Teaching Character Arc

Teaching Character Arc


A character arc includes the changes and growth a character has throughout a story – written or on screen. When students struggle to understand this with literature, sometimes it helps to bring in a pop culture reference.

Any chance I think I can safely allow students to shape the lesson, I allow them to do so. When I have a character with a massive character arc – I’m think Scout Finch – it helps for students to think of characters they already love.

To introduce the concept, I ask students to name characters who massively change. Without hesitation, they mention Walter White. That is fine, but I skew them toward characters we can discuss more – “cleaner” characters so to speak. I switch the discussion toward comic book characters, and without fail, I have a group who will gladly educate everyone about their favorite comic book heroes.

Superheroes have massive character arcs. Some students read comic books and others are more familiar with movies. Either way, you can teach the literary term ‘character arc’ through a student’s beloved superhero.

For instance, I love Batman and its villains, and will still pick up a comic book if it is around. Part of my fascination is that a small boy saw a brutal murder and formed a new identity to rid the world of hurtful people.

However, my favorite is Superman, aka Clark Kent; his character arc extends more than Bruce Wayne’s. He’s a journalist, he loves Lois Lane, and he’s a bit dorky. I’m smitten.

What is his character arc though?

Superman is from the destroyed planet Krypton. His scientist father sent him to Earth, and he is raised in Kansas. His adoptive parents raised him with strong morals which later influenced him as Superman. He worked as a reporter at the Daily Planet, alongside Lois Lane. He was “nerdish” and quiet but as the comics continue, he becomes a voice of reason and ethics. Students can see how his earlier life influenced his later life

Superman worked to follow his morals, but conflicts forced internal conflict with the best course of action. He did not alter the world even though he could – with the exception of turning time backwards to save Lois Lane. He also fights with Lex Luthor, who he never kills, even though he obviously could.

Depending on what show you see or what story you read, you will see a different character arc for Superman. Discussing how the character arc is created by different writers can be part of a classroom discussion.

Teaching character arc with literature? Explain the literary device by using pop culture and then transfer the ideas with students.

A few other ideas if you have non-superhero fanatics:

  • Beast from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” When we meet him, he is a recluse and in flashbacks we learn he was cruel and arrogant. He changes throughout the movie and finally puts others ahead of himself. What forces his personality changes? Is his character arc a complete curve or does it stagnate at times?
  • Darth. Vader. Star Wars fans? Debate if the first movies should be included in his character arc, and then discuss how the epitome of evil eventually saves his son. (Tears).
  • The Hunger Games characters. Katniss changes greatly throughout the three books. She is angry and guarded, but at the end of the series, she falls in love and forgives many people.

Students interested in comic book characters will understand the literary term character arc once they see it applied to a beloved character. Another pop culture reference is thinking of characters from youthful movies. These will provide suitable examples as well. Then it will be easier to teach ‘character arc’ in regard to literature.

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