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?
It’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 Lieand 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.