CREATING CHARACTERS: The Case AGAINST Character ARCS

Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2009

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Can we put an end once and for all to the current madness about inner character arcs?

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 art of storytelling, they’re the most close-minded formula freaks you’ll ever meet.

And many believe that all protagonists in all stories must have arcs to their inner nature for better or worse. Are you kidding me? This myth has pervaded every area of Hollywood, from gurus to screenwriting professors to pro consultants and just about everyone else, so that all new writers (and many working pros) encounter a thought police on this subject the likes of which we haven’t seen since the pre-wall days of East Germany. Who let this false gospel into our church? Friends, Script readers, fellow writers, and anyone else out there, hear my words and hear them well— this myth about character arcs does not hold up against the record of cinema history. A story is not of a lower quality simply because a protagonist doesn’t “change,” but rather, this principle about character arcs has been wrong since the very beginning.

Need I remind everyone that this time last year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed the highest yearly artistic award for cinematic achievement, the Best Motion Picture of 2007, to No Country for Old Men, a movie that even The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane noted in his review “charts no moral shift in Chigurh, or indeed in the men around him; all of them are set in stone from the beginning.” Not one character had an arc. They all stayed the course they were on.

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 fl awed protagonist as we saw with Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 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 Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Neo in Th e Matrix, or most comic-book hero origin stories. Plus, I love the kind of transformational arcs we saw in Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, or Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others, a fabulous film.

But to say that every protagonist in every story must have an arc is madness, my friends. It’s utter madness. So, let’s look at this subject  from a variety of categories.

Protagonists That Do Not Change But Create Change In Others

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Gandhi

GandhiThis film certainly chronicled his maturity and the many ways in which he was tested, but Gandhi never once changed who he was at his core. I loved what Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Th e movie begins in the early years of the century in South Africa. Gandhi moved there from India in 1893 when he was 23. 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 were 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 fi rm. He is sure where the right lies in every situation, and he will uphold it in total disregard for the possible consequences to himself.”

3:10 to YumaI’d like to quote another favorite critic of mine, ReelViews.net’s James Berardinelli: “Two things of   of significance occur during 3:10 to Yuma, and both revolve around Dan [Evans]. 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 [Dan] with contempt but grows to respect him. The other is Ben [Wade] 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.”

Characters That Adapt Without Changing Who They Are

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The Fugitive

Dr. Richard Kimble—In The Fugitive, Dr. Kimble adapted to the new situation of being a fugitive in order to find the one-armed man, the true murderer of his wife. He certainly maintained his resolve to find him, but he did not have a character arc in the sense that there were changes to his inner nature. What kind of arc is there for a man after he proves who a murderer is? How is he different? There is no question that Kimble would be affected or emotionally wounded by this great upheaval in his life, but was there a change to his inner nature? No. He had goals and he reached those goals. That’s it. He didn’t become a permanent criminal. He was just as good a human being in the end as he was in the beginning. He simply played the hand that was dealt to him, but he never changed who he was at his core. Scarlett O’Hara—Gone With the Wind, a sensational film and one of my favorites, is also the highest ranking movie on AFI’s “100 Years … 100 Movies” list that has a protagonist who 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 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 nothing more than a declaration of true character. 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 the 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 recognized the significance of Tara in her life. But, come on. Are those realizations enough to prompt real change in Scarlett O’Hara?

They’ll Always Be Bad Boys

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—This Paul Newman-Robert Redford starrer was written by one of the most celebrated screenwriters of our time, William Goldman. Th e one thing to be said about Butch and Sundance, beyond the fact that they were crooks to the end, is that their story was unique only in the way that it revealed true character. They were cool and gutsy 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 gutsy hipsters we thought they were—they were chickenshits. Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen—Over the course of these three films, we can chart the growing skills of the primary characters as con men, but they never depart from their true natures. The writers toy with character arcs to 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 become 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, their inability to change and adapt to modern ways (by abandoning old-fashioned codes about loyalty) that brought Pike and his gang to their downfall. “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns,” Pike says. They never do. Not only that, Thornton, the antagonist who led the posse out to get Pike, was once a member of his gang but he’s now forced to capture them or go to jail. Thornton survived because he did what Pike and the others couldn’t do. He abandoned the code of loyalty long before the story began. After the shootout is over, Thornton sits outside the gates of the compound and observes the formation of a new gang. He smiles wryly and joins them. Even Thornton couldn’t change who he really was.

Mysteries

Since when did Sherlock Holmes have a character arc? Or Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple? Th ere 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. The fun comes from trying to solve the mystery, and the investigation is usually led by a dynamic character. So, is it truly essential that Holmes or Poirot have arcs in every single 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 one or 50 stories about Holmes, the emphasis will always be on the plot, and an arc in the protagonist shouldn’t be required. In fact, shouldn’t the emphasis be on the protagonist’s depth of character because the more sides to him and the more games he can play on the other characters, the more entertaining the story, right?

I love crime noirs and the books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and I miss the days when we would go see a film simply because the protagonist was a man who knew who he was and we wanted to be more like him. I love what Chandler said about protagonists: “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with extraordinary qualities.” We watched Sam Spade because he was fascinating. He had different sides to his character. And we loved watching him deal with all those bad guys. Although Sam was fl awed and made us wonder if he was truly bad with the questionable deals he was making with those characters, the Act Three climax 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 “100 Years” list.

Action Films

Indiana Jones—Friends, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the golden boy of action-adventure movies and one of AFI’s “100 Years” 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, a kind of running.

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, and The Ugly.) Indy’s relationship with Marion, I think, falls under script coach Linda Seger’s definition of a “hidden inner need.” He revisits her for the sake of the mission, falls in love with her all over again— which could’ve been 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.

The Temple of Doom showed us a different motivation, selfless reasons, in fact, for going after the Sankara Stones, which simply illuminated a different side of his character. In The Last Crusade, he had an external goal to get the Holy Grail, of course, and he had inner needs with respect to his father which were satisfied by the big hug and the words of affection from Henry Sr. after he thought Indy had died. Does that mean Indy changed as a result? It means that a need was met. Period.

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 don’t want him to change. We love him just the way he is. He gets the job done and he does 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? He’d be a villain now, wouldn’t he? 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.)

Horror

Clarice Starling—A great writer friend of mine, Joshua James, who also did some acting and directing in theatre, made the best point I’ve ever heard about Starling’s character. The Silence of the Lambs was not about her arc. It was about revealing her emotional logic. Josh: “If I can offer anything from my experiences as an actor and director, [it’s] 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. Th ey’re doing things that conform to their emotional worldview. I argued that Clarice from The Silence of the Lambs was 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 this until Lecter 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 Lecter, 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.”

Comedies

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The Pink Panther

(Chief) Inspector Jacques Clouseau— Let it finally be said that it is not required for protagonists to have a character arc in slapstick comedies. The most you can hope for in slapstick comedies is characters that have blind obsessions, individuals that fail to see their own flaws or the dangers of their own ridiculous fixations. Got that? Blind obsessions. Ridiculous fixations. Consider the comedy-gold combination of the moneyfixated Max Bialystock and the producer fixated Leo Bloom. Or Oscar Madison living with the germ-obsessed Felix Unger. 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. And the big cosmic joke was that he’d always get decorated with honors for his brilliance. Th e moment the truth gets revealed, the moment Clouseau realizes he has flaws in his personality and that he needs to change will be the very same moment that the entire house of Pink Panther comedy will come crashing down. And this is the reason I felt that the latest incarnation of The Pink Panther failed, not because Steve Martin isn’t funny (he is), but because Inspector Clouseau got outed in the media as the bumbling idiot he always was, he actually realized that he is a bumbling idiot, he apologized to different people if he made them look silly, and then he solved the big case thereby proving to the world that he is, in fact, a brilliant detective. That’s blasphemous. That’s completely blasphemous.

I can hear someone argue, “Well, Mystery Man, you only showed us one-off s and rare exceptions.” Did I really? It only takes one exception to invalidate this “principle.” In fact, there are so many exceptions to every “principle” we thought we learned that I have come to one definite conclusion about screenwriting: All stories require individual consideration. All characters may not require an arc.

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11 thoughts on “CREATING CHARACTERS: The Case AGAINST Character ARCS

  1. Jim Kalergis

    It’s very true that protagonists do not have to arc, but there’s more to it than that.

    Good stories are about something other than the protagonist overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. That “something” is the story’s theme. The reason many believe the protagonist must arc is because that’s the most common way that stories prove their theme. But not arcing can also prove a theme, and so can causing others to arc or not arc.

    The senior idea is that good stories have a powerful theme, and everything in the story, including character arcs or the lack thereof, is about proving that theme. Great natural story-tellers always go for the jugular with regards to theme, but they do it not from theory, but because they instinctively know that’s the best way to knock the reader’s socks off.

  2. hhusted

    I believe character arcs get in the way of telling a story. Why not just put the protagonist through various obstacles, and let him/her resolve them. Not every protagonist changes. Look at mysteries. Look at suspense. As long as a screenwriter is telling a good story, why create a character arc. Indiana Jones was such a movie. He never changed. Yet, it was one of the most popular movies of all time. For those of you, who think he did change, he didn’t . You just want to believe he did, but he didn’t. His core beliefs were still the same at the end. He only adapted to his situation to get what he wanted or needed.

  3. Wretched

    While I agree with the basic point that protagonists don’t need to arc, it’s interesting that many of the examples DO either reveal change, or (as gilgelad pointed out in Butch and Sundance) the conscious resistance to change.
    Even Indiana Jones, who was modelled after James Bond, changes. At the beginning of Raiders he is revealed to be fundamentally a materialist, who scoffs at ‘ghost stories’ – and by the end he’s learned respect for the non-material (in his relationship with Marion, and his respect for the supernatural). One of the reasons the sequels never quite have the weight of the original is that the central character has no more growth to do.

    Although characters don’t need to arc, it does seem to be the case that the most satisfying stories do engage with change on some level. In Back to the Future, for example, the central character doesn’t change (other than getting a new truck) – but his parents, particularly his father, DO change (and they change because of the traveling-angel protagonist) – and the moment that change occurs, when George finally stands up to Biff, is the emotional peak of the movie.

    My main gripe with ‘arcs’ is the word itself. It implies a smooth transition, from one state to another – and that’s incredibly misleading. Change, when it happens at all, occurs through moments of choice, moments of crisis. It’s more of a zig-zag than an arc.

    1. hhusted

      Wretched,

      I disagree with you. Indiana Jones never changed. The beliefs he had from the beginning he held at the end. His need for certain things changed as he went on his journey, but the core of his very being didn’t change.

  4. jeffguenther

    It depends. A classic hero’s journey is probably improved by strapping an inner need onto an outer want. Certain genres don’t need a changing hero, as above, and detectives are the prime example. Give your detective hero a “flaw,” and you get Wallander, whose ongoing angst is merely a pain in the butt, making you wonder how a smart detective couldn’t find some help at 200 Kroner per hour, or whatever. [Actually, he’s not that smart, once letting an important witness go in the other room unaccompanied and get out a shotgun.] Mysteries devolve around intellect. Intellect is the antithesis of a flawed mind. Give your detectives a tiny flaw, but don’t let them even know they have it.

  5. gilgelad

    This article is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of character arc. Such an arc can be of almost any nature, such as Butch and Sundance resigning themselves to their death. That is a character change. In the Wild Bunch, the character change is brought on by the desperation of the situation, such that they go in to a final shoot-out knowing they may not survive, because (here’s the arc) one aspect of their character – loyalty, overwhelms what had been the dominating characteristic, survival.

    Character change comes sometimes in the subtlest of forms. However, some movies like the Bond franchise succeed, not because they have character change or are even good films, but because of the production values. A movie like the new Mad Max succeeds only on the inventiveness of its outrageous action, not as a story, since there’s very little character in the film at all.

  6. tonitrus

    Excellent column! Mystery Man is on target and the examples he provides substantiates his position, a position I share, regarding character arcs. It seems modern writers believe that a character arc includes our protagonist being outsmarted and defeated multiple times throughout the movie, only then to stumble and bumble their way to victory (ie: Man of Steel, the newest incarnations of James Bond). Come on, we want to see a tough antagonist, not a dense protagonist.

    Iconic characters (such as Indiana Jones, Inspector Clouseau, Sherlock Holmes, the original James Bonds, and the Man with No Name “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”) are who they are. They may adapt, change tactics, but they remain the same. Sometimes they make mistakes but we like them because they are tough, smart, savvy, resourceful.

    Thanks for the article!

  7. ScriptDoctor

    Well we just have to know if Mystery Man is indeed Soderbergh or one of the story or screenplay writers on MoneyBall. Too much fun. As someone who was a friend of Blake Snyder, I can say he would join me in congratulating a storyteller who can Celebrate Exceptions to all the “supposed” rules of screenplay writing. If the script has even the possibility of Subtext in the dialogue, then good actors can give their characters all the Inner Life an audience needs. Bad actors and bad dialogue, however, lead rule makers to search for inner life “formulas.”

  8. Robin Adair

    Bravo!

    Yes Character Arcs. Along with scene reversals should be tossed in the nearest trash can or recycle bin (depending on whether Mac or PC 😉 ) as one those “musts”.

    Sorta like the idiocy that as infected novelist these days that one should always show and not tell when writing a novel.

    I mean what is the reason one writes a novel anyway?

    But I digress.

    Obviously being new to screenwriting I picked up various books by certain Gurus on the subject who told me what supposedly made a good story and one of them was of course the character arc and another one was my own bette noir the reversal.

    Such as every scene must, must, must have a reversal of some kind!

    As if every movie should be a roller coaster ride of some kind.

    Probably why some of the films I’ve seen make me nauseous but again I digress.

    The old adage that there must be a character arc. Like you say doesn’t hold up with some of the greatest movies ever made. Even the case of Casablanca where Rick the cynic becomes Rick the freedom fighter but if one watches the movie Rick was always Rick the freedom fighter hiding behind a self protective cynical facade that by the end of the movie Rick doesn’t really change but just goes back to being who he really is.

    Anyway thanks again for the article it helps.

  9. docboon

    Well…I must say, this is a tad overstated (intentional irony there). While I appreciate the author’s umbrage at formula, a number of the films he cites do indeed have character arcs. That is, there is a primary character who changes. Tom Bell in No Country For Hold Men comes to realize that his day has passed (thus, you know, the title). Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Arc goes from a man who puts artifacts before love to a man who puts love before artifacts. We can find plenty of characters who do not change in films, but that doesn’t mean the narrative doesn’t hang on another character’s arc. If you just look at Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, we can make a strong argument that he doesn’t change, but Jules changes 180 degrees (which is why I consider Jackson the lead in that film, no matter what the Academy claims).

    Of course, several of the authors examples are rock solid, particularly with regard to mysteries. Mystery detectives are constants, and plot dominates most detective mysteries. Still, change is a significant and valuable tool for any dramatist and when we choose to not design change, we do so with full awareness. We are not really saying change doesn’t matter. We are affirming that change does matter and so the lack of it in a particular character is significant.

    1. cthomas

      Great article! There are a lot of different kinds of stories. Not everything can be a focal point. Sometimes personal “transformation” just isn’t at the heart of a story, and to have to frankenstein it on there sometimes makes a story much worse.

      The beats of that kind of story are so tired at this point. We’re told to avoid cliche in every area of storytelling except structure. But we should be avoiding cliche there, too, to keep things unpredictable and fun. There are so many different kinds of stories, and structures that work. I hope things start to open up to allow for that. It will help revitalize movies.

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