until next time,