How to Define Character Growth
in Narratives


Whether writing a novel, screenplay, or short story, you will spend time fleshing out your characters. They usually start in their ordinary setting. But something happens to them, a catalyst of some sort, and they change. What happens in between is what’s known as growth. This article sheds light on how to define character growth.

Character growth is necessary if the character is to be relatable to the reader. The character may need to overcome a flaw, or a belief system, save her marriage, or save a life. This growth will resonate with the reader as it adds a dynamic depth to the narrative.

When a character changes internally through growth, it’s reflected externally. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge transforms from a miserly old man to a generous and warm person.

Not all protagonists grow, but most do. If the main character does not grow, he is doomed to repeat his mistakes, and the story is often seen as a tragedy. This is how it is in real life, also. Sometimes we find ourselves in the same situation because we have not learned our lesson.

Beth often finds herself in debt. When she pays off her debts, it doesn’t take long for her to run her bills up again. Beth has not grown to the point where she can handle her finances well; therefore, she keeps repeating her mistakes.

Trottier tells us how to define character growth when he states “Only through adversity and oppression, and striving for a goal. Only through conflict, making decisions, and taking actions.” (59)

See more on Trottier’s Character Growth examples.

A character growth or character arc refers to a character's transformation during a story. She takes a journey where she’s presented with challenges that she hopefully will overcome. She learns important lessons about herself and her world. This growth is evident in her shift in beliefs or behaviors.

When Beth finds herself in the throes of bankruptcy, she may set a personal goal of learning to understand money. This results in an opportunity for her to control her spending and have a solid plan to save money.

How to Define Character Growth
Through Adversity

Man in Three Days of the Condor

A character goes about his business in his ordinary life. And then something happens. That something is a crisis that takes the character out of his ordinary day-to-day activities and puts him into hot water. At this point, he will call upon all the resources he has, and some he didn’t know he had, to restore some modicum of normalcy to his life.

The situation he faces could be one of life or death or something much less but still an event that rocks his world. 

Let’s follow a character, Joe Turner, in the 1975 thriller movie, Three Days of the Condor. Turner’s code name is Condor, and he reads books for the CIA, comparing them to actual operations. He works in a New York office, which is a clandestine CIA office. The other staff also examine books in addition to global newspapers and magazines to compare them to actual operations.

Turner goes out to get lunch for the staff, leaving through a back door. When he returns, he finds that all of his co-workers have been murdered. This incident causes him to go on the run. He calls his superior to bring him but discovers that the person sent to help him, tries to kill him.

He changes from an innocent CIA analyst reader to one who must be cautious and cagey to escape becoming a victim. He does not know who to trust and is being constantly pursued by unknown enemies. 

Turner has progressed from a naive reader to a resourceful survivor. He has undergone character growth to the extent that his cunningness has granted him the right to survive. He’s transitioned from innocence to an experienced CIA operative.

As you learn how to define character growth, recall some of your favorite movies or stories. You will be able to spot them, and you will be able to incorporate the character arc in your stories. 

When Learning How to Define Character Growth, 
Note That Not All Characters Grow


In one of Clint Eastwood’s interviews, he was asked about his upbringing or early life. He replied that it was, “Short.” This implies that some circumstances happened to him to the point that he had to grow up fast, losing his innocence. 

Suppose this answer was given by a character in a story. We could view it in a couple of ways. The character could grow in a positive way, gaining strength, knowledge, and resources to survive.  Or he could grow negatively, becoming bitter and conniving.

Not all characters grow. Some remain unchanged, but they may help another character grow. Superman has high values and strength from the outset. His character does not grow. This is known as a flat arc. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound at the beginning of the story, and he can do the same at the end. He will have challenges, to be sure, but his values remain the same.

Some characters even have a negative arc. Their belief systems or values start positive, perhaps with them being naive, but some incident leads them to lose faith in humanity. 

In Greek mythology, beautiful Medusa was loyal to her high priestess Athena. But due to no fault of her own, she was molested by the sea god, Poseidon, in Athena’s temple within her sacred walls. She cursed Medusa, turning her hair into venomous, hissing snakes and giving her a gaze that turned men to stone who looked at her. Medusa was banished to an island to spend a life of isolation. This narrative results in a tragedy.

As we learn how to define character growth, most of this article has touched on a character's positive arc. Character growth helps us connect with the character on a deeper level.

Woman winning a race

We cheer her on when she faces adversity. And we feel relieved and satisfied when she completes her arc and becomes a better version of herself. 

We do the same for ourselves, don’t we?

Images created with Tai.

Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible : A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script. Los Angeles, Silman-James, 1998.