People often talk of “character arcs.”  Arcs a fancy byword for “character change.”  Think of your hero as a work in progress.  Protagonist 1.0 might be cool and handsome, but isn’t in touch with his feminine side/greedy/can’t skateboard.  Odds are that a series of amusing setpieces will turn him into Protagonist v2.0 who’s very in touch with his feminine side/not greedy/a good skater.

Let me illustrate with a bad pitch:  A badass comes to a strange town.  He kicks a bunch of ass.  Then he kicks more ass.  Then he fights the villain in a big showdown in a burning building.  Then he leaves town with the girl.

Not much of a tale.  If I were reading and covering this, I’d write something like, “The protagonist lacks a dramatic arc.  He defeats the bad guys with skills and tools he had at the beginning.”

Stories are about change, about giving characters Freudian backstories and excuses, and then reconciling them in the course of the drama.  This shouldn’t be too obvious, but still, you want an audience member of average intelligence to take in your tale and see where you’re coming from.

So let’s give our badass an arc.  This is basically screenwriting at its most mediocre, but it’s illustrative of my basic point.

UNTITLED BADASS STORY, REV 01: A Badass comes to town.  He kicks ass, but he’s no match for the main Badass who kicks even more ass.  Badass is terrified of fire.  He meets love interest *, and lets down his guard, revealing that a fire once beat up his mom.  Trauma.  But when his strength fails, the girl is there to help him, and he makes peace with ghosts.  He kicks the bad guys ass in a burning building thanks to the confidence he’s gotten from his adventures in the story.

 * Note that the love interest is a trophy, a metaphor for the quality the hero must attain to resolve the story.  This is a very difficult trap to avoid.

The story is better than nothing because the hero changes/evolves/grows in the course of the story.  For gods sake, don’t write an arc that trite and cheesy, but try coming up with an arc that fits in the paradigm that’s better than what I pitched.

That’s all I have to say about arcs for the moment.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

2 thoughts on “CHARACTER ARCS 101

  1. What’s your thoughts on movies like KIDS and Young Adult, where the protag doesn’t change or have an arc. Both movies I felt were very good. The arc I feel is the audience, where a fresh perspective or a character they could relate to changed how they see themselves.

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