Moral Arc in Literature

By Genevieve Fosa

A transcendentalist named Theodore Parker once said that the “… arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

Many people feel that it wobbles considerably on its way towards this justice. This is where the term moral arc of a story comes from. Though some stories do not have what we might first consider a just ending. Most of the stories we love do have endings that point towards justice.

Good people in those stories tend to be rewarded, and people who are destructive tend to get rewards that are fitting to their characters. However, it does not always work out this way in life, so, some stories do not follow this rule.

The moral arc in literature is seldom discussed outside a classroom. However, if you analyze any of the novels that have stirred the imaginations of more than one generation, you will find that the main character suffers a setback of one sort or another, and through that learns something meaningful about life and the relationships he has with the people around him. The moral arc within a novel could be described as the protagonist’s path to redemption.

Whatever it is that compels this person to learn, and what it is he learns, may be very different from one story to another. If you are writing a series of books based on a few main characters, the second and third books serve to increase and refine what your characters are learning. Your novel could be about a person who is looking for the best get-rich-quick scheme.

Perhaps the moral arc is not quite the right term. Some writers may be more comfortable calling it a learning arc, or the arc of events that compels your character to mature as a human being.

The question has been raised in some discussion groups as to whether every minor character should also have an arc. Obviously this depends on how minor your characters are. You may have a involved back story for each of your characters that you only refer to as you write your manuscript. The waiter at the corner restaurant, where your protagonist happens to meet the love of his life, might not need a whole arc, unless he plays a major role in the development of the relationship.

The question of what is moral behavior is not as simplistic as you may think. Are people more self-centered than they ever were? Are electronic devices forever changing the sort of human interaction that is possible to us? Some people have forgotten how to communicate with those standing in front of them. The characters in their interactive games are much more interesting than those around them. And, the zombies meant to be shot down can easily get confused with the ordinary people around you. Perhaps the big step in your protagonist’s story would be learning how to communicate with the people around him.

I am certain you will have ideas that are richer and far more nuanced than these.

Do you analyze stories to see what works and what doesn’t? What is a good example of a moral arc that you’ve read recently—or that you’ve written? Please share.


Genevieve Fosa is an author and an Author Level member of Authors Community.

4 thoughts on “Moral Arc in Literature”

  1. This is an interesting blog. Good food for thought. I’m not sure I really look for moral arc when I read. Especially when it’s a book for fun, to let my mind rest. Looking forward to reading more responses.

  2. You pose two interesting questions at the end.
    Yes, I analyze stories to see what works–I analyze children’s books as I read them to an audience of one or more children. This has helped me immensely in my own writing.
    My book “Marie and Mr. Bee” (available on eBookChristian) has a moral arc that has been much appreciated by parents and teachers. A little girl works and plays happily with her forest friends, then suffers the consequences when she falls to temptation. She reaps a rich reward after learning her lesson, and a secondary character (and the source of temptation) learns the same lesson.

  3. I find a novel, or even a children’s story, very unsatisfying if the main character doesn’t grow and learn something. Even the situation/crisis driven stories should somehow reach down and find strength or courage or wisdom that he/she didn’t know was there. Conflict resolved usually highlights some kind of justice or injustice and causes all kinds of emotions to flood the reader. It’s what makes a good story great, in my opinion.

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