Character Arcs Made Easy
A SIMPLE WAY TO UNDERSTAND CHARACTER ARCS
It’s been fun using this forum to think out loud about the craft of story-telling and story-telling structures. I’ve recently been thinking about character arcs as they apply in audio drama and I thought I’d share the results…
Whereas the plot contains a series of external events and obstacles that are placed in the path of the protagonists in a story (to which the characters react), a character arc, by contrast, is generally a map of the inner journey of the characters in response to the events they are a part of.
I’m going to talk about Star Wars (since it contains very clear illustrations of what a character arc is) and look at Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (but it would be just as easy to use Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice or any number of others). Luke begins as a naive, day-dreaming farm boy and ends up a rebel fighter pilot. Han solo begins as an amoral, murderous (yes, he really did shoot first), smuggler, and ends up a hero of the rebellion.
The basic elements of a character arc are as follows
DEMONSTRATING EXISTING CHARACTER
Here we meet the character for the first time and see them living their ordinary life in its ordinary routine.
Example: Luke is a daydreaming, idealistic farm boy. Han Solo is an on the run smuggler who shoots first and asks questions later.
CALL TO CHANGE
Here we see them respond to the event that upsets their routine existence and calls them to make adjustments.
Example: Luke is asked by Ben Kenobi to come to Alderaan. Han is asked by Luke to help rescue the princess in the detention centre.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Here we see the characters resisting change, trying to re-establish the status quo.
Example: Luke explains why the harvest etc. prevent him from taking part in the rebellion. Han points out that breaking into an Imperial detention centre is insanity.
COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
Here we see the character committing to the changes required of them, deciding that it is worth the effort and valuable enough to risk everything for.
Example: Luke responds to the death of his uncle and aunt by committing to Kenobi’s cause. Han responds to the offer of riches by committing to Luke’s plan.
TESTING OF COMMITMENT
Here we see the character’s commitment to change being tested. Will they hold true, or will they fall back into their old ways? This usually involves one final test in which they could lose everything.
Example: Luke needs to use the force and embrace his new life as a Jedi. Han, though reluctant to be a hero and wanting to leave and pay off the bounty on his head, flies in at the last minute to help Luke get a clear shot at the death star.
DEMONSTRATION OF CHANGED CHARACTER
With the final test passed we see the character living differently, life settles into a new routine that embraces the change they have gone through.
Example: Luke and Han are now members of the Rebel Alliance, having undergone a baptism of fire, and receive medals before the crowd.
The power of the character arc, like so many writing tools, comes, in part, from its familiarity. It creates a strong sense of identification with the character. A story can be full of ray guns, dragons, spaceships, dragons with rayguns flying around in spaceships, and other elements that we have no real connection with in daily life… and it will still be relatable if the characters are going through common human emotional experiences. We’ve all had the experience of being comfortable only to be confronted about a behavior that’s a problem. We’ve all experienced the anger that can arise, the sense of injustice, the initial tendency to say “hey, that’s your problem; I don’t need to change” and so, resist the call to change. We also recognize the experience of realizing a change needs to be made, setting out to make that change, and how testing it is to try and make that change successfully. Lastly, we all know the experience of succeeding or failing to make changes. In day to day life these experiences tend to be around little things (trying to break bad habits, managing our weight, deciding its time to get a new job, etc.) rather than the saving of universes etc. But their familiarity makes it possible for us to identify with characters who are, indeed, trying to save the universe.
Most major characters in a story will undergo change as a result of the events that unfold in a story. When they do, the audience feels a certain amount of satisfaction with the story – even when the change is for the worse. Some characters successfully navigate the call to change, others fall at the last hurdle, but none are the same. Some become better adjusted and more mature capable individuals, others become bitter failures, etc. etc.
We seem to find even the failure of a character to navigate change (often the lot of villains) compelling.
Flaws allow characters to grapple with change (to the point that watching that conflict unfold is its own form of drama). We want to see if they will succeed or fail. I suspect that when we see the psychopath rescue the drowning kitten, it is more than the fact we’ve found something relatable in the character (kindness to kittens) that makes us want to keep following the story (though I’m not dismissing that either). I think we also want to see what difference this makes to the character from that point on.
We will even want to follow the story of a character who repulses us if a compelling enough question (or series of questions) can be raised about the prospects for change. The “call to change” (above) brought about by the challenge of the story (and the subsequent challenges to the character’s attempts at change) have a huge impact on how much we want to follow what is happening to any given character.
Will looking after the kitten alter the psychopath? The curiosity to find out gives us one more reason to remain tuned in.
The character arc model is a useful shorthand for creating a satisfying story out of the internal world of the characters. It isn’t a substitute for the plot, but takes place in parallel with it, and different characters each have their own arc and move through it at different rates (Darth Vader’s arc took three films to complete).
There is one caveat, however. While most novels, self-contained stories and films contain complete character arcs, there is one place that the full character arc tends NOT to find expression. Serial stories tend to have protagonists who do not change greatly, or change very slowly, as they pass from book to book, episode to episode, or film to film. This slow growth tends to defy the formula above. Xena, MacGuyver, and the A Team (yes, I’m a child of the 80s) all had very static characters. The peculiar fixety of characters in serials that used to be the norm tends to be less common now, but even so, dramatic character change is far less common in serial story telling than in the self-contained story. Character change, though slower in a serial, can still add immense interest as the audience follows that growth and change over time.
A character arc is clearly not an essential of story-telling, but it is nonetheless a very common and useful tool to employ.
What techniques do you use when you are creating characters? Share your ideas in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.