Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Crucial Character Arc Question

(SPOILERS: Star Wars, Almost Famous, Die Hard, Some Like It Hot, Sweet Home Alabama, Casablanca, Little Miss Sunshine, Young Adult)

It’s just, I don’t want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids to poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. Y’know?

Oh, of course. We agree. Definitely.

Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y’know? Movie shit.

-From Adaptation (screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman)

Ah yes, movie shit. I love this exchange. But here’s the question I would ask the fictional Kaufman: If the character doesn’t grow or change or learn why do I care about the movie? If the story doesn’t have any impact on their life, what’s the point?

In the last month I've been helping dozens of writers break their stories, either my students at Art Center or the writers I mentor in Singapore. By far the most common question I've been asking is, "What does the character learn from this experience?"

I've talked here about character need as the way I define character arc. What the character wants drives the external plot, what the character needs drives the internal story. But the idea of need can still be confusing so I'd like to look at it in more detail.

The first thing to point out is that when I say need, I mean psychological or emotional need. Sometimes a writer will tell me something like, "The character wants to rescue his wife, he needs to find out where she is." Finding out his wife's location is not need as I define it for character. Rather it is simply a stage in achieving the want. A more useful character need would be something like: "to overcome his fears," or "to put others' interest before his own," or "to take responsibility for his own failing." If the writer is having trouble identifying the need, I'll ask them what the character learns from this experience.

Ideally, the want and need work together. This usually happens in one of three ways:

1. The character has to get what they need in order to get what they want. In this case, a psychological or emotional aspect of the character is preventing them from achieving their goal. They have to overcome that internal obstacle in order to succeed. Usually, they aren’t aware of this need at the beginning of the film.

In Star Wars (written by George Lucas) Luke wants to rescue Leia, but in order to do that he has to master the force. (The force serves as a metaphor for believing in himself). It is only when he trusts his instincts and turns off the targeting computer that he can destroy the Death Star and save the princess.

Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) also works this way. William wants to be a rock journalist. His mentor tells him that in order to achieve this, he needs to be truthful and merciless. And he is not merciless – he worships the rock stars he wants to cover. Over the course of the movie he is disillusioned by his heroes, which in turn allows him to write a truthful article and achieve success.

2. In the process of getting what they want, the character gets what they need to be happy. In these types of movies, the character has a psychological or emotional flaw that is making them unhappy. The adventure they go on in the story causes them to overcome this flaw. The story has changed their life in a positive way.

For example, in Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) John McClane wants to save his wife from Hans and the criminals. But in the status quo section we learned that McClane’s marriage is on the rocks, largely due to his difficulty accepting his wife’s career success. The story causes him to appreciate how much his wife means to him and ultimately take responsibility for his role in the marriage’s failure.

Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) follows this model in a particularly elegant way. Joe wants to escape the mob, but we’ve seen in the beginning that one of his big flaws is that he’s a liar and womanizer. In order to escape the mob he dresses like a woman, which gives him insight into women’s lives and causes him to change so that he can have a real, honest relationship with Sugar at the end.

3. What the character needs is to realize their want is wrong. In these stories the character's flaw is that they want the wrong thing - maybe their want is morally wrong or maybe achieving it would not make them happy. Maybe their priorities are screwed up. Over the course of the story, they come to realize they are pursuing the wrong goal and they change what they want. In some cases they get what they wanted at the end of Act II, only to realize at that moment they made the wrong choice and have to reverse it in Act III.

This is common in love triangle stories - the heroine has been pursuing the wrong man and gets him at the end of Act II, only to realize she's actually in love with the other guy. This is the approach we took in Sweet Home Alabama – Melanie reconciles with Andrew at the end of Act Two, but along the way she’s fallen back in love with her ex, Jake.

Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) gives a spin to this form – Ilsa tells Rick she’s willing to leave Victor at the end of Act Two, which is exactly what Rick’s been hoping for. Except now he realizes this is not morally right. So he puts her on the plane with Victor at the end.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates a non-love-triangle version of this. Richard, the main character, wants Olive to be a winner. But when they arrive at the pageant, he realizes it is not a healthy situation for her. He has learned that he should accept and appreciate her for who she is. In the end she loses, but the previously dysfunctional family has bonded.

There is a fourth rare form: the movie where the character fails to learn the lesson. This is difficult to pull off and usually makes for a dark story. Most often we see this in black comedy. The important thing in these cases is that the character has the opportunity to learn the lesson they need to learn. The fact that they choose not to tells us something about them (and gives us a bleak view of humanity).

Young Adult (written by Diablo Cody) attempted this – just as Mavis contemplates changing her ways, another character talks her out of it. She ends the movie right where she started – shallow and miserable.

If a character simply goes on an external mission, with no opportunity to change, the result is a superficial story. You can still pull this off if the character is likable enough and you put them in mortal jeopardy. We'll care then whether they live or die. But you can get a more complex, interesting and involving story if you add the additional level of a character arc.

When it comes to applying this to your script, it's not as simple as choosing one, two or three. You have to figure out what is right for your story and character. A good place to start is to ask yourself, “What does the character learn from this experience?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is a great explanation of the arc and its variations. Succinct and clear, a scaled model that makes it easy to hold the possibilities in mind. Thanks for this useful tool.