CHARACTER ARC: Because the Only Constant is Change

Definitely one of the most basic principles in screenwriting is character arc – the notion that characters must evolve, grow, learn, or change as the plot unfolds. The audience in general expects a character to finish the movie in a better position than that in which he started because that is what everyone strives for. Life sometimes allows that, but not always.

The arc doesn’t imply that characters will always be richer, smarter, or get the girl at the end. Perhaps a greedy person would end up in jail for embezzlement or an impulsive lover would end up murdered at the hands of an angry husband. Who knows. Shit happens in life and the movies.

Spoiler Alert: The following paragraphs contain spoilers.

Positive and Negative Arcs

Here’s a positive change or arc: in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) starts out as a student in the FBI who’s assigned a special mission. At the movie’s resolution, Clarice has improved her investigation skills and gun technique, both of which allow her to complete her mission and graduate from the FBI Academy.

An elaborate arc will present growth in many aspects of a character’s life. In The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) starts as an awkward, introverted, 20-year-old young man who lives by his parent’s rules and wishes. As the story unfolds, Benjamin begins making his own choices, often against his parents’. Furthermore, through an early exposition, it is implied that Benjamin is a virgin, which changes after his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And by the movie’s end, he also gets the girl he wanted, already wearing a wedding gown.

This is not the norm, but one powerful version of the character arc is when the arc goes “down the hill.” In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) never accepts Rhett’s (Clark Gabble) unrelenting courtship. Rhett, in the other hand, arcs as he realizes Scarlet will never want him, so he leaves her, saying the famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” In her despair, Scarlet denies her fate and utters: “Tara. Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

A character arc can also be dark or somber. In the highly acclaimed Billy Wilder picture Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the two main characters die, and the other one is arrested.

What Drives Change?

Take a second to think about the question above: what makes people change? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Think of the last time you or a friend or a relative experienced a big change. What was responsible for such change?

Although everyone wants to better themselves and improve their lives, change is not necessarily easy. Usually, people will take small steps towards a major goal, but big changes usually require a catalyst.

What do you think would make a sports-averse 40-year-old man start running daily after decades of a sedentary lifestyle? How about a heart attack? That sure would take most people off their butts and the cheesecake diet if it meant more health.

In storytelling lingo, we would call the heart attack conflict because that’s what it is. Like in life, conflict is really good at making people change and change quickly.

Movies are no different. Sometimes a character wakes up one day and decides to pursue their dreams. But often they need life to club them in the heads and say “You’ve been doing this all wrong. Try this other alternative instead.”

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom was writing greeting cards while his dream really was architecture. The catalyst in this plot was Summer. Tom was too comfortable in his day job to chase anything else until the girl of his dreams encouraged him to do it. And if you saw the movie, you know how hard this was for Tom.

To mention The Silence of the Lambs again: do you think Clarice was excited when, as a young FBI student, she was an invited for a special mission? You bet! But that special mission really involved a lot of  life-threatening moments (AKA conflict).

As Seen at the Movies…

Positive arcs

In Matrix (1999), after learning that he’s the One, Neo uses his recent-acquired skills to vanquish Agent Smith. Neo’s arc is both internal (as he believes in himself and accepts his responsibility) and external (as he develops his fighting skills and uses them to combat the enemy).

In Rocky (1976), small-time boxer Rocky Balboa trains hard and “goes the distance” with heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror #8 convinces his fellow  members or the jury that the case they are debating has room for “reasonable doubt.”

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne escapes from the Shawshank Prison and unveils the corrupt warden’s money laundry operation to the authorities.

Negative or “Down-the-hill” arcs

In Shattered Glass (2003), journalist Stephen Glass’s lies are uncovered and he gets fired from the newspaper.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch and Sundance are cornered by the Bolivian army and ultimately shot down.

It’s important to note that characters (like humans) are complex creatures and their transitions are never clean or black-and-white. Sometimes only one aspect of the character evolves, while others remain the same. With that in mind, don’t always (if ever) write characters who change from wholly evil to wholly good or vice versa because that rarely happens. A subtle transition is sometimes more identifiable for the audience.

Character arc alone will not save a terrible screenplay, but it will make a bad story better. Keep in mind that the audience expects this in all narrative films. There’s no magic formula to it. A fantastic a plot built in a solid structure with enough conflict will bring about the character arc.

What about you? What are some of your favorite arcs in film history?