Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Case AGAINST Character Arcs

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 GardnerBeing 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’HaraGone 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.


Action Films:

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.



Neil said...

Great Post!

I have always been the firm believer that people never change with the only exception being those who become born again, go into a cult, or take up radical islam or sometimes when they have children.

Otherwise people are exactly the same till the day they die.

One of the best examples of a character "arcing" is in "A Christmas Carol." Scrooge goes the full 180 degrees by the end of the movie.

But with most movies, the good character who goes "bad" by the end of the movie, isn't really changed, but events in their lives that unfolded by their own choices have directly influenced the outcome of their lives (and the story).

In the movie "Before the Devil knows you're dead" the two main characters have their lives fall apart because of their failed plan to rob their parent's jewelry store. The story simply chronicles the events of the two brother's fall, but the brothers do not change, even though one of them murders several people by the end of the movie. They are simply reacting to a series of progressively worse events in their lives.

You can even argue that Luke Skywalker never changed, especially in Episode IV. Sure, he was hesitant to run off with crazy old obi-wan kenobi, as Luke was stuck in the same life we most are. However, luke always yearned to get the fark away from the farm and after his uncle and aunt were killed, he pretty much had no choice and was able to do what he always wanted to do all along! Even by the end of Jedi he pretty much is still the same person, but now he's a Jedi and more mature.

Christina said...

Yes, I agree - great post!

One of my favorite films to analyze is Hannah and Her Sisters. 6 Oscar nomincations - 3 wins, including screenplay. I've always maintained that Hannah doesn't f-ing change. She's the same throughout the film - measured and mature. She's like Chance the Gardner, inspiring change in her sisters. And her husbands.

Like ensemble films, I think films with a no character arc protag are hard to pull off. But what do I know? All I know is that there are exceptions that work.

Anonymous said...

“Well, Mystery Man, you only showed us one-offs and rare exceptions.” That's a helluva lot of exceptions and one-offs. When I was a youngster (though cine-illiterate admittedly) the movies were about the actors, and the stars like Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, the very appeal of them was there stubbornness/stoicism/dependability. Speaking of Clint, one of my favourite films of that era was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot which was - for me at the time - a great heist-gone-wrong movie, and its appeal lay in terrific characterisation, and I don't recall the characters changing a great deal.

As a student of screenwriting my own current bugbear about characterisation advice is what I dub "the mathematician that doesn't add-up". The idea that to produce rounded characters all you need to do is think of a character trait and then make its polar opposite your character's inner-need. That is too linear and a although a line has two ends it is still one-dimensional. It also risks producing an all-too familiar story trajectory. A rounded character necessarily requires two-dimensions, and to fully flesh them out takes three. Those lists of character traits and their opposites just don't work for me.

Mim said...

Purpletrex, you almost got it. Scrooge arcs. That's almost the point of Christmas movies, is that the protagonist changes.

I love that transformational moment in Christmas movies when the hero realizes the error of his or her ways and feels something shift in the depths of his or her being.

A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies ever, but to me it's not a real Christmas movie because it just kind of ends when Christmas is over. There is no moment of epiphany. There is no, "Oh! This is what Christmas is all about!"

My take on character arcs is not so much that the hero changes as discovers something about himself that he either didn't know before, or didn't think was important.

I don't think a character has to change to arc.

Rufus Bobbel said...

Christina said:
"Like ensemble films, I think films with a no character arc protag are hard to pull off."

That's an interesting comparison and it got me thinking about Crash, which is a film that totally didn't work for me. I got annoyed with the heavy rhetoric, but also the way it intertwined to create massive change in all of the main characters.

Anyway, I'm thinking that whilst it might be hard to write ensemble films and films without arcs, maybe it gets easier when you combine the two.

Ensemble films without character arcs make sense. We don't spend enough time with the characters to permit them arc believably.

Joshua James said...

Great post, and thanks for the links, man.

Chauncey from BEING THERE rocks, he has two basic motivations. He wants someone to take care of him (feed him, etc) and he wants to watch TV. That's it. His life is only about what he wants.

Another good example of that kinda character is Forest Gump, of course. Forest only wants Jenny and to keep his word to his friends. Nothing else, really.

I'd also add to your list, William Mumy from THE UNFORGIVEN . . . it could be argued that he regressed, he went from being a civilized man to a killer like he was . . . but in paying attention to the film, Mumy admits that he was always drunk when he did his killing, almost always. He gave up the drink when he met his wife and found salvation.

She died and he needed money. Killed a man and in the process, his good friend got tortured and killed. Will reaches for the bottle.

And the raging drunk killer returns - returns because he was never gone, he never left, it's always who Will was when he drank.

Alcoholics never stop being alcoholics. They just stop drinking. So they never change, they simply just make different emotional choices.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a great post. This is an area of disagreement I have with McKee. As you've demonstrated here, characters do NOT have to arc. Some characters remain strong, resolute and unchanged in the face of all the calamity around them. I'd hazard to guess that MOST action films have heroes that don't arc.

Anonymous said...
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Christina said...

Another one for your list - Margot at the Wedding. Just watched that one yesterday. Kind of like watching an emotional trainwreck where no one changes - at all. In fact, they might be a little worse for wear and more entrenched in their personality disorders than they were when the film opened.

I haven't seen The Jerk in like 10 years, but it sounding to me like "fool" movies maybe as a rule don't involve a transformational arc of the fool protagonist. Eh?

Emily Blake said...

I agree with a lot of this because sometimes it's the world around the character that changes and he must adapt to it or move on, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has a major change in his own personality.

Every character is offered the opportunity for change. That doesn't mean he takes it. A character who turns down a chance to take a different road can be just as interesting as one who take it.

James Hull said...

I think my article may have been misinterpreted here, so just to clarify (because I think we agree):

Dr. Kimble, William Wallace and Dan (from 3:10 to Yuma) begin the film with a certain point-of-view. All 3 take a stand and refuse to back down.

This point-of-view grows over the course of a story as it must because outside influences challenge their way of seeing things. They can't ignore it - they either have to shore up their reserves and dig their heels in or they allow certain influences to chip away at their psyche.

This is what I was talking about in reference to Growth and why I stated that a character or person can grow while maintaining their stance on a position.

I used Dramatica as a baseline for my article because in my opinion it represents the best model of how stories work. I don't for a second think that every professional Hollywood writer ascribes to it or even gives it a second thought. I felt that the concept of Growth did a better job of describing how a character develops over the course of a story and was the reason why I included it in my article.

But I think we agree on our disdain for the McKee-ites who blindly follow the notion that every character has to change. This was in fact the reason why I wrote the article in the first place.

I completely agree that Protagonists or Main Characters do not have to change. In fact, many great stories have protagonists who remain steadfast to their beliefs and end up creating change in others (they tend to be my favorite as well).

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify Jim's post a little more (Chris Huntley here--co-creator of Dramatica), there is a difference between a character's arc (growth) and its resolve (whether it has a major paradigm shift, i.e. Change, or stays the course, i.e. remains Steadfast).

Characters may grow into our out of their resolve. Steadfast characters may start off with a minimal resolve but then shore it up as their resolve is challenged over the course of a story. Steadfast characters may start off with a ton of resolve but have it chipped away over the course of a story so that it almost seems a toss up before they stick to their guns.

Change characters may begin with a small amount of resistance to change and have it grow stronger over the course of a story only to ultimately change their paradigm. Conversely, Change characters may begin with a tremoundous amount of resitance and have that whittled away over the course of the story so that their change may happen even without their awareness.

What I describe are some extremes and there are infinite variations and degrees of subtly that may exist between these extremes.

Anonymous said...

AWESOME post! Like all your posts, I'll read it about 20 times and hopefully these lessons will come out in my next screenplay. :)

Christian H. said...

So when do you actually sleep?

Anyway, I agree about arcs. Arcs are usually telegraphed when there is one. The protag is usually an asshole or an even bigger asshole.
It's funny you mentioned Dr. Seger as I live by her thoughts.
She states that a flaw can just be something that works for the character in the "normal" world but becomes a hindrance in the world of the 2nd Act.

The only arc I really like is the circular arc where a character starts out as A becomes B and then back to A.

I just can't root for a person who knows they're an asshole (everyone knows what would hurt others' feelings) and decides to change after destroying the people closest to them.

The one exception would be Bill Murray (Scrooged and GroundHog) but then they were comedies so you aren't supposed to take it seriously.

Other than that I like to see resolve increase as the conflict does.

If you look at it, most arcs have to have a love story connected or at least a person very close to the asshole, I mean protag. After all, strangers tend to react badly to severe personal attacks or derision.

Anyway, back to the political thriller.

Anonymous said...

JJ Sez:

According to Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, Indy's character arc in Raiders is that "he goes from an atheist to an agnostic." In other words, he starts out as a cynical mercenary who beleives in only material things, and eventually gains a spiritual or mystical understanding and an awareness of a higher dimension to the world. A lot like Luke Skywalker, actually.

Anonymous said...

Yo, Man! Don't ever change.

William said...

"Arc" is probably the most overrated word in the screenwriting lexicon maybe only second to "redemption."

Great example with Being There. Another screaming example, even though it's television, is The Sopranos. "People don't change" essentially is the theme of the entire series. Regardless of what Tony is faced with during the course of six seasons, in the end, he is back to who he essentially is at the core.

Anonymous said...


be fair to say that Tony goes on a journey, though, no? Kind of like the donut-shaped, ermm, circular arc that Christian likes. Tries to change, tries pretty hard, but, f@ck it, he is who is.

Nate from six feet under is another character who over the span of, what was it?, five seasons ends up pretty much where he started out. Only older.

Christian H. said...

The circular arc is good because it allows for much more drama as the protag is forced out of their normal "routine" and has to become "spiritually" different in order to deal with the antag(s) or situation(s) and then has a separate "epiphany" that leads them back to where they were.

William said...

Terraling - Absolutely. Tony goes into a coma and lives an almost other life as a different man but we always go back to this self-delusional, self-aggrandizing Shakespearean being.

Circular works especially with character motivated dramas. It goes to show that an approach where the protagonist doesn't go through a 180 degree change can be just as rich. Everyone one references Michael in The Godfather of what ultimately a character should do on film. As a character I think Chauncey is just as interesting.

Mark said...

Creating steadfast 'rules' in art is a simplistic exercise and is in the dominion of the small minded. Art is not mathematics and, depending on the context of your story, all 'rules' are there to be broken. What is important for the writer is to know why they are constructing their story in a particular way.

One of the things I've shown my students this year are 'personal' films. In films such as 'Night of the Hunter', 'Being There', anything by Altman (etc etc), there is a disinterest in the 'rules' of genre or traditional story telling. In those films the filmmaker is obsessed with their subject and less interested in following a dogmatic set of rules about plot and character. Even Francis Coppola's newest film 'Youth Without Youth' thumbed it's nose at any traditional rules of telling a story. His interest was in the ideas that the film contained rather than the plotted elements. Unfortunately, people can be very hostile to films that disregard these 'rules' but it is a necessity of the art as this is how we progress the language of film.

Joe Esztehas had a good take on Mckee...

"They’re out there by the dozens, telling you how to write screenplays, when they don’t know how to do it themselves.

Robert McKee is the most famous of them, and while it is true that he has sold some scripts, he has had only one feature-length film produced on cable television.

McKee’s Web site points out that, at the University of Michigan, his creative writing professor was “the noted Kenneth Rowe, whose former students include Arthur Miller and Lawrence Kasdan.” This is, of course, success by association, McKee elevating himself to the same creative peak where stand Miller and Kasdan by saying that he once attended the same school (which admits more than twenty thousand students each year) and had the same teacher.

McKee is a former actor who, his Web site says, “appeared on Broadway with such luminaries as Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris, and Will Geer.” He thus elevates himself to the same peak where stand those acting luminaries. Lo and behold, McKee miraculously turns himself into a luminary. He implies that he is as good an actor as Helen Hayes, the same way that he implied he was as luminary a writer as Arthur Miller."

Excellent post Mystery Man.

James said...

There's really two trains of thought:

1) A character can only change through a journey.
2) Characters never change.

I, personally, fall more into the characters never change category. They are who they are. They have their wants and desires... ALWAYS. They never go away. They are never satisfied. Characters are alcoholics looking for their next binge.

The irony is my latest adventure screenplay really hangs together on the conflict that the main character lives in the shadow of another... and things never change. The characters are the same throughout the journey.

And yet, I've had some people comment on the strength of the main characters "arc."

Um. Okay.

I just take that to mean, there is a lot of screenwriting jargon floating around. People want to sound smart. They read a screenplay with characters they like on a ride they enjoy ... and all of a sudden your characters "arc."

Nothing matters, except story :p.

Anonymous said...

BEING THERE is a story of great nuance. Chauncy isn't able to feel anything for anyone. When the 'old man upstairs' dies at the beginning of the film, it means absolutely nothing to him. He is unable to love or make a bond. By film's end, he's found his love for Eve. He states that he loves her very much, and you believe it. He cries when his new friend Benjamin Rand passes away.

To miss this nuance suggests either an ignorance of this masterpiece, or a desperation to make a weak point.

I believe both to be true.

Joshua James said...

You're assuming Chauncy couldn't feel, but as far as we, the audience, knows, Chauncey doesn't KNOW the old man upstairs, anymore than he knows the guy delivering the mail.

He knows Eve and comes to love her, and his friend dies and it effects him, because he knows his friend, his friend has taken the time to talk to him.

You're reaching by taking the stand that he felt nothing at the beginning and the story is about him feeling . . . one can also make the case that no one has ever taken time to talk to him (even the old man's maid didn't really treat him as anything other than the furniture) and that's why he mainly felt things through TV.

His friend Rand and Eve were, in a way, like TV brought to life (he even has a line about that, if I recall, but it may be in the book) and he got involved that way.

I agree that there is much nuance to the story, but that you're overstating the case, somewhat, regarding Chauncey's journey. The point to the story is that this man, arguably developmentally disabled, doesn't change but because of circumstances and who he meets, the world views him as a genius, that was both the nuanced, subtle point to the book and the movie.

And jeez, if you're going to make a statement about something, have the what-have-you to sign your name to it, okay?

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much for the comments, guys. I should publicly thank Joshua James, Mickey Lee Bukowski, Pat(GimmeABreak), Miriam Paschal, and David Muhlfelder for helping with this article. I asked for characters without arcs, and boy did I get a lot of suggestions. An earlier draft was a lot of list-making, and I eventually chose titles and characters that made DIFFERENT points about no arcs. But there are SO many still - the films of John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry, in particular, never changed.

I'd like to jump into this debate about Being There - his behavior was largely defined by his environment. He was as capable of feeling in the household of his former employer as he was in the latter. It all depended upon the people that surrounded him and how much trouble they went to get to know him. I would hardly characterize, Mr. Anonymous, that using him as an example was "desperation" on my part to make a case against arcs when I have SO MANY other examples. This sounds to me like the kind of extreme reaction you get when someone's deep belief in arcs had just been sliced and diced and handed to him on a platter. Hehehe...

Chris Huntley - Thanks so much for the comment, but I do take issue with a few things you mentioned. A shift in resolve is a wonderful thing to talk about, but to say that "growth" is a character's arc is, I think, a disservice to aspiring writers because growth is not an arc. An arc can be for better or worse and when people in the industry are talking about an "arc," they are talking about a change to the inner nature, not growth, so I fear that definition does more to create confusion than anything else. I also referenced downfall arcs (what Ronald Tobias would characterize as a "descension plot") as we saw in Citizen Kane and Michael Corleone and Daniel Plainview. You certainly can't classify that kind of arc as "growth," but there were clear shifts to their inner natures for the worse.

All in all, I think there's been too much emphasis on arcs when the emphasis all along should have been on depth. You can get a lot of mileage and interest and satisfaction in your story without a change to the inner nature of the protag so long as he/she has depth.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for validating something I've been harping about incessantly like Grandpa Abe Simpson yammering about the olden days when he wore a belt made out of an onion.

Does a hero or heroine need an arc? Depends on the movie, and the character, and the performance. There are no rules that govern the decision to arc or not to arc; it's a gut check. Unyielding, relentless SOBs can be just as interesting to watch as an Ebenezer Scrooge or Michael Corleone.

Seems to me that all these stories are basically the same anyway -- protagonist is confronted with challenges or tragedies and either changes the course of his life and/or alters his personality, or hardens his resolve and plunges ahead. The circular progression is my personal favorite: it represents journey you go on in order to figure out who you are, a journey that invariably returns you to some semblance of the place where you began.

The only screenwriting rules that should be nearly ironclad are formatting rules, and even those can be bent or reshaped if the tone or setting of the story warrants it. (For instance, Shane Black in the original "Lethal Weapon" screenplay describing a palatial house as "the kind of house I'll buy if this film is a huge hit." Totally unprofessional and smug to boot, but really funny, and true to the spirit of the piece.)

Robert McKee bears more blame for the institutionalization, nay enshrinement, of stupidity in the Hollywood production process than any single person recent history. The man is a menace. To quote Van Helsing in "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Make no mistake...He must be stopped!"

Syd Field can kiss my ass, too.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Matt. That comment really makes my day.

Hey guys, for those who may not know Matt, he's a NYT film critic and author of House Next Door Blog. And now we may say "CASE CLOSED."


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget one of the most brilliant moments of "The Sopranos," from one of the earlier seasons when Christopher gets into screenwriting and complains that he's not getting enough credit and career advancement in his working life.

Christopher: "Where's my arc?!?!"

Paulie: "You know who had an arc? Noah."

Kyle Puetz said...

The worst is when writers feel they have to pigeonhole a character into an arc. I really enjoyed Roger Dodger, with its unabashed and reprehensible misogynist horndog anti-hero, until the writer felt that the film couldn't end without Roger learning the errors of his ways (and vapidly reciting his new understanding of male/female interaction to a table of suspiciously eager high school students. If he had done that to me five years ago, I would have been like, 'Who the fuck is this guy?')

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this article! A protagonist who refuses to yield to pressures to change can be every bit as interesting as a character as who has a huge arc. And an unchanging protagonist who has a profound impact on those around him can also make for great story.

As usual, MM, you are the MAN!!

Anonymous said...

Joshua says:

"You're assuming Chauncy couldn't feel, but as far as we, the audience, knows, Chauncey doesn't KNOW the old man upstairs, anymore than he knows the guy delivering the mail."


"One can also make the case that no one has ever taken time to talk to him."


Chauncey has lived in that house his entire life with the old man upstairs. We KNOW this because he's never the left the house, and that the man upstairs is the man of the house, Chauncey's guardian or father.

We can rule out that Chance is a gardener under employ, because Chance stays in this home while the maid comes and goes. But even if he is a butler/gardener, are you seriously suggesting that he'd live in the house for 50 years but never really speak to his boss? Talk about reaching...

When the maid tells Chauncey the old man has passed, she is aghast at his lack of response. I quote:

MAID: Dammit, boy! That old man is lying up there as dead as hell, and it just don't make any difference to you!

Chance shows ZERO response. A song from Sesame Street plays, and the maid remembers he's a child, apologizes for yelling at him, and says, "I don't know what I was expecting from you."

How could she expect an emotional response from someone who can't FEEL anything?

Let's be clear. Chance does have feelings, childish ones, that at the beginning he doesn't show, but at the end -- with Rand's passing and Eve's adoration -- he does.

Need more evidence?

When the maid announces she's leaving, someone who's taken care of him for presumably some time, he doesn't shed a tear. Listen to her dialogue:

MAID: You're going to need somebody. You ought to find yourself a lady, Chance. (She makes an emasculating comment, and then:) You're always going to be a little boy, ain't ya?

She gives him caring advice, wishes him well, kisses his cheek, but has never taken the time to speak to him until this moment?

Doesn't add up, does it?

The article author is welcome to suggest character arcs are not mandatory in all cases. But to misread this masterwork invalidates the author's point. That is, including BEING THERE is reaching.

Joshua James said...


Again, your evidence doesn't quite support your argument . . . as I mentioned, the fact that Chauncey lived there his whole life doesn't necessarily mean he KNOWS the old man upstairs, anymore than you or I know Uncle Sam or The Easter Bunny - he's simply the GUY UPSTAIRS and the people on the TV are more real to him because they're the only people he spends time with.

Secondly, the point of the film AND the book is that an idiot can be viewed as genius - Chauncey is such, and to have him suddenly change disregards the point of the novel and the film -

There is nothing in either to suggest that Chauncey didn't have it in him to respond emotionally in the beginning had he known the old man. When the old man died, he was simply a viewer of the television drama concerning the Old Man.

What happened in-between then?

Chauncey became part of TV, he actually WENT ON TELEVISION (remember, the Tonight show thing) he actually was on television. Life became TV and he was no longer simply a viewer.


With Eve and Rand, he was PART of the television drama of THEIR LIVES and had to react in kind. In TV, when someone dies, people cry and say noble things.

So there's a clear logic line for him that's true to the character.

That's based on both the book and the novel.

Okay, so that's my response, and for crying out loud, we're not that mean here, so sign your name. Otherwise, I'm finished debating an anonymous arguer.

Anonymous said...

A fine post, thank you. I am very much interested in the change within characters which may be attributed to a character's performance virtuosity, or the expression of one's flawed humanity. I'm thinking of the subtle changes- micro-changes, if you will, which one finds in the films of Cassavetes, Pialat, or my main man Abel Ferrara, where characters change constantly. For each, improvisation is the virtue by which lives are negotiated. They create characters which cannot be contained by the bounds of tradition and conventionality. In my view, this is far more challenging and stimulating than arcs and three acts.

Because this is such a challenge it is also why we see so little of this kind of work being done.

Anonymous said...

Another great article.

And frankly about a widely-held belief to which I didn't think my spending any brain power was warranted... after all, far better minds than mine have sworn on a stack of bibles before now as to how this is a basic fact!

One of the TS Reviews even marked me down because of this (Review Heading, now removed: Where's my Arc???).

It's a two-faced lie from the pits of hell. lol

Thx again, MM! Best, Len

Anonymous said...

Hey JJ,

l. Citing your interpretation of the novel as support for your interpretation of the novel presumes your interpretations are correct.

2. We're discussing the film, not the novel.

3. The man upstairs is a real person that has presumably lived with Chance for years. Uncle Sam and the Easter Bunny are analagous how?

4. Your argument that his trip in the real world is really a trip into the TV world he finds safer is invalid. After all, in the real, he proudly tells people he's been on TV. This proves his ability to discern his place in reality, and that he isn't in a 'TV drama' with Eve and Rand but in the real world.

Besides, he starts the story agoraphobic, and ends it transcendental. Right? If he went right back to his room to watch TV, he'd be who he was in scene one. Instead, he takes a stroll across a pond, and floats on top.

5. Speaking of weak arguments, why can't I post anonymous responses to an anonymous blogger? Hint: that's a rhetorical question.

Joshua James said...

My response Anon:

1) Yes, it does.

2) We are, but the novel is a resource for the film, it's the story the film is based on, and they're staggeringly close. We're not talking about THE NATURAL, which was entirely different from the novel (but it's still a valid point to bring up the book while discussing the themes of that film, Christ, it's a frigging resource!) And BEING THERE is real close to the novel, and the themes faithful. Similarly, THE GODFATHER the film is VERY close to the novel, and the themes spelled out more since one has time to do that IN PRINT.

3) It's not invalid. We don't ever meet the Old Man Upstairs, in the film or novel, but just so you don't get too upset and worked up, let's say we never see the Old Man Upstairs. So he's as REAL to Chance as any God or Fairy, in terms of the story. He's just the Old Man Upstairs (and a great metaphor for religion).

4) That's not my argument. You missed my argument. Read it again. It's about his environment and how he reacts to it. Chauncey stops acting like a viewer and more like a player once he finds himself in situations LIKE HE SEES ON TV, hence, that's why he cries when Rand dies, because that's what you do when a friend dies. There are many instances detailing this, but the metaphor goes full meta when Chauncey himself is actually on TV and finds himself living like the people he knows.

5) You don't have to sign your name. I don't have to debate you. Nobody has to do anything. You don't have to buy what I say, you don't have to agree with me, none of it.

Nor do I have to agree with you. I just find the continuous anon postings boring . . . at least you could think of some handle a bit imaginative, but this bores me.

So . . . I'm done, I'm not coming back to the thread, flame away at me at will, Mr Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, MM. I suppose equating Dramatica's definition of Main Character Growth to the overly used "character arc" does imply an oversimplification, which was not my intent.

My use of the term "growth" describes the nature of the character's development--toward something (Start) or away from something (Stop)--and does not include the aspect of positive or negative.

Constructive growth and destructive growth are shared by two other Dramatica dynamics: Judgment and Outcome. Judgment (Good or Bad) describes the nature of the Main Character's inner journey toward resolving personal issues (Good) or being left with angst (Bad). Outcome (Success or Failure) describes how things work out in the Big Picture or outer journey (the Overall Story throughline, in Dramatica terms). When the story goal is achieved it is Success, when it is not it is Failure.

The "magic" occurs when you begin to combine these different dynamics together. A "happy ending" is a Success/Good story. A "tragedy" is a Failure/Bad story. Then there are the bittersweet stories, the Success/Bad (Silence of the Lambs, Remains of the Day) stories which we call personal tragedies, and the Failure/Good (Rain Man) stories which we call personal triumphs.

These "endings" may be seen independently of a character's growth (Stop or Start) and their resolve (Change or Steadfast), yet only truly have meaning when they are combined.

So, "A Christmas Carol" is a Start / Change / Success / Good story, whereas "Unforgiven" is a Start / Change / Success / Bad story. Both characters have a hole in their heart, go through a major paradigm shift, and end with Succes in the big picture. The difference is that Scrooge's transformation leaves him in a good personal place, whereas William Munny is in a not so good place.

"Being There" is a Stop / Steadfast / Success / Good story, while "Silence of the Lambs" is a Stop / Steadfast / Success / Bad story. Both stories have main characters holding out against a hostile environment and ultimately stay the course which ends in a successful achievement of the story goal. While Chance Gardener personally ends in a good place, Clarice Starling is unsettled ("Are the lambs still screaming?").

These are only a fraction of the dynamics and storyform elements which comprise fully realized stories. Subtlty comes from weaving these various element into seamless tapestries that form the larger experience of a "story."

This is my long-winded way of agreeing with you that equating "arc" with growth is overly simplistic. Sorry about that.

OK, I'll get off my soap box now. Thanks.

Mystery Man said...

Okay, I like it.

Let me just thank you for your constructive comments and professionalism. It has been my great pleasure to meet you and I mean that most sincerely.


Gena Blake said...

Hey MM,

I'm with you. McKee wrote in my copy of "Story" what I'm sure he's written a billion times: "Write the Truth."

What about "Closer"? Is there a character arc for either Alice or Dan? I don't think so, but I'm new to all of this. My favorite movies seem not to have them. Thinking "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Carnal Knowledge."

Thanks MM!



Sandra said...

Thank God you have the guts to point out that the emperor has no clothes. I HATE the IRON FIST with which most "experts" impose the need for character arcs..and let me tell you, that's also as heavy-handed an imposition in the documentary world as it is in the drama world..
Many thanks for your insightful comments..

David Macinnis Gill said...

Scarlett O'Hara didn't change at her core? Of course, she did! She changed from a co-dependent child to a self-reliant woman, a change made even more dramatic by the time in which she lived.

Mystery Man said...

David - Oh, come now. Remember the scandal about the labor of her new business? Or her stealing her sister's fiance in order to get the financing to save Tara? She was just as bad a girl as a business woman as she ever was as a debutante. She would've done the same things before the war if it suited her own selfish purpopses.


Anonymous said...

all Main characters arc...not all protagonists arc.

clarice's flaw is ignorance and arcs to wisdom.