Character Focus: The 4 Types of Character Journey

Last week we discussed the 8 types of characters you'll find in a novel. We're going to continue that discussion this week by describing the character arcs that those characters may take a journey on in order to find the most interesting story to tell.

The Four Character Journeys

Every story is in some way an exploration of a character’s journey, if only their progress through the plot. Although the details and variations are infinite, they really boil down to four main kinds of journey. Your protagonist absolutely needs this journey, but you can also have some of the other characters make journeys of their own. 

1. Static Journey

In a static journey, the character does not change. They remain the same person they were throughout the plot. Though some people say this kind of “flat” character journey is inferior to others, it can serve its purpose. If a character has the important trait of being consistent, unyielding, or faithful, then their remaining unchanged can be very satisfying to the readers. 

Never make the mistake of setting up a static journey accidentally. They should always be an intentional decision made as an inevitable part of a character’s nature…not the result of not planning your writing out. 


  • James Bond and Jack Reacher, who remain the same in book after book
  • Forest Gump, in the movie and the book, who remains the same person throughout his bizarre experiences. He forms a consistent, but unique, lens through which to view the story.
  • Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose consistent goodness is key to his nature and importance

Sometimes, your protagonist will remain on a static journey solely to provide an interesting journey for another character, allowing that character to remain true to themselves throughout a series but still providing your reader with an interesting arc to follow in their sidekick or antagonist.

2. Rising Journey

In a rising journey, the character in question becomes a better person through the changes wrought by the story and their part in it. Most of the time this happens to the protagonist, since their growth is one of the most satisfying parts of any tale. 

The rising journey can be conscious and intentional, or it can be completely unconscious with the character just dealing with the obstacles in front of them and never realizing that the obstacles are creating change. A character might resist this journey, or jump into it willingly.


  • Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, who becomes more capable and wiser as the story continues
  • Tony Stark/Iron Man in the MCU, who starts as an irresponsible playboy and ends with sacrificing himself for others
  • All four hobbits in Lord of the Rings, who become more powerful, braver, and wiser as they experience the world. 

3. Falling Journey

In a falling journey, the character in question becomes a worse person through the changes wrought by the story. They lose power, become less good, or otherwise fail dynamically. The antagonist almost always suffers some degree of a falling journey, at least because the protagonist shuts them down in the climax. 

You can also mix these journeys, with a character gaining in some areas and losing in others. For example, becoming more capable at the expense of their humanity, or losing certain powers but gaining wisdom. 


  • Annakin Skywalker in Star Wars, who succumbs to the Dark Side of the Force
  • Hamlet, who becomes a murderer — then a dead murderer — as the play continues
  • George, in Of Mice and Men, who changes only in that he has to kill his best friend

4. Returning Arc

In a returning arc, the character in question goes through a series of changes but ends the story largely the way they began it. This is most evident in stories that begin with some kind of loss, and end with the protagonist having recovered from that loss, with most elements of the arc being external. Skilled storywriters can make this internal, with a character losing sight of their values for a time but returning to them soon enough. 

This is not the same as a mixed journey, where a protagonist suffers multiple different changes that sort of equal out in terms of their wholeness and wellness. This is a return to the status quo of the beginning, done on purpose and often at great expense and effort. 


  • Hagrid in Harry Potter, who over the course of the books loses and finds many things, but doesn’t significantly change as a person
  • Jane in Jane Eyre, who spends the latter half of the book separated from her one true love, only to have those experiences underscore how in love she is with him. 
  • Max in Where the Wild Things Are, who decides to run away from home only to realize home is where he wants to be

Examples in Action: Breaking Bad

I want to close today’s article with examples of four characters from the amazing series Breaking Bad, each of which shows a different kind of character with their own kind of journey. 

  • Walter White is the protagonist, the main character. He undergoes a falling journey, where his initially altruistic reasons for entering the drug trade are usurped by his ego, avarice, and need to assert his power over others. 
  • Jesse Pinkman is a sidekick,  the closest character to Walter White. He undergoes a rising journey, from a shiftless, unmotivated drug manufacturer to somebody desperately trying to make some right happen out of all the wrong he’s involved in. 
  • Hank Schrader is a henchman. He’s not an antagonist in his own right, but presents a compelling obstacle in different ways throughout the show. His journey is returning (until his death), with him going through several career changes and a major injury but largely remaining himself throughout. 
  • Mike Ehrmantraut is a foil. Although he’s a criminal, the honorable way he does his dirty business stands in stark contrast to Walter’s methods. He remains the same person from his first scene to his death, a constant character — again serving to point up the changes in Walter.

One interesting note. For many viewers, there came a point where Walter’s falling journey and Jesse’s rising journey crossed and the protagonist changed for them. As Walter became less likable and Jesse more sympathetic, they started to care more about Jesse even though the show was about Walter. 

Image by Dennis Buntrock.