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.