Narrative Analysis: The basics
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy Tactics (Square-Enix), The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo), Metal Gear Solid 3 (KONAMI), Portal (Valve), Persona 5 (Atlus)
Across all forms of narrative, the most memorable characters have at least one thing in common: a well-developed character arc. Just as structures form the framework for a plot, arcs form the framework for the character. A character’s arc is like their own personal plotline, allowing them to grow and change throughout a story. In the beginning of a story, characters are introduced with individual beliefs and ideals. As the plot progresses, these views are challenged, and by the end, both the character and their views are changed. The sum total of that process, from beginning to end, represents the character’s arc.
There are several types of arcs that can be used to develop characters. K.M. Weiland, author of Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development, divides them into three categories: the Postive Arc, the Flat Arc, and the Negative Arc. Although each of these arcs has its own progression, they all share a similar framework. Each arc begins with a character holding an important belief, and the events of the narrative challenge that belief. How the character reacts to that challenge defines the nature of their arc.
At the beginning of a story, the beliefs that characters hold can be either positive or negative. Examples of positive beliefs include: “Any challenge can be overcome with courage,” (Link, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda Series), “All people have worth, regardless of rank,” (Delita, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics), and “A soldier can always trust their country”, (Naked Snake, KONAMI’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater). Examples of negative beliefs include “A ruler should be willing to sacrifice anything for their people”, (Midna, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess), “Humans exist solely to serve science”, (GlaDOS, Valve’s Portal series), and “It’s never okay to break the rules”, (Makoto, Atlus’s Persona 5). In each instance, these characters have their beliefs challenged, and the way they react is what defines their arc.
The Positive Arc
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo)
The most common type of character arc, the Positive Arc, begins with a character believing a lie about either the world or themselves. When that lie is challenged by the events of the narrative, a character that follows a positive arc will reject the lie and come to embrace a greater truth. To use Weiland’s summation: “The Positive Change Arc, in its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s changing priorities.”¹
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess features a positive arc in its secondary protagonist, Midna. When Twilight Princess begins, Midna has been turned into an imp by the usurper king, Zant. In order to regain her throne and save her people, Midna is willing to manipulate and endanger people from another world. This is the lie that motivates her: ‘A ruler should be willing to sacrifice anything for her people.’ This lie is challenged when she meets Link and Zelda, two residents of the world of light, and learns that they have as much value as her people. In the end, Midna experiences a positive change by rejecting the lie and embracing a greater truth: ‘A ruler should fight for all people equally, not just their own.’ This process is a positive one for her, as she ends the story in a better place than she began, having achieved all of her goals from the start of the narrative. Hence, Midna’s arc is a positive one.
The Negative Arc
Games Discussed: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (KONAMI), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix), Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Activision-Blizzard)
The negative arc is the inverse of the positive arc, as it represents a character’s downfall. This arc has a greater degree of complexity than the positive arc, as there are several ways in which a hero can fall. K.M. Weiland refers to these three subtypes as the Disillusionment Arc, the Fall Arc, and the Corruption Arc.² The way the arcs differ depends both on the nature of their central belief—whether it is the truth or a lie—and whether their arc ends with rejection or acceptance.
The first of the three subtypes is the Disillusionment Arc. This arc features a character who begins with a lie, then has it challenged, and must accept a tragic truth as a result. One prominent example of the Disillusionment Arc is Naked Snake’s character arc in Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. When Snake Eater begins, the American soldier codenamed Naked Snake believes that he can always trust his government. This belief is shaken when his government asks him to hunt down his mentor, who has been branded an enemy of the state. In the end, Snake completes his mission, but his faith in his government has been forever tarnished. He has dispensed with his original lie and seen the truth, but the truth has left him disillusioned.
The second subtype is called the Fall Arc. In this arc, the character still begins the story by believing a lie, but they hold onto this lie when challenged and end the story more convinced of it than ever. The Fall Arc is exemplified by Azala the Reptite in Square-Enix’s Chrono Trigger. At the beginning of Azala’s arc, she presides over a race of sentient reptiles and believes they are fated to be superior. This belief is challenged when Ayla, ruler of the ‘apes’, defeats her in combat and then extends a hand of friendship, as a greater threat is coming for both of them. Rather than accept help from an human, Azala doubles down on her initial belief in fate and asserts that her people should die for their failure, and insists that Ayla and the apes will fail in their attempt to change the future.
The final subtype is referred to as the Corruption Arc. Unlike the Disillusionment Arc and the Fall arc, this begins with a character who believes a positive truth, but challenges to that truth force them to embrace a lie. One example of a character that follows this arc is Prince Arthas Menethil from Activision-Blizzard’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. At the beginning of the game, Arthas is a paladin with a sworn code to uphold justice and defend the innocent without unnecessary bloodshed. This belief is challenged when the necromancer Kel’Thuzad inflicts a plague on the town of Stratholme, dooming its people to become mindless undead. To spare them from eternal enslavement, Arthas slaughters them first, thus violating his paladin’s code to avoid bloodshed at all costs. He continues making similar moral compromises as he seeks vengeance on the demons that plagued his people, and by the story’s end, he has given up on the truth of the paladins and embraced a dark lie: might makes right. He has been corrupted, both physically and spiritually.
The Flat Arc
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda Series (Nintendo)
The Flat Arc differs from both the positive and the negative arcs because the character’s beliefs do not change from the story’s beginning to its end. Instead, they are already in possession of a positive truth, and it is the world that changes around them instead. Weiland expands on this world, stating:
“…the Normal World can manifest in two ways, the first of which is as a good place that represents the character’s Truth…The second possible manifestation of the Normal World is as a less-than-satisfactory place, which has been cursed by a great Lie—against which the protagonist’s Truth will stand in direct opposition.”³
Both of these worlds make powerful settings for video games, as they give players an obvious way to engage with the story. If the world exemplifies the truth, the player must protect it; if the world exemplifies the lie, the player must redeem it. For this reason, Protagonists with Flat Arcs make excellent silent protagonists, as their limited opportunities for growth pair well with the idea of a character whose beliefs are both positive and firmly entrenched.
One frequent exemplar of this arc is Link from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series. In each iteration, Link begins the story in possession of great courage and moral conviction, and he uses those qualities to help those around him who are suffering. His convictions are always challenged by antagonizing forces who would seek to corrupt the world around him, but Link’s moral strength prevails time and time again.
¹ Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 11) . PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
² Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 177). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
³ Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 142). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.