#5onFri: Five Secondary Character Arcs to Strengthen Your Cast

If you’ve spent much time in the writing world, you’re probably familiar with the idea of character arcs. For those who are new to this term, character arcs are the internal transformations of your cast as they struggle to overcome major flaws or wounds—typically in the form of a positive, 

negative, or flat arc. As your novel unfolds, your characters will “arc” from one place to another, undergoing some shift that leaves them meaningfully different from how they began.

However, I’d argue that this definition is missing something.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with character arcs, and I’ve realized there’s another layer beyond the usual positive, negative, or flat arcs. These are what I like to call secondary character arcs, which are specialized character arcs based on common journeys like coming of age or redemption. These universal stories are flexible enough to apply to a wide range of characters, but also provide a more detailed blueprint for planning your cast.

Though there are about a dozen secondary character arcs in total, here are five of my favorites!

1. The Hero’s Arc

Based on The Hero’s Journey, the hero’s arc follows your character as they set out into the unknown, face tests and trials, and eventually gain some reward. This reward might be new tools, skills, or allies, but whatever it is, it’s the key to protecting their community. With this key in hand, the hero will then return home, sharing their reward and thus resolving the conflict of their story.

The hero’s arc looks something like this:

  • With their community under threat, the hero leaves home (literally or metaphorically) in search of a solution.
  • They face a series of trials that teach them about their world, allowing them to earn some reward.
  • Realizing this reward can help their community, they return home to face their story’s conflict.
  • Finally, they end their arc at peace, acting as a bridge between their community and the outside world.

It’s this return that sets the hero apart from other characters, because it demands they sacrifice some of their own desires in order to better their society. In doing so, they not only grow as a character, but also earn the title of hero!

Example: Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, who starts as a timid runt, masters the world of dragons, and then uses that mastery to save his people from destruction.

2. The Heroine’s Arc

The heroine’s arc is a mirror of the hero’s arc, with one important twist: while the hero sets out in search of physical mastery over their world, the heroine is searching for their true self.

This heroine’s arc is based on the work of Maureen Murdock. In her book, appropriately titled The Heroine’s Journey, she outlines an alternative to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, focused on a character discovering their identity and—through it—some truth about their world.

The heroine’s arc looks something like this:

  • With their community under threat, the heroine leaves home (literally or metaphorically) in search of a solution.
  • They face a series of trials that teach them about themselves, allowing them to discover some truth about who they are.
  • Realizing this wisdom can help their community, they return home to face their story’s conflict.
  • Finally, they end their arc at peace, acting as a bridge between their community and the outside world.

As you can see, this closely matches the hero’s arc, but with a more internal focus. Rather than gaining a physical reward, the heroine instead gains a deeper connection with themselves, and thus the wisdom needed to achieve their goals.

Example: Moana from Disney’s Moana, who starts out searching for her true ancestry, discovers her people’s connection to the ocean, and then uses that wisdom to save her tribe from destruction.

3. The Coming of Age Arc

Next, the coming of age arc is exactly what it sounds like. This is a journey all about a character’s transition from dependent child to independent adult. As your character leaves the safety of their guardians behind, they’ll have to learn to survive on their own, face the consequences of independence, and eventually earn their place in their new adult world.

The coming of age arc looks something like this:

  • Straining beneath the restrictions of childhood, the child ventures out in search of independence.
  • Though they struggle to gain respect at first, they eventually prove they’re capable of standing alone.
  • Of course, adulthood isn’t all benefits. The child will face a final test, leading them to sacrifice something in exchange for freedom.
  • Now a full member of the adult world, the child is free to chart their own path.

With that said, this arc isn’t restricted to literal children. Any character who struggles to gain their independence can follow this arc, regardless of their age!

Example: Rose from Titanic starts out trapped under the thumb of her fiancé, embraces the freedom of life below deck, and then rejects her fiancé’s control—even as doing so risks her own life.

4. The Hermit’s Arc

Often the domain of anti-heroes and other less “traditional” characters, the hermit’s arc is about reintegrating into society. These are characters who have been driven from their communities by some past event, and must now undergo the difficult process of returning to their old world. To do so, they’ll have to forgive their wounds and eventually find a new place in their society.

The hermit’s arc looks something like this:

  • Though they start out isolated, the hermit is dragged back into their old world when someone comes to them for help.
  • Slowly, the hermit develops a renewed connection to their community.
  • Forced to face their wounds, the hermit decides to forgive the past and fully embrace these new relationships.
  • Now a full member of their society, the hermit settles into life among their community.

Often found in westerns, thrillers, and crime novels, the hermit is definitely my favorite secondary arc!

Example: Rick Blaine from Casablanca, who starts out emotionally isolated from his world, slowly learns to fight for a greater cause, and eventually overcomes his anger to protect the people he cares about.

5. The Redemption Arc

Last but not least, the redemption arc is all about forgiveness. Unlike the other secondary arcs on this list, this arc begins with a character that’s detrimental to their world. They’re destructive and dangerous, and so their journey is about recognizing the harm they’ve caused, atoning for the past, and earning their world’s forgiveness.

The redemption arc looks something like this:

  • Unaware of how destructive they are, the character sets out in pursuit of some goal.
  • In doing so, they’re exposed to new people and perspectives, and slowly realize their actions are harmful.
  • After much internal conflict, they accept that they were wrong, and set out to make things right.
  • Finally, they earn the forgiveness of those they’ve previously hurt, completing their redemption.

It’s this balance of repentance and forgiveness that really makes this arc work. By having your character truly repent for their actions and gain the forgiveness of others, it’ll be much easier to convince readers that their transformation is genuine.

Example: Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who starts out as the violent prince of a warring nation, realizes the destruction his family has caused, and then dedicates his life to fighting for peace.

All told, these secondary character arcs open a lot of exciting possibilities for us as writers. No matter what type of story you’re creating, I hope these journeys inspire you with new ways to power up your cast!

Tell us in the comments: Do you plan to use any of these secondary character arcs? Which one is your favorite?

Lewis Jorstad is an author and developmental editor who helps up-and-coming writers hone their writing craft over at  The Novel Smithy. When he isn’t working on the next book in his Writer’s Craft series, you can find him playing old Gameboy games and sailing somewhere around the eastern half of the US. You can also check out his free ebook, The Character Creation Workbook, and grab a copy for yourself! You can also follow him on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram.

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