• Tessa Barron

Speculative Fiction Sucks at Giving us Satisfying Character Arcs

Speculative Fiction Sucks at Giving us Satisfying Character Arcs + 5 Simplified Steps to do Better.

Sometimes we can be so invested in world-building or complex magic systems that character arcs can be lost in the mess.

A good character arc is the holy grail of fiction writing. Yet it can be complicated to write one, and many people you go to for advice on how to do it well sometimes present you with a list of steps for each act that can feel like a deluge of work being dumped on top of you.

We all know that our characters need to grow—be dynamic to keep the reader engaged and provide a satisfying ending. But characters are seldom black and white. To make them realistic, their motivation needs to be complex enough to create nuance, but this makes it challenging to design a linear narrative that builds up tension as it reaches the climax.

Because so many people try to over-complicate the character arc, you might think that that is the only way to get it done. But there is a simple way to think of it that might help you not get overwhelmed.

It's by stripping the character arc to its bare bones.

An Arc is a Transition

"The wise man learns only from his own guilt. He will ask himself: Who am I that all this should happen to me? To find the answer to this fateful question he will look into his own heart. — Carl Jung

A book is a record of human transition from one state to another.

That is the character arc in a nutshell.

To create a believable and satisfying character arc, an author must track the protagonist's growth from their starting point to their eventual destination. "Record" implies that the story needs to show what the character does to change and how they change due to their actions.

That is it. You really can't break it down a whole lot more than that. To have an arc, your character needs to start one way and end another way. Whether this is a transition of worldview or perspective, from good to bad or bad to good, there is a change in your character.

One of the reasons that speculative fiction often falls short in this regard is that so much of the genre is focused on the plot rather than the character. The "transition" speculative writers often worry about is the transition from one world order to another, and they put the character by the wayside.

I recently read a fantasy; it was good, don't get me wrong, but I got the whole way through the series and realized that not a single character had changed. At least not in a way that mattered.

In fantasy and sci-fi, the plot is often seen as more important than the characters, so there isn't as much attention paid to developing believable and compelling arcs for them. As a result, many speculative fiction stories end up feeling flat and unfulfilling, especially compared to stories with greater emphasis on characters.

But if a writer does both? Portrays and satisfying transition of world and character AND weaves it all together...? Then hold on to your hats.

Most writers know that a character arc changes the character. Ok, but the section title didn't say change. It said transition.

Why does this matter?

A change = make (someone or something) different; alter or modify.

But a transition = the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Yes, your character is changing, but what you are writing about is not the change itself but the process of changing. The period between who your character is and who they are meant to be.

Step 1: realize that your book is a snapshot of this transitionary period for your character and your world. And the two should be interconnected.

That is all well and good, though you're probably yelling right now that you know this. But this is just the groundwork. Let's take it one step further.

Conflict Comes From the In-Between Spaces

Think of any transition that you have gone through in life? It wasn't easy, was it? In fact, it was probably pretty darn stressful. There is a reason that divorce and moving are considered some of the most stressful things you can do in your life.

Not because your life is changing, no. But because there is a significant amount of uncertainty that comes along with those things. You don't know what will happen next, what will go wrong, or if anything will ever be the same.

Your character arc needs to be significant enough that they, too, are asking these questions. It is an incredibly stressful time in their lives, as all transitions are.

It is in these moments where your conflict is to be found. This conflict is internal. They do not want to go through the stress and grief of becoming whoever they need to become.

But without that growth, they cannot get to the other side.

Your job as a writer is to show us why it is so crucial for them to make this transformation despite all the fears and hurdles in their way.

But there is a lot you can do with this too. No one said your character needs to succeed all the time. In fact, they should fail often and repeatedly. Maybe they seem to be doing really well transitioning, but, toward the end, it turns out that all of that was superficial, and your character inevitably fails.

Life isn't always so tidy. And sometimes, the most exciting and compelling stories are the ones that leave us hanging without a neat resolution.

The in-between spaces, those moments of conflict and uncertainty, are often more interesting than the resolution itself. They're where we see characters struggling and growing. Sometimes we see them make mistakes, and sometimes we see them make progress. But either way, these scenes offer a richness of character development that can be sorely lacking in some speculative fiction...

...hold on. I'm being really hard on fantasy and sci-fi, aren't I? And who am I kidding? All genres struggle to give us satisfying arcs. Sorry speculative fiction.

It's the in-between spaces that matter most. It's where we get to know the characters and often where the best stories are found.

Step 2: Fill the spaces between one state of being and the other, showing your character's reluctance to change. Throw them into as many different situations as possible to develop that character deeply throughout the book.

The Antagonist is Your Plot


It is the big bad's decisions that drive everything forward. It is their actions that cause the inciting event (usually); they make the protagonist suffer externally. It is fighting against this antagonist that makes your protagonist anguish internally, the antagonist is the reason your protagonist must continue to fight, and the antagonist is the catalyst for your protagonist's change.

By understanding the motivations and goals of the antagonist, you can create a believable and compelling conflict for your protagonist to overcome.

Too often, speculative fiction stories focus on the hero's journey, neglecting the importance of the villain's role in that. They affect the plot, but they do not affect the protagonist's internal struggle one little bit.

Without a powerful antagonist, the protagonist's victory feels empty and unearned.

You have probably heard before that your protagonist needs to be making decisions all the way through and driving the action. That is true. They do need to do that. But they would have nothing to drive to and no reason to do it without the antagonist.

Creating a believable and compelling antagonist is essential to writing a satisfying character arc for your protagonist. You have to give your character an immense obstacle to overcome and make it necessary that they push through this transitionary period without turning back so they can win in the end. Even if they ultimately do not.

Step 3: Create a giant obstacle for your character that requires they change even if they do not want to, i.e., an excellent antagonist.

Start at the End

So now that you have the world's best antagonist and a character you know has to suffer through a period of painful transition, then what?

First, I'm going to assume that you want your protagonist to beat the baddie in the end and overcome their demons to make it out to the other side.

Since your antagonist is so amazing and powerful, what kind of hero does it take to defeat him? Figure that out, and you have the person your protagonist needs to be at the end of the story. That is who they are going to become. Because they have to. Your antagonist requires that they become this person or perish.

Now. The opposite of that, at least as far as you can get without making it seem completely implausible, is where your protagonist starts at the very beginning of your story.

I will say one thing about this, though:

Your character needs to at least show that they have the potential to become who they need to be. Please don't overdo it.

Ted Bundy did not have the potential to become Mother Theresa. At least not in 160,000 words

Step 4: Decide who your protagonist needs to become to defeat the antagonist and start them as far from that as possible.

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The Role of You—God of Your Own Universe

I love the classic Greek, Norse, and Celtic stories of gods, demigods, angry titans, and monsters. The thing that I'm most interested in is the paradigm of fate that the ancients like Homer used to write under.

It goes like this:

The gods choose a human who, through some divinity, is fated to become a hero.

The hero does not accept this fate and rejects it. The gods do not like this and punish him repeatedly every time he acts contrary to his destiny.

Finally, the punishment ends when he is ready to accept his fate and take on his role, having grown into a hero.

That is what a fiction author is. You have chosen to write about some character, not by random chance, but because you chose them as the right person to be the hero of your story. You know who your character is fated to become, but they are not ready.

What would it take to get them ready? How must you punish them, so they are finally prepared to accept the fate you have laid before them by the end?

That is your job as the god of your own universe. You must test your hero to his very limits. You are like a parent urging them on toward becoming who they need to be to save the world, save their families, or maybe just save themselves. But like all gods, you may be merciful but also wrathful. It might seem cruel. But you are doing it for their own good.

Step 5: Test your character, and push them to their limits. Do not let up until they accept the fate you've given them.