Friday, September 4, 2009

Finding Your Character Arc

We all know the importance of character arcs. (We DO all know the importance of character arcs, right?) And though it is always good to have some sort of idea on how your protagonist changes from the start of the story to its end before one begins to piece together their first draft, in many cases it is not feasible to tackle these details in the first attempt. Let's face it, first drafts are hard enough the way it is. The focus of early drafts should be to just get your story ideas on paper and form them into some kind of workable narrative. The structure of your character arc is something that is often left to later drafts, lest it make your first attempts more muddled and difficult than they already are.

However, whether you are paying attention to them or not, your character arcs are already starting to form in your early drafts. More often than not, they are not something that has to be created from scratch. Rather, just like your story's theme, they are already there, hiding in primitive form inside your narrative, waiting to be identified and brought to the surface.

What follows is a technique I have developed to do just that.

Step 1

Look over your script scene-by-scene from the opening sequence to the inciting incident. On a sheet of notebook paper, list block-paragraph style each and every character trait that is communicated to the audience within those scenes. Include everything that the audience could possibly gather on your character, from superficial characterization, (such as “tall,” “smoker”, “dog lover”) to the deep, possibly hidden, impulses that influence the character's behavior, (such as “afraid to connect with people,” “resentful of the past,” “feels a need to be recognized”). Make sure you list only the traits that are physically present in the scene. Don't make the mistake of listing all the things that you, the creator think you KNOW about the character. You might know it, but that information may not exist on the page. Look at your scenes with an objective eye and list ONLY the traits that the audience will be able to gather from the physical evidence on the screen.

You should wind up with nearly an entire page filled with traits. If you don't have nearly a page, this is your first RED FLAG. You have not put enough effort into developing who this character is and what makes them unique to their particular world. Most likely this character will come off as flat, generic, hollow, boring. Go back and flush out this character until you know them as well as your best friend before moving on.

Step 2

Look through your list of traits. Some traits will be physical constants that cannot change (such as height, physical appearance). Some will be personality constants that do not change (such as your action hero's confidence, or your child hero's enthusiasm and curiosity). Most of these will be somewhat “positive” traits, traits your protagonist has at the beginning that serve them well in their adventures, remaining unchanged through the end. The traits we are looking for are personality traits that go through a significant change or a complete reversal during the progression of the story. These will most likely be “negative” traits that hold the character back at the beginning of the story. As the story progresses, the character must eventually overcome these bad traits in order to reach his or her goal. (In rare cases, we find scripts that tell a “downward spiral” type story about a character who goes from virtuous to corrupt. In this case, the pattern is reversed).

Mark these traits with a highlighter. You will most likely have several synonyms that could be grouped together as the same trait. “Ashamed,” “regretful,” and “guilt ridden,” for instance can be combined into a single group.

Out of your page full of character traits, you should find anywhere between three to seven highlighted traits or groups of traits. If you don't have at least three, this is another RED FLAG. Most likely it would seem that your character doesn't change throughout the course of your story and a character arc doesn't exist. You need to go back into your story and pay attention to this. No human being could possibly go through the life-changing events found in any feature script and not be forever changed. Another problem may be that you have failed to give your character any negative traits. You have instead decided to create a dull, bland, goody-goody character incapable of any of the faults and hang-ups we all have ourselves. Audiences connect to flawed characters because they identify the character's problems to their own inadequacies . Any story experience is immeasurably enriched by a watching a flawed character reach their goals in their life by finding the courage to change for the better . This is one of cinema's greatest social functions, to constantly teach us that success is possible if we are constantly willing to become better people.

Step 3

List your highlighted traits or groups of traits on a second piece of paper, spaced evenly down the side. Then, draw an arrow across the page from each one and write the opposite of that trait, the trait that you wish your protagonist to embody by the end of the story. For example, if your protagonist starts out “valuing work over family,” the opposite of that trait would be “valuing family over everything.”

Now, in the five or six lines beneath each set of traits, briefly come up with the reason why the character possesses this negative trait. Delve into the psychology of the character. If you were a psychiatrist, what about this character's past life or present way of thinking could have caused their negative behavior? After you have done that, identify what in your story acts as the catalyst that forces your character to begin the journey to change. It must be something real and distinct, something that physically exists on the screen. Personalities, like physical objects, have inertia. Some sort of real force must exist to get the ball rolling in order for the character to overcome years of bad habits.

Step 4

If you are like me when I first tried this exercise, you will begin to see some sort of pattern form in the answers you came up with in Step 3. Some variation on the same cause for your character's negative traits may start to come up in nearly every group of traits. Find this pattern. This will show the ROOT of your character's problem – to take a phrase from Robert McKee, your character's “starting value”.

When analyzing my script Morrigan, I found that all my male protagonist's problems came from the fact that although he was a moral person, he lacked the inner strength to do what was right. His change came when he is forced to do something so bad he cannot accept it and finally fights back. His character arc is WEAKNESS to STRENGTH. My female lead character was angry and spiteful towards the world because hurt feelings over past experiences had created a false set of beliefs about the world. Her change came when actions by the protagonist caused her to questions those beliefs. Her character arc is IGNORANCE to WISDOM.

Find this pattern. State the starting value in one word or short phrase. Then find its opposite. This is your basic character arc.

If you find that there is no pattern, that your negative traits are created by radically different, or even contradictory causes, this may be another RED FLAG. You may be trying to make your character's arc go in two or more directions at once. Take careful consideration of this if you find this is the case. If you have two separate arcs acting at the same time for the same character which have no direct relationship to each other, it threatens to confuse your character's development and sap it of its strength. The narrative power of each arc might just work to cancel each other out. Just as a writer has to watch out for plot tangents that work to sap the narrative of its forward drive, a writer should look out for character tangents as well. Pick to strongest arc and drop the other, or find a way to create a connection between the disparate arcs so it will become part of a single, cohesive one.

Step 5

This step is not mandatory, but I find it creates a nice, easy to read guide to my characters that I can return to time and time again during the revision process.

On the top of another piece of paper, write the basic character arc that you discovered in Step 4, such as WEAKNESS to STRENGTH. Then, in a paragraph about a quarter page long, summarize how your character's starting value, (i.e. “weakness”) creates the your character's negative traits (the traits you analyzed in Step 2), and how the events in your story work to cause change in your character until they ultimately wind up possessing the final positive value (i.e. “strength.”). This should create a quick encapsulation of your character's inner journey from the beginning of the story to its end.

Step 6

Now that we have a basic idea of our character arc, we can look into the script and find the structure of that arc based on the events in the plot.

Look over your plot and find the story events that work as TURNING POINTS for your character's development- events that end up effecting your character in a personal way that caused some sort of change to occur. Mark these out on paper, labeling them TP1, TP2, TP3.... You should start to see some sort of structure arising already. Like the story arc, a protagonist's character arc often has a 3-Act structure, with its major turning points coinciding closely with the story's major turning points. If you find this is not in the case while performing this step, you should make some effort into re-shaping the structure of this character arc in your next revision.

Below each turning point, briefly describe how and why this plot event creates a change in your character, and how the character is different from this point onward. This will serve as a character guide when rewriting each section of the script.

Keep in mind that your characters are human beings, not light switches. They cannot abruptly change who they are based on a single, sudden event. It must be a slow, gradual process. A believable character arc has multiple moments of change, a gradual, and slowly escalating, wearing down of bad habits. Old habits die hard, and like a lump of coal, a human being needs constant pressure to eventually turn into a diamond.

Some RED FLAGS to look out for: the first is the “light-switch moment” mentioned above, one single, big turning point where the character's behavior suddenly does a 180. This is never believable. You need to seek out multiple events to gradually change your character. Some people might point out Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol as a light-switch character. Maybe to the other characters in the story he would seem that way, but if you look closer at the story you will see a slow gradual change in his character from his first ghostly visit to his eventual epiphany.

Another problem is that you might not be able to find your character's turning points in your plot. In this case, you need to go back over the major events of your story and put more thought into what kind of effect they might have on the mental, emotional, and physical state of your characters. These character reactions can create opportunities for character change. You might also have to create new story events for the sake of your character's development – but make sure these new events remain directly relevant to the advancement of the plot. Bringing the plot to a halt to shoehorn in a character arc moment not only kills story momentum, but usually comes off as a contrivance that the audience sees right through. This can be just as bad as having no moment of character development at all.

Step 7


You now have a strong grasp on the arc of your character's change, and a map of the moments that create it. Now all there is left to do is to go back into your script and make sure that these moments, and the changes they create, are clearly communicated to the audience in a way that is clear, consistent, and natural.

Scribble on.