Genuine story delivers a thesis about how we writers see the world. Our underlying message is our Master Theme. At its most fundamental level, genuine story is new understanding revealed through change.
The most effective vehicle of this new understanding is the character arc.
A flawed character’s struggle to reach his true potential, framed in the context of a Master Theme—our thesis of the world—reveals that thesis to be true or false.
Change being the key basis by which we judge the results of the struggle.
In most cases, if the character changes for the better–reaches his true potential–the Master Theme rings true. If not, if the character is set in his ways, unable to change, the character has failed. <Though the validity of the argument of the Master Theme can be expressed either way, depending on the author’s approach.>
The character arc is the most effective means to engage a reader because people relate to people more than we relate to anything else.
The empathetic bond to a well written character, allows us to tap into the entire human experience, comprehending and relating to fiction on multiple levels. Every piece of the experience supports and emphasizes the underlying Master Theme–the sum of the parts equal more than the whole.
Whenever you start discussing genuine story and the necessity of complete, well-executed character arcs, there is always a voice to the contrary side; “character arcs are not required” they claim, quickly reciting famous/successful character that don’t appear to arc: James Bond, Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, John McClane, well pretty much most action heroes… and as it turns out, most serial superheroes (more on this in a second).
When folks are working on a stand alone graphic novel, or even a mini-series, 99% of the time my advice is make the characters arc—this is how you really engage and make a meaningful story.
From a business perspective, I’m of the mindset that it’s better to deliver a hit story, prove the market, then have to work backwards to figure out how to proceed.
This is a much better situation to be in, rather than delivering a story without character arcs; something that misses the mark, doesn’t engage, leaving you with something more easily continued, but less likely to do so.
As I mention in Storycraft for Comics, serial comics are really a special medium. Not many other places in fiction where a story runs for 20-30 years or more. TV sometimes and it’s no wonder TV writing and serial comic writing share some things in common.
There’s a good argument to be made, the best way to approach a serial comic is to leave the hero stuck in the middle of his arc. Always making progress… always struggling… but never finding resolution.
There’s also something to be said for the characters that have already completed their arcs.
When you look at characters like Bond, Kirk, Jones and McClane, these characters are rarely “rookie” characters—they usually come to the table with extensive histories and experience, even if it’s not directly revealed in the narrative at hand.
What you’re seeing is a character who’s completed his arc and already existing from their “full potential.”
Actually, come to think of it, remember when Picard was shot and the weapon screwed with his artificial heart, giving way for Q to send him back in time to his cadet days. Turns out Picard used to be a womanizing, hot-head—flawed, SOB. Through his backstory, mostly not revealed in typical Next-gen episodes, he overcame his flaws and became the iconic Starfleet captain he would forever be known as.
So most of the characters who appear to have no arc, really, already completed their arc earlier in their story.