Character Arc: Lessons Learned or Change Achieved? (Guest Post by Gillian Bronte Adams)

“To me, characters lie at the heart of any story. Characters drive what happens when and where, and the way they grow and change over the course of a story is what makes a book either memorable or easily forgotten in the already-read pile.

Gillian Bronte Adams books

But it seems to me that in Christian fiction, we too often think of a character’s arc as the path they take to learn a lesson by the end of the book, rather than the change and growth achieved along the journey. We put the cart before the horse, and often fall into the trap of preaching a Sunday School lesson rather than telling a whopping good tale.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t feel real.

I don’t know about you, but in my life, I’ve made my share of mistakes, been through tough times, and learned from them. But those lessons were rarely tied up in a neat little bow. More often, they were like Eustace’s change in Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who “began to be a different boy” after he was un-dragonized.

We tend to muddle our way through life, changing, growing, and hopefully being shaped more into Christ’s image each step of the way.

Change rarely happens overnight in the big lessons learned. It is far better seen in the little moments, in the gradual slipping from one decision to the next.

I would venture to say that the purpose of Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit was not to show how he could come home a different hobbit than the one who had set out. That was just a byproduct of the quest. Don’t get me wrong—change in a novel is important. It is a sign of growth and life, and if the character who walks offstage at the end of the novel is the same as the one who stepped onstage at the beginning, you probably have a problem.

But I believe the true heart of a story is less about teaching your character (and thus the audience) that A is wrong and they should become B instead, and more about showing your character wandering from A to B, changing and being affected by their decisions along the way.

Otherwise, you risk winding up with a story that feels like a collection of scenes and pithy statements contrived to teach your character, and by extension the reader, a lesson. Like old fairy tales where every story had a moral. “Be polite to strangers … or bad things could happen to you.”

In the end, character growth comes down to the old “show your story, don’t tell it” adage. Often when characters “learn a lesson,” what you’re really seeing is the author intruding into the novel to impose a sermon on the story. I’m not saying it can’t be done, or that there isn’t a time or place for it, but that’s when readers are more likely to complain that Christian fiction is preachy rather than impactful.

On the other hand, character change that naturally follows the course of events and is seen through actions rather than told through what has been “learned,” results in a much more vibrant story. A story that feels true rather than contrived. A story that may stick with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

What are some elements of character growth that you think encourage a story to be impactful without being preachy?

GILLIAN BRONTE ADAMS is a sword-wielding, horse-riding, coffee-loving speculative fiction author from the great state of Texas. During the day, she manages the equestrian program at a youth camp. But at night, she kicks off her boots and spurs, pulls out her trusty laptop, and transforms into a novelist. She is the author of Orphan’s Song, book one of the Songkeeper Chronicles, and Out of Darkness Rising. Visit Gillian online at her blog or Facebook page.


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Most obvious thing about me is how much I love reading and writing. This is truly my passion and has been for almost as long as I can remember. I know that sounds cliche, but it is true. Growing up in a conservative Christian home I learned to value God, intelligence, and life. I am always learning. I am a husband and a father of three young children. I love my family and my life. God is good and I attribute my success to His provision.

Great fantasy stories are a lot of fun. I write the stories that I want to read and am fortunate enough to have several published novels under my belt as well as more in the pipeline.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Character Arc: Lessons Learned or Change Achieved? (Guest Post by Gillian Bronte Adams)

  1. What if you have a character who’s going from feminism to godly womanhood, and her mentor is teaching her to become that? How do you make that less preachy?

    • Hi Alexis! That’s a great question. One thing you have to consider is whether your goal is to show your character growing and changing as they’re being mentored, or if it’s to teach the audience through the things the mentor character says. If it’s the latter, it’s a lot harder to make it come across as less than preachy, because you are, in a way, preaching to the audience through your mentor character.

      And novel audiences don’t really like being preached at.

      But if it’s the former, you can have your character grow through watching her mentor and maybe avoid writing a big conversation where your mentor character lays everything out and teaches your character what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Try using the little moments and the little snippets of conversation,and avoid those scenes where characters are “preaching” for multiple pages.

      Just some things to consider!

      • Thanks, Ms./Mrs.(?) Adams, that makes sense. I’ll make sure to be careful. :)

        On a slightly different topic, I went to your blog and wanted to comment on your “Academy of Villainy / Warrior-In-Hero Training” page … but I don’t have one of the “profiles” necessary to do that. :( I also tried to find a place on your blog where I could e-mail this to you, but couldn’t find one. Anyways, this is what I had wanted to say,

        “Wow! I just came across these today and they look amazing! I found this website when you [Ms./Mrs.(?) Gillian Bronte Adams] did a guest post on Scott Appleton’s blog today. [http://authorappleton.com/character-arc-lessons-learned-or-change-achieved-guest-post-by-gillian-bronte-adams/#comment-7228]
        I have not been able to read these yet, but they look like a riot! XD
        Can’t wait to read and hear more about you.
        Have a wonderful day! 😀
        ~ Alexis Huisingh ”

        I know I’m a little overboard [TMI], but I couldn’t find a way to tell you this except here, so thank you and I hope to some day read some of your work! :)

  2. I think that it is interesting when a character is flawed and we can definitely see the flaws in them. Then, instead of a person like a mentor, changing the character, events happen allowing him or her to change how they think and feel.

  3. Just a thought I wanted to throw in here with regards to using a Mentor in a story (and this may be a bit reiterative but I love this topic). The greatest mentors are not those who Say the things they want us to learn, rather they Do the things they want us to emulate. Actions really do speak louder than words and in fiction the greatest mentors are those who demonstrate through their actions so that those who follow them can become better individuals.

    Certainly there are moments in a story when a mentor should dialogue on the reasons to do or not to do, but it is through their actions that their character will be proven.