Thursday, June 14, 2007

Character Arcs

Hey guys,

This is a continuation of our series on
Character Development Sheets.

A Character Arc is, of course, one of the first fundamental lessons all aspiring writers learn. As
Robert McKee told us, “The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes to that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”

I have been struggling with this post for so long, because really, what more can be said on the subject that hasn’t already been exhaustively explored in the Unknown Screenwriter’s now complete 14-part series on
Transformational Character Arcs? If there are any awards to be given for superlative blogging, Unk rightfully deserves them. Congratulations, my friend, on a job very well done.

With respect to my own development sheet, though, this is the section where I just explore, try to get a handle on, brainstorm, mold, and in the end, clearly define exactly what I intend to accomplish in terms of arcs in my protagonists. Arcs can be simple or complicated depending upon the amount of
layers and depth you create in your character. But looking back at the top of the sheet at the goal and inner conflict, how does this character change? Is it for the better or for the worse? Will there be more than one change in my character? How do I put that character into situations that exploit the inner conflict and pressures that character to change at the risk of his/her goal?

I love McKee’s example with Paul Newman in The Verdict. We first see him as a well-dressed and an “unfairly handsome” attorney. But the layers are peeled back to reveal a “corrupt, bankrupt, self-destructive, irretrievable drunk” who hasn’t won a case in years. He eventually accepts a little medical malpractice suit that he knows will be his last chance for salvation even though he will have to take on the political establishment and other powerful entities. He chooses to fight for his own soul. “With victory comes resurrection,” McKee writes, which was incidentally, this character's goal. “The legal battle changes him into a sober, ethical, and excellent attorney – the kind of man he once was before he lost his will to live.” We’re given first a characterization of a man, then the revelation of his true nature, a conflict that is at odds with the “outer countenance of his character,” and finally, he is forced to make a decision and change.

There are so many other examples too numerous to list. Miriam has reminded me in the past of the distinction between internal and external arcs, which is great. I also think that internal arcs are not essential in every story, particularly franchises. Sherlock Holmes never changed, James Bond rarely, Sam Spade never, Inspector Clouseau never, and recently, I questioned whether
The Queen had an arc. I don’t think she did. We were shown simply that when push comes to shove, she’ll fight to survive, which was always part of her character. In the end, she gave lip-service to “change,” but please, who’s she trying to kid? Hehehe… See some of the discussion about non-character arcs here and also in weak characters in comedies.



Laura Deerfield said...

I try to think of the protagonist less in terms of change, and more in terms of action and decision. They are the driver for the story. Sometimes this comes out of something internal, and you get an internal arc - but sometimes it's just because they are the one who is the most active, who pushes events forward.

Oh, and for a character that's somewhat recent (2001) and who is similar to Sam Spade in that he is always two steps ahead - take a look at Mamet's Heist. Gene Hackman's character is morally slippery, clever, macho and incredibly cool. Which is exactly how I like my con men.

Mystery Man said...

Oh yeah! Mamet's films are worthy of study. I've never noticed much in the way of arcs in Glengarry Glen Ross, which I love. At the end, a guy gets caught. That's pretty much it. Those guys aren't going to be changing who they are anytime soon. And actually, you don't see much in the way of internal character arcs in mysteries, either.

Thanks for that, Laura.


bob said...

I think linda seger has an outstanding discussion of character arcs in her "advanced screenwriting" book. She discusses three types of arcs for characters- external goals, internal goals, and hidden goals. I especially like the concept of the hidden goal because it creates the possibility for revelation to the character and hopefully to the audience.

Another great topic.

Christian M. Howell said...

I am also firmly in the camp of not stressing a character arc per se, but dealing with their "Negatively Impacting Social Traits."

I mean I think the best way to handle an "arc" is to place a juxtaposed antag in the way.

For instance, if your protag dances like a video chick but won't have sex, you can throw in an antag that "won't take no for an answer" an you can have a lot of drama without the protag changing the way they dance (this is part of a spec I'm writing).

That's not a "flaw" but can cause some real drama.

Or another example is if your protag is used to getting his way and has become jaded, just throw in an antag that won't let him have his way even in the simplest circumstances.

So that's not a "flaw" but can "negatively impact" his social interactions.

That's just how I look at it. I like to just setup two conflicting personalities and add interaction.

That way, you can take the protag in any number of directions with respect to their behavior at the beginning and their behavior at the end.

Maybe they overreact. Maybe they underreact(?). Maybe they don't react. Then at the end the overreactor can react less or the underreactor can be more aggressive.

I think every story even about the same topic will have a different "feel" because if you put a stripper in an office the interaction is totally different than if you put the stripper in a diner.

Great post though. Very thought-provoking as usual.

I just started up a blog and as soon as I finish my current project I will be posting there.

My first post will probably be

"Negatively Impacting Social Traits"

I guess in that way Laura and I think the same, that change is relative and maybe the character just stopped punching people before talking.

That would be omission of an action or perhaps he starts to punch people and that would be addition of an action.

I mean that's the easiest (in my mind) way to show the change visually.

One of the more interesting examples of this is Red in "Shawshank."

In the beginning he's king of the world but in the end he's just a frightened old man out of his element, his social traits having no value around the different personalities outside of prison.

His final parole hearing showed not change but a lack of concern probably caused by the loss of his best friend.

he didn't actually change but the traits that made him who he was "negatively impact" his new social interactions.

Mickey Lee said...

I can't stand hackneyed character arcs, especially in broad comedies, that feel tacked on in order to make the audience "feel" for the main character. We're supposed to believe that some lout is going to end up with the girl if only he changes his ways. Puh-lease.

Give me a bastard from beginning to end who tries to make the world conform to him instead of vice versa. That's conflict!

Mystery Man said...

Bob - Oh yes, that's right. In fact, I think I mentioned that in another one of my posts, perhaps Inner Conflict, I think. I do like Linda Seeger quite a bit.

Christian - Love it. I really pushed myself into a corner with this Development Sheet Series because all of this really is more complicated and multi-faceted than can be written in a short post. I love the way you and Laura are thinking about it, and I have no complaints. I really look forward to reading your post.

Mickey - Thank YOU. Not only do I seriously question the idea of inner arcs in every protag, I also question the idea of protags always being "sympathetic" and/or "empathetic." My playbook leans toward "entertaining" and/or "fascinating."


Christian M. Howell said...

You did a good job. That's what I like about interacting with serious writers.

You can't be afraid of your voice and the bloggers I've read seem to realize that.

No one "knows everything" but we all need to stick together as the real creators of cinema - not that I've sold a thing but I'm in it for the craft and the thrill of creating.

Right now I'm a full-time SW developer and I have to start with a blank page there too, so it is very similar.

It's actually ironic that I experience "development hell" daily in my job.

Anyway, I have read many of your posts and find them all enlightening.

I just hope that I can offer some insight into my methods and that they help other "sufferers."

I don't claim to be better than anyone but I think all of our voices can be beneficial to the whole Scribosphere.

Keep it up.

Maybe I can get you to do a short read for me sometime. For the Johnny 5 in me.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, man. I really appreciate that. I'm happy to give feedback to any of my friends in Scribosphere. It takes me a little time, but I'll do it. Thanks again.


Mickey Lee said...

It all depends on the movie and what it's setting out to do. If the movie is supposed to be about a character "changing", then give him an arc. If it's about a character's obstinacy and the conflict derived from that, then no arc is needed.

With some characters, the joy in watching the film comes from their sheer stubbornness and determination. Oskar Schindler for example -- other than that one scene where he starts crying for some reason ("I should've given my car, my house, etc."), he doesn't grow much as a character. And he doesn't need to.

Andy Dufresnes from "Shawshank Redemption" -- same thing. Red is the character that has the arc. Andy has a plan and sticks with it. And his never-ending perseverance is what makes watching him a joy. He's unflappable.

Inspector Clouseau is a great example. What if he learned the err of his ways and became a better person at the end of the movie? Ewwww, puke.

And closer to home, how about Father Max? Or Professor Horatio Bathandler? Would a character arc really have made their stories better? Again, it's their determination in the face of great obstacles that makes them fascinating.

William Wallace, James Bond, Indiana Jones, I could go on and on.

Laura Reyna said...

I'm also one who doesn't stress char arc too much. I certainly think about it but it's not an overriding concern. Depends on the story i'm telling.

Some stories are about the char changing emotionally, becoming a different kind of person, & some aren't.

Char arcs have become a H'wood convention, like having only one protagonist. It's become "something readers & creative execs want to see".

Which is why i think some of these movies coming out seem so hackneyed & simplistic.

The more artfully made movies have their "char arc" & themes subtley interwoven into the story.

Mystery Man said...

Preach it, Brother Lee! Hehehe... Bravo. I completely agree.

Laura - Superb comment. I think the idea of arcs has, in fact, harmed quite a few films. Most recently, I saw Mr. Brooks, and I believe that movie failed by the way it tried to A) make us sympathize with a protag serial killer by having another actor play his alter ego so that he could argue with him and verbalize his inner conflict and whine about not wanting to do this anymore in order to make us root for him to reach his inner goal ("Oh, poor Mr. Brooks. I hope he achieves his inner goals of not killing people. Oh, look, he slipped up and shot a couple. Oh well. In the end I hope he finds a way to stop."), PLEASE, and B) giving him an arc and leading us to believe he met his goals by quitting. But then the ending left it wide open for sequels. Come on. It would've been far more entertaining had they just presented us with a fascinating individual who does not change. You cannot stuff this convention into every type of film. Thanks so much for the comment.


Matthew Spira said...

I do tend to think that in order for there to be what I call "depth and resonance" in a movie the main characters need to have some kind of movement along an internal storyline that goes from a point A to a point Z, and complements the external action, but I will concede it's not absolutely necessary in every kind of story.

When it comes to character development, I cheat. As much as possible I use people (or composites of people) I've met. Yeah, I've been in a lot (A LOT) of places all over the world, and interacted with ALL kinds, but I suspect even writers who don't have quite my eclectic background do in fact have a treasure trove of people they know to draw upon.


P.S. I'm an American married to a South African, living in South Korea. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Mim said...

I'll take credit where credit's due, but I got that internal/external thing from Hauge and Vogler's "The Hero's Journey."

Salvador Rubio said...

Hi! I came across this great site and I wanted to leave my thoughts on character change.

For me, there are three kinds of character:

1-The one who changes (Let's call him the Hero): A character is shown having a flaw which he has to overcome after great difficulties and reluctance. Paul Newman in The Veredict is a great example.

2-The one who can't change (The Tragic characters). A character whose own personality doesn't let him change, no matter how hard he tries or how much he know he has to change. Is the preferred character for tv-shows (picture Dr. House and his inability to be show his feelings and be humane, although it is repeatedly shown that he would like to do it). As for movies, characters of this type sometimes they prefer to stick with their flaws and keep living no matter how badly they have to change. There are plenty, but let's say Kane in Citizen Kane.

3-The one that doesn't really need to change: James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc. There's a second variety to this, in which the character needs to change but doesn't do it because he doesn't realize his flaws, although everyone does: Don Quixote and his derivates.

As every theory, this is not perfect, but works for me in most cases.

I hope you found this useful.

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