Writer’s Edge: Every Script Needs A Character Arc

Character arc is the change one of your main characters goes through from the beginning of your story until the end. Every well written screenplay should have at least one character who learns something major and changes his behavior or attitude in the course of the script.

'Rain Man'

‘Rain Man’

In the drama, Rain Man, the Tom Cruise character starts out mistreating his autistic brother who he’s kidnapped and holding for ransom because he feels cheated out of an inheritance. By the end of a cross country adventure, the Cruise character learns to love his brother and ultimately turns down a large check in order to maintain contact with him.

In the movie Liar, Liar, Jim Carey plays an attorney who is forced to tell the truth for twenty four hours because of a wish he makes to his son. By the end of the film, Carey has not only exhausted all the comic potential that this high concept idea generates but he becomes a better father in the process for his honesty. That is his character arc.

Even though virtually every story has one character undergoing an arc, there are a few notable exceptions. James Bond is essentially unchanged from beginning to end in every film of the franchise. In Godfather 2, Al Pacino’s character stays ruthless throughout the movie and has no arc at all. In The French Connection, Popeye Doyle’s character remains a reckless, obsessive detective until the closing credits despite having just accidentally killed a fellow officer.

Despite these exceptions, your scripts should have at least one major character who goes through a change in his belief or behavior.

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One thought on “Writer’s Edge: Every Script Needs A Character Arc

  1. Michael Q. Martin

    At the end of “Godfather 2” Al Pacino sits on a bench, all alone, with the fall leaves blowing at his feet. He looks sad, like he regrets the choices he’s made, including ordering the murder of his own brother. So perhaps he has changed, or maybe I’m just projecting my interpretation on to the ending.

    The ending of “Young Adult” also uses non-change to a make a point. The Charlize Theron character has gone through the entire movie as a terrible person, even though we learn during the movie why she is this way. There is a moment near the end when we think she is going to change, but then she reverts, and deludes herself into thinking her life is OK the way it is. A very powerful, but sad ending.