Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Great Character Arc Controversy

Hey guys,

Well, I can see that lips are flapping over my article called “The Case AGAINST Character Arcs” in the latest issue of Script Magazine. I’ve been told of a few debates on message boards, like
here and here.

But nothing prepared me for the flood of e-mails in my inbox. So I shall try to address common questions and responses. I have no problem at all with people disagreeing or putting my feet to the fire to test whether what I said is true. I think that’s a good thing.

Hope you enjoy it.



Uhh, who the hell is Joshua James?
Well, you could’ve looked him up
on the IMDB. He’s also here where you can also view his library of full length plays. He also has scripts posted periodically at his profile on TriggerStreet.

McKee never said that every character must change.
I never once mentioned Robert McKee in my article. I was mostly talking about industry-wide attitudes about arcs. But I was alluding to McKee because I approached arcs in terms of changes to the inner nature, which McKee preaches. He wrote, “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’s bullshit. 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, an inner change in the protagonist. That’s STILL bullshit.

But that’s true. Stories with arcs are better.
No, that’s not true, and this is one of my points. You cannot apply the same “principles” to all genres. This is why listening to the gurus has been an intellectual step backwards to the art of storytelling because they take one principle, like character arcs, and apply it across the board to every story in every genre. Each genre has its own unique requirements and parameters. It would be incorrect to say, for example, that a mystery story would be better if you had an arc in the protagonist-investigator. It just wouldn’t. The point of these stories is the mystery itself and the investigation’s usually led by a dynamic character. To go with that character on the journey of solving the mystery can be such great fun. That’s the point! Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes having an arc in every single mystery? One could argue that an arc in Holmes in every story would detract too much from the mystery. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have an arc or that you shouldn’t have an arc. The bigger point is, you shouldn’t REQUIRE AN ARC in mysteries. Or stick your nose up because a writer didn’t force an arc in the protag in a mystery.

But people aren’t making mystery films anymore.
Everything is cyclical.

Ghandi changed. He started out as a guy who was content within the existing system until it was demonstrated to him how unjust it was. He went from passive to becoming a fighter against injustice.
That’s not true. Beforehand, Ghandi was a lawyer fighting for what he thought was right before he switched to civil disobedience. While his reaction to the system changed, he never changed who he was.

You said that Ghandi matured and Clarice became wiser. Isn’t that an arc? Isn’t growth an arc?
Only if a change of some kind occurs. “Growth” is a wonderful thing for a character in a story, but it’s also a very broad term. A character changing from intolerant to tolerant could be viewed as “growth” as much as an arc. But an arc is a curve in the line, a change of some kind. But sometimes growth is a straight line. Sometimes a character endures an experience without changing. Say something happens. A protag must go on a path to correct something and meet a goal. He encounters obstacles and finally meets his goal. The character becomes wiser about the path, certainly, but does he change just by going down that path? Not necessarily. Sometimes a great story is a character staying true to oneself and not compromising, not changing, while going down a difficult path. There is growth in being tested and passing the test because the character will be stronger when tested again. But that doesn’t mean they changed who they are.

3:10 to Yuma fell apart in the third act, so that’s not really a good example, especially considering Crowe's character's totally unnatural personality transplant.
Even though Ebert gave it 4-stars, I personally never felt it was a perfect 4-star film. The original is a classic, though. And the author of the short story upon which the film was based, Elmore Leonard, had characters in his westerns who didn’t have backstories, psychological motivations, or sometimes, arcs. They were who they were. And they did what they did. There was a great article about that very thing
in The New York Times. Terrence Rafferty wrote, “what’s striking about it is how little explanation Mr. Leonard feels compelled to offer for his hero’s grit and competence, and how little too the reader misses it.” With respect to Russell Crowe's character, I have to agree. It would've been better had he NOT had an arc. Hehehe...

Indiana Jones -- probably. But Raiders ended with a deus ex machina, anyway. Not only did Jones not change, he wasn't even crucial to the resolution (whether or not he was there, the Nazis would have opened the Ark and died). So there, I'd submit, the script was faulty despite the rip-roaring great ride of the movie.
Was it really faulty? You didn’t think so BEFORE your mind was warped by gurus and their ideas about arcs. Hehehe

Indiana Jones doesn't believe in the POWER OF GOD in the beginning of the movie but he sure as hell believes in it by the end of the movie... LOL.
But did he change as a result? The sequels prove he doesn’t.

Indiana Jones has an arc. He goes from only caring about artifacts to caring about a human being -- Marion Ravenwood. At first she's only a means to an end, but by the end he cares about her for herself.
Look at that last scene again, as he and Marion are walking down those steps after the meeting with the government boys who assured him about “top men.” Indy keeps looking back. He can’t stop thinking about the Ark. And poor Marion has to pull his hat up and redirect his attention back to her. Does he really change?

Unk: Butch and Sundance go out fighting in the end... Did they have a choice? We don't know. Could they have come out with their hands up? Maybe -- maybe not. We watch them run away and outsmart everyone throughout the movie... Their change TO ME, is a change in venue along with no more running.
I respectfully disagree. They went out fighting because they were still running and they were cornered and had no other way out. They would’ve kept on running and being crooks forever. They would’ve had an arc only if they walked out with their hands up. That would’ve meant, “We are stopping and running no more.”

You have a very narrow definition of arcs.
I really don’t. I’m only referencing the ideas of narrow-minded gurus who have created an industry of narrow-thinking formula freaks.

I've always read the Hero's Journey as some kind of Jungian initiation where the hero discovers her/his inner strength/true self etc. Like in Star Wars where Luke finds "the force" in himself and becomes a Jedi. But I guess you can interpret it more literally, like when hero returns with some "elixir" and saves the day, but remains the same herself.
A lot of great action films are about heroes who are heroes without changing to become a hero. They just are. They just do it. It's who they are. It's in their blood. And the action genre evolved when the definition of “hero” evolved and how the new hero is different from the others. What is a hero in today's society? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the hero’s arc. But should every action film require one? Not at all. I'd argue that more important than an arc is character depth.

There is, though, a certain tendency among beginners (at anything) to think they can be the exceptions without ever having followed the rules.
Here, here. Newbies should master the basics. However, if a newbie wants to write mysteries, the industry should be wise enough to know that mysteries don’t require arcs in the protagonists. The industry needs to quit being so damn ignorant. This isn’t about breaking the rules. This is about the rules being wrong. This is about everyone not knowing the unique rules for each genre.

I’d like to close with this. I got a fabulous e-mail that I really loved from a guy named Salvador Rubio:

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.


Joshua James said...

Yeah, who the hell is this guy Joshua James, anyway! How dare he!

Oh, wait. That was me.

Damn it, I still haven't gotten out of the house to pick up the magazine, yet ... sorry man, I'll try and get out this week ... I'm such a frigging hermit.

Neil said...

" But Raiders ended with a deus ex machina, anyway."

No, it didn't.

As said many times before, Indiana Jones continuously fails at just about every opportunity in Raiders.

Jones was fortunate to be present when the Nazi's opened the Ark, which destroyed them utterly, but even then he -still- lost, as the Ark was carted away to be looked at by "Top Men" never to be seen again.

Deus ex machina endings are becoming more and more commonplace, but what concerns me more is Deus ex machina writing in general.

The whole freakin' Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie was just one big unrelenting Deus ex machina from beginning to end.

The most recent egregious use of Deus ex machina, was by Dr. Who's Russell T. Daivies. In the Dr. Who finale last season, he pretty much pulled out every Deus ex machina possible to defeat the daleks and their "reality erasing machine."

Neil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karim said...

You know who never fucking changed?

Hamlet. The only major decision that guy made was to kill his uncle, and he did that on a whim. The only reason HE fought Laertes was because Ophelia snuffed it, to put it elegantly.

There's only one rule you have to follow: break all the others.

Everyone should just move on.

Christian H. said...

I guess I can go and read the article, but it's too cold here in NYC.

Anyway here's an excerpt from my minimal version of


Oh you may mean where the character learns valuable lessons and undergoes a transformation. Well, that sucks. You can't reduce cinema to the minimalist view of character change. People rarely change: the virgin who gets raped is still that "virgin" including what makes her a virgin; whether it be a stern family, a devout choice, s spiritual challenge, etc.

The Circular Arc defies these premises, It is truly the scope of the cinematic experience and enables film makers to experiment with the depth and breadth of the human experience under stress. It enables gritty characters who have to respond to the whims of the most depraved antagonist. It enables reality because of the strength of the human spirit; best personified by the archetypal protagonist. The hero who can bend her moral base without breaking. She can withstand even the most withering barrage of loss vs. defeat. This is what's necessary for the true cinematic experience. It enables the film maker to view life from various different eyes.

Rather than try to experiment with some tyoe of growth based on Conflict, writers need to concentrate on the human experience, realizing that the survival instinct can overcome odds and allow a battered, literally destroyed protagonist to return tot their normal life, thus fulfilling the Hero's Journey. Campbell's representations do much for cinema while not forcing a mold. I believe this is because even archetypal figures have human grounding; it's like how even the same type of person reacts differently to heights or barking dogs or dense woods.

So yes, the arc is useless in cinema. It forces you to find those moments where the change doesn't seem forced or cliche.

The unchanging face of the hero is why people gravitate towards strong characters. Why fight it?

I think this isn't the only place where gurus make it more difficult. Like back story, or even character depth. Depth is merely varying emotional reactions to stress or conflict. It does have its place unlike the arc, though.

It just can't be there to fit a formula. If your character is angry, he should always be angry. Dirty Harry has no depth. He's just a mean cuss who would shoot first and screw the questions. Anyway, gotta go.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Haven't read Hamlet since I was 12... LOL.


But he didn't change?

Hamlet couldn't ACT in the beginning but by the end, doesn't he reach calm acceptance of his fate?

But I digress...

If characters don't do some kind of changing during the story, why watch them?

Plot? *YAWN*

I actually don't even like the phrase, "character arc" but that seems to be what everyone thinks CHANGE is.

Fine... Whatever.

I've read hundreds of screenplays and watched thousands of movies and to ME, the best ones always have the Protagonist change even if it's just something small.

Even tragedies... Something about the Protagonist changes, however small.

Some call it an arc -- some call it change.

So I also respectfully agree to disagree. LOL.

Haven't read the article but I simply answered a post on a forum containing my own opinion.

I think characters who don't change -- even a microcosm -- are boring however even if the only change is a stronger commitment to attaining one's goal, I still think it's change.

Always will.


Mystery Man said...

JJ - No worries, man.

Purple - I'm not fond at all of "deus ex machina" devices in stories.

Crumbs - Maybe. I'd have to look at that again. In fact, I've been meaning to by Harold Bloom's survey on Shakespeare. That'd be a great read.

Christian - Thanks, man.

Unk - Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but it's a bit disconcerting that you would publicly disagree with me on a message about my article without even having read or considered what I wrote. There are just some examples in the article that are not debatable. But your mind is fixed and you will argue this point without even considering what was written.


Anonymous said...

The case against character arcs can be summed up by one movie: The Shawshank Redemption.

And if Indiana Jones was to have changed in Raiders, I would have love to see him replace the idol he stole at the beginning. But he didn't, and he remains who he is. An icon. A flawed icon.

Anonymous said...

*were, not was.

Anonymous said...


I didn't feel like I had to read your article to reply to a post in a forum.

Like I said... I hate the phrase CHARACTER ARC as I suspect it to be some kind of buzz word to get screenwriters to get their characters to completely TRANSFORM.

Not that complete transformation can't be amazing... IT CAN. But do all stories require it?

Of course not.

Hence, the reason I prefer CHANGE.

If you notice in my reply to said post, I don't even mention you... I didn't mention you because I didn't read your article... I may have disagreed with your opinion but I wasn't even thinking of your opinion as I was writing.

I think this is something we've always had differing opinions on anyway...

No harm no foul.

Somebody just told me this is just a matter of semantics anyway...

I think I agree.


Christian H. said...

No problem. I hate the little nitpicking that has 10 drafts of a script when you never know how the other draft would have played to the audience.
Not enough arc, make it bigger, give the character a back story, give the character more depth. On and on and on.
In my mind the only people who should matter is the audience. They aren't picky. They just want to laugh at a comedy, cry at a drama and jump at a horror movie.
Elements, elements, elements.

It's more uplifting for the nerd to knock out the jock than to win the race.

Crap, I should be writing.

David Alan said...

Folks often mistake Character Arcs for depth or growth. They've convinced themselves that Hollywood doesn’t accept scripts that lack these kinds of things that it's a fact, when it's not.

Every story must be evaluated on a case by case basis where you spend TIME determining what is best.

I can’t believe this is so controversial. I couldn’t care less about Character Arcs. I have more important things to worry about.

This is all coming from a self-proclaimed Formula Freak.

-- David Alan

Neil said...

I do have to say one last thing about Raiders. The whole movie was about finding the Ark of the Covenant and opening it up to see what was inside. Even Indiana Jones could not bring himself to blow up the Ark.

It was already established in the bible, and in the movie, that the Ark laid waste to entire armies when the Jews carried it into battle, so when the Nazis open the Ark, and it melts them, it's not a Deus Ex Machina; it's actually what we expect, or at least not surprising.

Luzid said...

"It would be incorrect to say, for example, that a mystery story would be better if you had an arc in the protagonist-investigator. It just wouldn’t."


Without Sommerset's arc, the film wouldn't work.

Mark said...

Of course there is no controversy. Tell your story. Make it compelling.

It's that simple.


Anonymous said...

Kevin - Red transforms from a man who has completely detached himself from the word "hope" to a man who learns what hope can really mean. You were watching the movie, right?

But I suppose you could argue that Andy was the protagonist, and then I'd have to point out the fact that he starts the movie innocent, and ends the movie a criminal.

Anonymous said...

It is not that difficult folks.

Some movies need a character arc (or change).

Some don't.

Some movies might be improved if the protagonist had some kind of change.

Some movies might actually have been better if the protagonist had not changed quite so much.

But that ultimately means that a a movie does not necessarily need a character arc to work. It depends on what else is going on in the script. If there is enough of a plot that keeps us on the edge of our seat for 90mins then why bother? Some movies might be better if our central characters are the only things that do not arc.

I occasionally have little adventures in my life, okay not quite fighting Nazi's over ancient treasures or anything but the more normal adventures we have from time to time, in real life. I cannot say I really change during those days. I deal with things the way I deal with them, sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but I don't think I change at all. Maybe I might learn something but that is about it.

Does the same not apply to screenwriting?

Anonymous said...

Nicholas J.

Nah, I haven't seen the movie. Is it any good?

As you point out Red is not the protagonist. Andy is, and Andy maintains who he is through the whole story. He's still innocent when he leaves. He went in a good guy and he leaves a good guy. He sticks to his plan to break out from the very outset and never falters. The beauty of Andy's journey is he stays true to who he is despite great injustices against him. He doesn't arc. He brings about change in those around him, by staying the same. It's no less satisfying. In fact, I think it's a perfect, faultless film.

Anonymous said...

Kevin - The film is really about hope, and Red goes through its transformation. (Clearly shown through his parole hearings.) Red narrates. We also see most everything from Red's point of view. He carries the story. He goes through the change. Sure, there's some flashbacks of Andy, and Andy probably causes the most change, but he's not the protagonist. Red is. Andy is the catalyst for his change.

But, if you insist it's Andy - let me point out this quote from him: "It's funny. On the outside, I was an honest man. Straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook." He may not technically have an "arc," but he does go through "change" which is the better word to use anyway, as Unk pointed out.

For the record, I do agree with most of what MM says, but I just think Shawshank isn't a good example.

Course, I suppose we could discuss all day, but I'd hate to hijack MM's comments. I'll give you my home # and we can discuss via telephone.

Only kidding. :)

Anonymous said...

Andy is the protagonist. There would be no story without him.

Anonymous said...

Been thinking about this. How about ET, folks? Elliot doesn't arc. No one does. And yet, a fantastic film.

Unknown said...

There's a 4th kind of character that I'm fond of

Heroic characters that fight not to change despite forces of change that batter them.

Joshua James? that sounds like a stage name. You rock Joshua, whoo hoo.

Anonymous said...

What I love about your silly little article (and self-congratulatory "controversy") is that, by merely changing a few words, it's easy to point out your own hypocrisy. Observe: "It's funny to me that the biz is filled with individuals who purport themselves to be 'open minded'; yet when it comes to the USE OF VOICE OVER, they're the most close-minded formula freaks you'll ever meet." Ouch.

Unknown said...

Actually it was fairly long article.

Webs said...

"Newbies should master the basics."

The theme, and recursive theme, of Vonnegut's "Bluebeard", my favourite novel.

Karim said...

Aw shoot, what about Chance the Gardener from Being There? I guess he's a bit of an exception to the rule though....(Bullshit rule.)

Anonymous said...

"It would be incorrect to say, for example, that a mystery story would be better if you had an arc in the protagonist-investigator. It just wouldn’t."


Without Sommerset's arc, the film wouldn't work."

This why Se7en works on a whole other level from other mysteries. The reason mysteries seem have gone out of fashion, surely must be linked to their trite stories. Same with hero's journeys like Raiders.

There is not much to see, in seeing someone be the same throughout a whole film. Unless his decision not change is significant it its self.

Characters should change even if it is not an obvious change. They should somehow be moved by the journey they take, even if do not accept that themselves.

Sabina E. said...

well, well, well MM, you impress me. You sure got people's feathers ruffled.


Anonymous said...

Where is mystery man, its been days! where are you? the world needs you!!

Anish, India

Tim Clague said...

I keep coming back to your 'three and a half character types' and will blog it tomorrow. I think it needs spreading around as an idea as much as possible. The 'one size fits all' hero is ridiculous!

Anonymous said...

I have another beef, character arcs are just a way of ensuring that something happens, and that it happens to our "hero" so we feel something - the actual problem is the assumption/prererquisite that our "hero" is a nice guy we relate to. most of my favourite films have absolute bastards in the lead role, and it wouldnt help anyone if they were to learn something or change because we were never supposed to like em anyway. (get carter, the servant, death of a chinese bookie - yes they're all old, thats because no one is allowed to make this kind of film anymore)I think this is the big problem, everyone tries to/is forced to make me love their lead figures and, believe me, I dont need to and I am not alone in this. this kind of character has returned to TV, but film just seems to get cuter and cuter - and hell, I'm a grown up!!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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JMac said...

I agree, character arcs are way over-rated and often seem contrived afterthoughts. There are plenty of great characters who never change, Jake Gittes, Clarice Starling etc.
BUT, I have to disagree about Raiders of the Lost Ark (Arc?), Indy's change is clear when you consider that at one point he left Marion tied up in the hands of the Nazis in order to get he Ark, but in the end he was prepared to blow up the ark in exchange for Marion. That's a clear, unconrtovertible change, is it not?

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The Magic of Making Up said...

Oh, I wonder how many dollars a day this man (or his relatives, if he is dead) are making everyday? Things or crimes like this are getting more and more common and I am blaming the internet!

Phil said...

Great stuff

I'm researching for my PhD around character arcs and have to agree. they can be taken or left without much impact. What gripes is that know one really knows what they are or how they operate when in fact they are blatantly obvious to spot.
Love stories and thrillers in particular have no real need for them.

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