Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Character Arcs

A portion from my review of Bob Thielke’s Father Max:

Let's first talk about the central figure of this story, Father Maxsmillian Kolbe. It could be argued that there was not much of a character arc in Father Kolbe. These events certainly sharpened his character and deepened his faith, but did he actually learn or change? Not really. It could be argued that all tests of faith are steps of growth for any individual, but, of course, what we're talking about here is the cinematic, 3-act structure, inner-problem-in-Act-One-that-is-realized-and-fixed-in-Act-Three, kind of character arc. Was there any here? Another question: is it essential that in EVERY story, the lead character MUST have a character arc? Even McKee wrote that by the end of every story, a character must change whether for the better or for the worse. Is it even quantifiable how Kolbe changed in this movie? Is this not instead a story about Kolbe's affect on everyone around him?

Consider this: Charlie Kaufman famously argued against character arcs in his great movie, "Adaptation." I absolutely agree with him. Character arcs are good in many stories, but they are not essential in every story. Especially franchise films. And action films. And comedies. Since when did James Bond ever have a character arc? Or Inspector Clouseau? Or Indiana Jones? Or Atticus Finch? Even in the classics with, say, Bogart, we watched him play Sam Spade, a man who knew who he was and whose true character at its core never changed. Yet, we were fascinated by him. We wanted to be like him. And we watched him play the game with all of those other tricky characters and wondered what he was really doing. We even got worried at times if he was himself a bad character. We asked ourselves, "Sam Spade is supposed to be good, so why is he acting this way? Is he really bad?" But then, in the end, when Bogart came out on top, as he always did, we discovered that he was, in fact, two steps ahead of everyone including the audience, and although he may have played games with the other characters, he never abandoned his own true character. Those endings were not only about Bogart beating the bad guys, but it was also about clarifying his true character, which was still good.

We have a similar setup in "Father Max" and there's NOTHING wrong with that. Instead of having a man in the lead role who needs to learn, we have a man who knows who he is. So we ask ourselves, "Is this really his true character? Will he stay true to himself? In the face of these overwhelming and horrific circumstances, will he lose his faith and abandon what he believes?" Bob wrote in his Production Notes that "although this is a story about a religious man, this is not a story about religion." I agree. One does not have to believe the things Kolbe believes in order to be inspired by the way he, time and again, shows love to others and stays true to his character. This was a man who expressed a belief in showing absolute love to everyone, even his enemies, and in the end when he was imprisoned in one of the most notorious labor camps in Germany, Kolbe gave his life away to save another man, which was, in essence, a huge statement of True Character, because he really was willing to die for what he believes. At its core, this is a story about love, about a man with strong beliefs on love, and he is put into a position that forces him to decide how far he is actually willing to go to show love to others. Of course, he chooses to go all the way and he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save another human being who was not even part of his faith. "No greater love hath any man than this, that a man would lay down his life for his friends."


wcdixon said...

Good stuff MM - liked the point that there doesn't always have to be a character arc, especially in franchise films.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, Dix!

Unk said...

Dirty Harry with a character arc just wouldn't be Dirty Harry...


Mystery Man said...


Mim said...

There is a thread going right now on TS about character arcs. Some have made the point that a character doesn't necessarily have to arc, but the story does.

As long as the audience is moved (forward) in some way during the story.

GameArs said...

Maybe I'm delusional, but in my opinion, action heroes do arc.

Dirty Harry does. In the Dirty Harry movies, which I love, he always has some personal issue going on that he resolves through his external, bad-as-bad-gets adventure.

Bond also arcs. His story is of a man who is totally care-free and emotionally detached. He can kill on a whim and then come back with a witty remark. But, he always meets that woman who challenges him in each movie. He's sees his own cold self in them and he starts to act selflessly instead of selfishly in trying to protect them. Granted, it's the same arc in each movie, but the bond films are episodic when taken as a whole, each with a new adventure but with a similar hero's journey.

Plus, many of Bonds rivals, always the former friend who turned to the "dark side" make their own arc when facing Bond's stoic, indefatiguable self.

Do I see stuff that isn't there? Maybe I do.

So, you gotta ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky?

Mim said...

Well, do ya, punk?

I also have Hauge and Vogler's The Hero's Journey. They distinguish between the inner and outer journey that the hero makes: the emotional growth versus the external winning of the treasure.

Mickey Lee said...


Resident James Bond expert here.

The only 007 film where Bond has a true arc would be "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Two of the Pierce Brosnan films attempted weak arcs -- "Goldeneye", which you referred to, and "The World is Not Enough", which like I said, was weak.

And I will be happy to argue with any and all comers until I am blue in the face.

A character arc has to serve a story purpose, if it's just there to give a light subject more depth (a la your average Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller/Adam Sandler crap) then it feels tacked on. I mean, let's face it, in a lot of comedies, most "character arcs" exist to give the movie a happy ending. So we can see how a boorish, oafish dolt grows up and learns a lesson and live happyily ever after with a girl that is way too hot for him.


GameArs said...


I prefer to discuss until blue in the face rather than argue. :)

And I agree that all character arcs are not well implemented.

Mickey Lee said...

Discuss -- of course!

But honestly, a character arc isn't always necessary and especially when the film is not a character study of some sort. But in an action piece, it came seem hackneyed.

Imagine if at the end of "Raiders", Indiana Jones learned to get over his fear of snakes. Ugh!

Mim said...

But Indy found the treasure and got the girl, which is an external character arc.

In most action films the character arcs are external, not internal.

Mystery Man said...

All great comments. I was reluctant to post this for fear the discussion would turn bloody!

Miriam, I appreciate your bringing up the distinction between internal and external arcs. That's a great point.

I added that example about Sam Spade in that review, because I had just seen The Maltese Falcon for the first time, I'm a little embarrassed to admit. And since then, I've been watching a lot of old classics I've never seen. I have to say, with the exception of Casablanca, Bogart was rarely the wimpy boy with an inner problem in Act One that had to be fixed in Act Three. He was a man's man, a guy who knew who he was, and the story was just about him being a man, a cool guy, and dealing with these crazy people and finding a way to overcome the conflict. We were drawn to him not only because of his great charisma, but also because he rarely said what he was really thinking because he was playing the game with those people.

Is it really so wrong in today's world to have a movie with a lead male who doesn't have an internal arc and we can just admire (and be engrossed by) the way he handles himself like the old days?


Unk said...

Hmmm. I wanna know Dirty Harry's character arc in the original Dirty Harry. The only "personal issue" I know about is that his wife died...

As I see it, he had his noble philosophy at the beginning of the movie all the way to the end of the movie.

Where's the change?

I personally love most characters that have a noble philosophy all the way through the film... However, the last modern film that I saw where the character was like that, was WALKING TALL with The Rock.

I believe the budget on that film was $46 Mil. Worldwide boxoffice was something like $57 Mil so technically, it was a success albeit a small one but so small I fear that the studios shy away from action heros that don't arc.

Having said that, I think it's definitely okay that action film heros do not arc because instead, they possess a noble philosophy and that philosophy as well as the action that stems from it is what we grab onto vicariously.


Mim said...

Matthew McConaughey, who is to die for, is that kind of man's man in several of his movies. I know Sahara is kind of a piece of fluff, but it's a good example of a modern hero who doesn't change.

Sahara was based on a series of book (which I haven't read), so the character has already been established through several stories at the beginning and will go on to have more adventures after this story is over.

The character's only goal was to find the boat (with the treasure) and stop the bad guy from poisoning the world: definitely an external character arc.

His only emotional conflict was to save the girl, which is another kind of treasure.

I thought it was a lot of fun.

shtove said...

I gave a thumbs up review to an earlier draft of Father Max a couple of months ago (now wiped from TS) and raised the point about the main character's lack of change. To me, the priest was a moral rock that the story flowed around - but there had to be something more. And there was more, because the partisan character (Francis? who becomes the flash-back guy) really does enjoy a character arc. I suggested that he become the main character, and that his resistance to the Germans be portrayed in the cruellest light, so that his change would be more moving, the arc even deeper. The SP was interesting to read, because of the way difficult moral dilemmas were played out through character. But would a film with an unchanging main character who's not a man of action engage an audience?
p.s. on Bogart - why does he keep rubbing his earlobe in The Big Sleep? Annoying. And what about this for a writing challenge: adapt Chandler's novel in to a good script? Hasn't been done yet, judging by the two films to date.

Mystery Man said...

shtove - Ya know, I wouldn't have any objections to making Francis the central character. And to answer your question, I would've cetainly be engaged in a film like that, most definitely.

I haven't read Chandler's novels, and I would, too. That would be fun.

Bob Thielke said...

Thought I'd jump in (late) on this. I mean Fr. Max is my screenplay after all!

My intent all along with Father Max was to create a character that changed others through his faith and love of humanity and his God. Yes, he'd be tested and he might waver a bit but the message of the story is to show the effect that unbending love has on others.

I was happy that folks like Mystery Man and Srhite saw that and recognized what I was trying to accomplish. I know I still have work to do, but I really believe in this story and will always welcome feedback from all you great people.

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