Let us put an end once and for all to the current madness about inner character arcs, which finds its origins in the Grand Poobah of screenwriting gurus, Mr. Robert McKee, who penned in his (now infamous, err, famous) book, Story: “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.”
That is a two-faced lie.
I suppose if you want to get real nitpicky with me about McKee’s quote, you could argue that he was not saying that you CAN’T have character arcs. He was merely saying that only the finest writing showcases an arc, aka an inner change in the protagonist.
That is STILL a two-faced lie.
Friends, this lie has pervaded every area of Hollywood from gurus to screenwriting professors to pro consultants to pro readers, etc, so that all new writers (and many working pros) encounter a thought police on this particular subject the likes of which we haven’t seen since the pre-wall days of East Germany. And the simple truth is that this does not hold up against the record of cinema history. (Need I remind everyone that the Academy just handed the highest yearly artistic award for cinematic achievement, the Best Film of 2007, to No Country for Old Men, a film that, as noted in Anthony Lane’s review “charts no moral shift in Chigurh, or indeed in the men around him; all of them are set in stone from the beginning.”) The fact is great films have been made with great characters that do not change who they are at their core. It isn’t that the writing is a lower quality because the protagonists don’t change, it's that this principle about arcs has been wrong since the very beginning.
Now let me be clear about the fact that there’s nothing wrong with character arcs. I love character arcs. I love watching the downfall arc of a flawed protagonist as we saw in Citizen Kane, or Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, or most recently, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. And I love the hero’s arc, too, as we saw in the much-loved Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, or Neo in the Matrix, or most comic book hero origin films. Plus, I love the kind of transformational arcs we saw in Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others.
But to say that every protagonist in every story must have a character arc is madness, my friends. It's a two-faced lie from the pits of hell.
So let’s look at this subject from a variety of categories. This first category is probably most dear to my heart, stories in which protagonists do not change but they create change in others.
Protagonists That Create Change in Others:
Gandhi – This film certainly chronicles his maturity and the many ways in which he was tested as a man, but he never once changed who he was at his core. I loved what Ebert wrote: “The movie begins in the early years of the century, in South Africa. Gandhi moved there from India in 1893, when he was twenty-three. He already had a law degree, but, degree or not, he was a target of South Africa's system of racial segregation, in which Indians (even though they are Caucasian, and thus should "qualify") are denied full citizenship and manhood. Gandhi's reaction to the system is, at first, almost naive; an early scene on a train doesn't quite work only because we can't believe the adult Gandhi would still be so ill-informed about the racial code of South Africa. But Gandhi's response sets the tone of the film. He is nonviolent but firm. He is sure where the right lies in every situation, and he will uphold it in total disregard for the possible consequences to himself.” (For that matter, how about Jesus in Passion of the Christ?)
The Seven Samurai – One of the most influential films of all time, and my question to you is how did the Samurai change? All they did was accept the task at hand of protecting the village. They did their jobs living by their codes, and they either survived the battle or not. The villagers certainly changed in that they became stronger individuals due to the influence of the Samurai.
Chance the Gardner – Being There is a 4-star satirical masterpiece. It’s 97% on the critics TomatoMeter and one of Ebert’s Great Films. Here was a man who was, frankly, mentally challenged and cared solely about gardening, TV, and food. He never changed. He couldn’t change. And yet, everyone thought he was something other than what he was and he evoked monumental, life-altering changes in everyone around him inside the home of a certain millionaire. His simplistic isms (“Spring is a time for planting”) turned Chance into a media darling because his words could be easily condensed into simple sound-bytes. Ultimately, they talked of him becoming a presidential candidate. (And while we’re talking about a protag causing change in a household without personally changing, how about Mary Poppins?)
3:10 to Yuma – To quote James Berardinelli: “Two things of significance occur during 3:10 to Yuma, and both revolve around Dan. As a character, he doesn't change. Instead, he's the instigator of change in those around him. Dan is the same at the end as at the beginning: devoted to what is right. Justice is his master. He will not kill because it is expedient. He will not turn his back even though he stands to earn a fortune. Dan's obdurateness makes him a wall against which others crash and break. One of those is his son, who starts out the film viewing him with contempt but grows to respect him. The other is Ben who, suffering from something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, forms a grudging respect for the man who rejects his bribes and stays true to his course.” Exactly. Is there anything wrong with that? No.
Patton & Hawkeye Pierce – How did either of these men change? Patton was a big character with a big ego who influenced the military, the enemy, and all of World War II. But he never changed who he was at his core. He was only sad that the war ended. Hawkeye Pierce with his anti-war, anti-establishment, and anti-military attitude had a bigger impact on the M*A*S*H camp than the camp ever had on him. The dramatic emphasis on both of these characters was not their arcs but their depth so we could enjoy the different sides of their characters.
Characters That Transform Without Changing Who They Are:
I came across an article at StoryFanatic by James Hull, an animator, about William Wallace in Braveheart and Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. James wrote, “Both Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford’s characters have a character arc - both grow in their resolve as they hold out for the oppressive situations around them to alter. Mel fights the subjugation of his people by the King of England while Harrison holds out against the obvious reality that he’s the only suspect in his wife’s murder.” I agree and disagree. They certainly grew in their resolve, but these guys did not have arcs in the sense that there were changes to their inner nature for better or worse. They were in positions where they felt they had to fight back on their own. What kind of arc is there for Kimble after he proved who the murderer was? How was he different? There is no question he would be affected or perhaps emotionally damaged by that kind of upheaval in his life but was there a change to his inner nature? No. He certainly didn’t transform into a criminal or anything less respectable than what he was before the murder. He transformed into a different version of himself because of these circumstances, but he never changed who he was at his core.
The article also had this to say: “What most story people don’t realize is that when they talk about character arc they are referring to what Dramatica calls the Main Character’s Growth. Growth is all about whether or not the character is moving towards something or away from something - not whether or not they change. You can grow as a person and still hold on to your beliefs - they just get stronger.” Wrong. I should acknowledge that gurus and theorists have different interpretations about arcs. But growth is not an arc, and James is giving Dramatica too much credit in terms of influence on writers. When people in the biz talk about character arcs, they are talking about a change to the inner nature as defined by the Grand Poobah of gurus whose obscenely invasive influence all throughout HW spans well over a decade now. Right or wrong, love it or hate it, we have to go by Robert McKee’s definition, unfortunately.
Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind is a sensational film, one of my favorites. It is also the highest ranking movie on AFI’s Top 100 list that has a protagonist that does not change. Scarlett was, as Rhett told her, “selfish to the very end.” She did change in the sense that she adapted to her new circumstances. She went from a spoiled society girl to a devastated southerner and then back into a self-made business woman, but she never once changed who she was at her core. When she returned to Tara and found it in ruins and her mother dead, she went out to the fields and cried out to the heavens, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.” That is certainly a defining moment for Scarlett in that she found the zeal to overcome her devastation, but let it be said that her speech was more a declaration of true character than anything else. She will overcome this tragedy but she will not change who she is. Ever. She will continue to be the bad girl she has always been. She will stoop to any low to rise again, and that’s exactly what she did in the second half of that movie. She lied. She stole. She cheated, and she killed. In the end, she finally saw Ashley for what he really was (a spineless wimp). She realized how good she had it with Rhett. And she realized the significance of Tara in her life. And these kinds of realizations can certainly prompt some change, but whether she does, we don’t really know. Personally, I find it hard to believe she’ll be any different after she returns to Tara. Those realizations just aren’t enough in my book to prompt real change in a person.
Bad, Bad Boys:
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid – Written by one of the most celebrated screenwriters of our time, William Goldman, the only thing to be said about these two characters beyond the fact that they were crooks to the very end, is that their story was unique only in the way that it revealed true character. They were cool and hip when they were stealing from the big railroad company, but when a special posse of experts is after them, they take off for Bolivia. They were not the hipsters we thought they were – they were chicken shits.
Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, & Thirteen – Over the course of these films, we can chart the growth of characters as con men but they never depart from their true natures. It’s always the way they toy with character arcs that they fool audiences, because when we think that a particular guy is perhaps betraying the group or going his own way, we become the fools, because that was part of the deception all along and we fell for it. These stories are always about the job, the heist, the multi-layered deceptions at play, some of which we know about and some turn into surprises and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If any of these guys “quit,” we won’t believe them, and in time, we will be proven correct. Question - when alcoholics quit drinking, does that mean they are no longer alcoholics? The same can be said for con artists, right?
The Wild Bunch - It was, in fact, the inability to change and adapt to modern times that brought Pike and his gang to their downfall. Not only that, the man who led the crusade against Pike and his gang, Thornton, a guy who was once a member of the gang himself but now forced to capture them or go to jail, sat outside the gates of the compound after it was all over and while he was thinking, he observed the formation of a new gang looking for jobs. He smiles wryly and joins them. Even Thornton couldn’t change who he really was.
Since when did Sherlock Holmes have an arc? Or Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple? There may have been isolated occurrences, but mostly – they didn’t. Mysteries are more plot-driven than character-driven, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because the fun comes from trying to solve the mystery. The investigation is usually led by a dynamic character. So is it truly essential that Holmes or Poirot have arcs in every story? I’ve heard it argued, “Well, those are franchises, so they don’t count.” They’re stories, aren’t they? People love those characters, do they not? Whether we have 1 or 50 stories about Holmes, the emphasis will always be on the plot and the mystery, and an arc in the protagonist shouldn’t be required. In fact, shouldn’t the emphasis be on depth instead of an arc because the more sides to the protagonist and the more games the protagonist can play on the other characters, the more entertaining the story, right?
I love crime noirs and the books of Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and I miss the days when we would go see a film simply because the protagonist was cool and we wanted to be more like him. We watched Sam Spade because we admired the way he handled his own affairs. We loved watching him deal with and outsmart the bad guys. I love what Anthony Burgess said about protags, “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with extraordinary qualities.” Although Sam Spade made us wonder if he was actually bad with the questionable deals he was making with other characters, the Act III climax always reinforced that he was one step ahead of the bad guys (and us) and that he was, in fact, still good. Anything wrong with that? The Maltese Falcon is Number 31 on AFI’s Top 100 list.
Indiana Jones – Friends, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the golden boy of action adventure films and one of AFI’s Top 100 films, gave us a protagonist who was very much the same in the end as he was in the beginning. He had one external goal, that is, to obtain the Ark of the Covenant, which was eventually realized, although he lost it again in the end paralleling the opening sequence, a kind of running gag. Sometimes a great story is about a character with a goal and either he reaches that goal or he doesn’t. (See also, for example, the character with no name played by Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.) Indy’s relationship with Marion, I think, would fall under Linda Seger's definition of a “hidden inner need.” He sees her again for the sake of his mission, falls in love with her all over again, which could be an inner need he didn't realize he had, and winds up with her in the end. That doesn’t mean he changed. A hidden need was realized, and apparently, it wasn’t that big of a need as they were no longer together in the sequel. Doom gave us a change in motivation, selfless reasons, in fact, for going after the Sankara Stones, which was simply an illumination of a different side of his character. In Last Crusade, he had an external goal to get the Holy Grail, of course, and he had inner needs with respect to his relationship with his father, which were satisfied by the big hug and the words of affection from Henry Sr. after he thought Indy had died. But does that mean Indy changed as a result? It means that a need was met. Period. However, I will throw out there what seemed to me to be only two hints of a change in Indy in Last Crusade: 1) When Indy took the leap of faith to walk across the hidden bridge, but we saw no indication he was changed in any way by this, and 2) When his father said, “Indiana... let it go.” I wonder, is this not a one-time exception to Indiana's usual nature or was this the beginning of a change in his ways?
James Bond – One of the most iconic figures of the spy genre, and with a few exceptions, such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, Bond rarely had an arc. We never wanted him to change. We loved him as he was. He got the job done and he did it with great style. Can you imagine how different he’d be today if he had a change to his inner nature in every single film? Bond proves the point that when it comes to franchises, arcs are not a requirement for satisfaction or longevity. (For that matter, John McClane hardly changed after the first Die Hard film. Dirty Harry never arc'd either.)
Clarice Starling – My good friend Joshua James made the most important point I've heard about this character in an email to me (also wrote about this subject here) and that point is about emotional content: “…it's not about the arc for characters. It's more about, are they emotionally motivated for what they do? If I can offer anything from my experiences as an actor and director that the thing to look for when crafting characters is emotional connection. Connect them personally to the story and explain, to yourself, what their motivation is. Basic acting - what's my motivation? What drives them to make the choices they do, does it make sense for them emotionally, is it logical EMOTIONALLY... people aren't logical, but they are emotionally logical - they're doing things that conform to their world emotional view. Clarice from Silence of the Lambs: I argued she's not transformed by her movie. She's wiser and learned more, certainly, but she's not a different person. More important, and this is what makes the character work, why does she put herself in danger, why put herself through what she does to save a girl she doesn't know. The movie gives it to us. To save a lost lamb that was crying. She sees that and her mission, throughout life, became to help those in peril, like the lamb. She didn't even know it until Lector pointed it out to her. But if you trace her actions, every choice she made was linked to that emotional logic of her character. What is Lector, what does he do? He FEEDS. Not only on food, but on interesting people, he finds her fascinating and she feeds his intellectual appetite.”
As Josh always says: WHAT plus WHY equals WHO.
(Chief) Inspector Jacques Clouseau – Let it finally be said that it is not required for protagonists to have a character arc in slapstick comedies. I’ve written about this before, but the most you can hope for in slapstick comedies like these are characters who have “blind obsessions,” individuals who fail to see their own flaws or the dangers of their own ridiculous fixations. Got that? Blind obsessions. Ridiculous fixations. Moliere’s life-long career in the theatre was built on that one fundamental, lampooning the ridiculous fixations of the social elite. (And the actors would always play those characters seriously, as if they had no clue they were being ridiculous, and that had us rolling in the aisles.) Consider the comedy-gold combination of the money-fixated Max Bialystock and the producer-fixated Leopold Bloom. Or Oscar Madison living with the germ-obsessed Felix Ungar. Or the war-fixated General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. Or the sex-obsessed teens in countless movies. Or any of a number of Woody Allen characters. And yes, Inspector Clouseau was obsessed about being the greatest detective in the world but it never occurred to him that he was always the dumbest man in the room. He fumbled his way into foiling the plans of countless bad guys without ever realizing what actually happened. Then he’d get decorated with honors for his brilliance, and that, my friends, was the big cosmic joke. The moment truth gets revealed, the moment Clouseau realizes he has flaws in his personality and that he needs to change (thereby giving his character an “arc”) will be the very same moment the comedy will die. And this is the reason I felt that the latest incarnation of Pink Panther with Steve Martin failed, because Inspector Clouseau gets outed in the media as the bumbling idiot he always was, he actually REALIZES that he IS a bumbling idiot, he APOLOGIZES to different people if he made them look silly, and then he SOLVES the big case thereby proving to the world that he is, in fact, a brilliant detective. Blasphemous. Completely blasphemous.
I can hear someone argue, “Well, Mystery Man, you only showed us one-offs and rare exceptions.” Did I really? It only takes ONE EXCEPTION to invalidate this stupid rule.