Why Do Character Arcs Matter, Anyway?

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Picture this:

We open on a girl’s frightened face. She’s wearing a red riding cloak of some kind and she’s scrunched up in a very tight space. We hear her voiceover: “It was dark inside the wolf.” Then, she stays there and does nothing and nothing changes. The End.

Wouldn’t it be better to see the girl master her fear, wrench her hand into her cloak pocket, dig out a knife, and slit open the wolf?

Stories have to show us change. That’s the point of it all: events happen that affect the characters. Most audiences want to see a clear and compelling transformation in the characters.

Character arcs do matter. So, let’s think about this question another way. How can we build better character arcs into our stories?

Lady Bird (2017) Photo courtesy: IAC Films

No. 1 — Know your start point

At the beginning of “Lady Bird” (2017), we learn that Lady Bird, as she calls herself, doesn’t have a great relationship with her mother; she isn’t getting stellar grades; and she isn’t sure she has much of future. Her dream is to get into a college in New York City, but the odds are against her.

By the end of the movie, she gets into that NYC college. It’s a tremendous victory…mostly because we know how hard it was for her to do it. We saw her change – and triumph.

But the first thing we have to see is the start point.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

No. 2 — Know your end point

At the beginning of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), Freddie Mercury is a nobody. He’s a nobody kid with a big voice who become one of the greatest rock n’ roll singers of all time.

The writers chose Queen’s incredible performance at Live Aid as the end point of their movie for a good reason: Freddie was at the top of his game. He’d made it and was living the dream.

In fact, the writers crafted their story to show the biggest change possible in Freddie’s character. They opened at his lowest point and ended with him on high, which made for a dynamic story.

They knew the end point.

Russian Doll (2019) Photo courtesy: Netflix

No. 3 — Know the obstacles required to change your character

The obstacles seem clear on the critically-acclaimed television show “Russian Doll” (2018). Nadia lives one day over and over again. As soon as she closes her eyes, she wakes up to the same music blaring in the same bathroom at the same birthday party. So, the first obstacle is she must stop dying and waking up on the same day.

How does this obstacle change her character?

She begins as a self-centered, aloof, angry, wounded woman. She ends by letting go of her guilt and reckoning with the death of her mother.

The real obstacle in this television series is Nadia herself. She has to make amends with all the people around her and face up to some bitter truths. What this means in terms of story construction: the writers gave Nadia a specific set of relationship challenges with a specific set of characters, and then the audience watches as Nadia negotiates one after another.

The writers clearly knew what she was going to get from each interaction. They knew where they wanted to go with Nadia’s character and they had an idea how every scene would build to that conclusion.

Know the obstacles required to change your character.

Who are your favorite characters on film? How do they change during the course of the story?

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of "Shakespeare for Screenwriters" (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming "Storytelling Secrets of the Masters." As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

2 Replies to "Why Do Character Arcs Matter, Anyway?"

  • comment-avatar
    WILLIAM SOWLES January 8, 2020 (8:03 am)

    Without change there is no conflict; without conflict there is no drama.

  • comment-avatar
    John January 8, 2020 (11:39 am)

    Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering

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