The Character Arc

The Character Arc

A complex, fully developed character is destined to change, and it is the path of this change that’s known as the character arc.

Character Arc refers to a character’s inner evolution that occurs during the story. Shaped like an arc, the story’s hero climbs to a point of lessons learned, and then settles into a new way of life. Though the change is usually positive—emotional or spiritual growth, the righting of incorrect beliefs, or the healing of an ancient and influencial wound—infrequently that path travels from positive to negative or from negative to destructive. An example of the latter is seen in The Godfather. Michael changes from a kind, mainstream, and legitimate member of society to the tyrannical and absolute ruler of the family.

character arc

The hero’s character arc embodies the emotional thread that unites plot and theme in a threefold cord and as such is essential to a well written story.

Lajos Egri—

“Real characters must be given a chance to reveal themselves, and we (the audience) must be given a chance to observe the significant changes which take place in them.”

We begin with a character living in compromise. Because of his fears, limitations, or wound, he relies on a defense mechanism, an ineffectual bypass to protect himself or to compensate for his lack. Growth, of course, is ongoing, sometimes tortuous. Shedding one’s modus operandi and moving contrary to instinct doesn’t come easily, but circumstances linked to the hero’s goal force him to face what he otherwise is unwilling to face. As the hero ventures toward the finish line, obstacles exacerbate his fears, but constrained by his goal he summons courage… and persistence… and more courage. He evolves, step by step. And whether or not he wins the prize, the hero emerges a victor. A newfound fulfillment in himself enables him to live freely. 

With each scene, the writer must ask himself: How is my hero changing? Are his emotional fears revealed and tested? What will my protagonist have the courage to do at the end of the story that he didn’t have the courage to do at the beginning, and am I building towards that moment? By disbursing scenes throughout the story that show the hero wrestling with his inner nemesis, his arc is revealed. We see his fears erode in a process that mirrors the universal struggle to become our best selves. As in life, the hero doesn’t need to grow with each tryst. He might even backslide before he is capable of walking away from his habitual patterns.

Inner need is the crux of the emotional development plot line. By creating the hero with a powerful fear, shame, or emotional problem (that he may or may not be aware of) the writer establishes Point A of the character’s growth journey and, by default, knows the journey’s destination. While the writer might not be sure how he’s going to get his hero there, a general sense of direction allows him to script the first steps.

  1. What is your hero’s wound? The hero has a wound or source of pain from his past that he hasn’t entirely (or ever) dealt with.
  2. What is your hero’s false belief? Because of the hero’s wound he has a distorted understanding of life or some aspect of it. In Goodwill Hunting, Will believes that he’s worthless. In Titanic, Rose believes she won’t survive without a rich man to take care of her. In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis believes that he will die if he lives as his authentic self. The hero’s wound creates a façade or false identity that he hides behind to protect himself.
  3. How does the hero’s false identity conflict with his true self? The pull between the desire to maintain the status quo of the hero’s false identity and the need to become his true self, brought about by the events of the story, should provide a current of conflict along his emotional development plot line.
  4. What is your hero’s true self? When the hole is filled by the hero’s ultimate decision, the false identity falls away, or at least begins to crumble, and the hero emerges more fully realized.

If you recall from the section on Plot, the inner goal ties into the action plot line when the hero can only reach the external goal by abandoning his false identity. By overcoming the fears that have been holding him back, he positions himself to take the prize, but herein lies the ultimate test. If he takes what he fought for, he will lose something significant—or rather, the final act of seizing his goal demands that he surrender something of great value. Romeo will drink the poison, Scrooge will embrace Christmas. The hero’s decision is life-altering.

Throughout the first quarter of the story, the protagonist is typically shown on a surface level with his mask in place to protect his vulnerable underbelly. Stakes rising in the middle of the story force him to reveal more of who he. When his internal and external goals collide, the hero begins to show signs of changing. Dramatic action molds him over time, simultaneously developing the story’s thematic significance.

In The Verdict, protagonist Frank Galvin first appears as a Boston attorney dressed in a three-piece suit. David Mamet’s screenplay peels back this characterization to reveal a bankrupt, self-destructive drunk who hasn’t won a case in years. Broken by divorce and disgrace, we next see him searching obituaries for people who have died in automobile or industrial accidents, and then approaching graveside relatives to pass out his business card. The sequence culminates in a drunken rage with him trashing his office. Lo and behold, though, a case comes knocking.

Galvin is offered a malpractice suit to defend a woman in a coma and, with $70K payday, he accepts the case. Once Galvin sees the plaintiff, though, he loses sight of the money. He will fight for his client, as well as his own soul. The legal battle changes him into a sober, ethical, and brilliant attorney—into the man he had been before he gave up on himself.

From Shakespear’s Hamlet, the protagonist—melancholy, confused, and wishing he were dead—is home for his father’s funeral. When the expired king’s ghost claims he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet vows revenge. “I will speak daggers… but use none,” he says, deciding to wait until he can prove the king’s guilt.

But Hamlet is not merely sad, sensitive, cautious. His inner life is at odds with his countenance, and unidentified impulses appear to lie in wait: “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

As the story exerts pressure on him, he hunts for and finds his father’s killer, who is on his knees in prayer. But if Claudius dies while praying, Hamlet suspects he might go to heaven and so chooses to kill Claudius when his soul is “as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes.”

Then at Ophelia’s funeral, Laertes accuses Hamlet of being uncaring and makes it clear that by distancing himself from others, he has wasted his time. Hamlet retaliates, “Does thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I.” He attempts to prove his love of Ophelia—a different tact than earlier in the story when he gave the impression that he didn’t want her in his presence. Through Laertes, Hamlet faces his misery and accepts that he has sabotaged himself and his relationships. He reveals that he does care.

From this breech in his invulnerable barrier, Hamlet finds Yorick’s skull and reflects on life and death. He is now able to understand the scope of his responsibility and knows what he must do. No longer plagued by doubt, no longer in search of excuses, he accepts Laertes’ challenge to a duel—a choice of action rather than analysis. He engages in a battle he will lose, focusing instead on what is important to him, and dying from the stab wound of a poisoned sword, Hamlet fulfills his promise to his father. He kills Claudius, then dies with a sense of calm he hadn’t known until the last minutes of his life.

Erin Brockovich has been sucker punched one too many times. In Act I, we meet an angry and defensive hero who feels powerless and fears that she can’t protect herself. Outwardly, she appears tough, duking it out with the world, but her bravado is a false exterior she uses to survive—harsh against harsh. 

The story begins with a job interview that Erin doesn’t get. Leaving the site, her car is hit in an intersection. When she sues the ER doctor who hit her and loses the case, we feel her frustration near its brink. We also see how she sacrifices for her children, feeding them in a restaurant without ordering for herself and later returning home to eat from a tin can. Erin’s determination to find a job leads her back to lawyer Ed Masry, and hearing her desperation, Ed gives her a chance. But Erin is gruff and alienating and loses the job.

In Act II, desperation yields to vulnerability, which represents an emotional change, and Erin allows George, a biker who moved next door, into her life. When her ex-boss comes to her with a question about a case, she finagles her way back onto the payroll. Erin throws herself into her work, but the fighter in her continues to undermine her interpersonal skills. Pressure mounts when she becomes impassioned about the wrong suffered by the people of Hinkley, California, and forcing Ed to listen to her moves the case to a higher level.

Anger keeps Erin focused on the company that has victimized the town residents, but it drives a wedge between her and her son, and between her and George, who she needs to look after the kids. Relying on George has brought his good qualities to the fore, and we see Erin struggle with feelings for him. She puts up walls, and George chips away at them, pursuing her after she’s bullet-pointed every reason why he shouldn’t.

Getting her footing at work, Erin wins people to their side and starts to gain confidence.When the big attorneys Kurt and Theresa come onto the case, though, her defensiveness kicks in and Erin insults Theresa in front of everyone. Now Ed is angry and shames Erin over her behavior. She’s sidelined while the big guns take over, and on the home front, George, who has proven himself reliable, cooking and caring for her kids, dumps her for being invulnerable and unloving.

In Act III, the big lawyers can’t relate to the townspeople and the Hinkley suit falls apart. “This case needs you,” Ed tells Erin, and an invulnerable woman who hasn’t the luxury of hope transforms into a pillar of hope for hundreds of people. Erin wins back the townspeople and, once validated, is able to apologize and ask for George’s help. Her protective mask is discarded when she discovers an inner strength she hadn’t had when the story began. 

Throughout Erin Brockovich, emotion intensifies the drama, raises the stakes, and demonstrates a psychological growth pattern in the hero’s behavior.

The writer not only needs to develop a clear sense of what decisions his characters will make, he must develop how their thinking will change or fail to change. If a character makes the same decision twice and it doesn’t work, the character hasn’t learned. This doesn’t mean the character hasn’t developed, just that they’ve failed to change their actions as a result of their circumstances, which is as much of a character trait as a character changing their actions.

A patriotic character may sacrifice himself for his country more than once, only to be injured or lose something important to him. If he repeats the same action, has his reasons changed? The question becomes—Why did he choose to make the sacrifice again? Is he resigned to his course or does he start to waver? What thoughts lead him to repeat the same action without reward? On the other hand, a patriot might sacrifice the first time and not the second. This is a major change in thinking, and for those following the story, the choices must be within character and develop the character.

Decide how you want your characters to change and how you want them to remain unchanged. This doesn’t require you to tailor plot to character. If you’re writing a story about overthrowing captors holding a staff at gunpoint or a group of octogenarians jumpstarting life by relocating to India, then that’s your plot. What you want to determine is how these characters will accomplish their objectives and what obstacles they will face along the way. For a story to be dramatically interesting and thematically important, your heroes must be brought to the point of internal combustibility, where the conflict in their lives demands inner transformation.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist