Do Characters In Your Screenplay ALWAYS Need To Change?

Screenwriting is hard work. Learning how to write a movie script that sells is even harder. But it can be done. Let’s look at character change and how screenwriters can use it.

A major tenet of Aristotelian storytelling is that character metamorphosis occurs through a character arc.

By definition, they need to emerge at the end of your screenplay with greater knowledge and wisdom to give their conflicts meaning. However, a grand transformation as a character struggles with their problems may not always be apparent.

A character may cause other characters to change. Or a situation to change. These are often referred to as CATALYST characters.

To further complicate matters, the main character of a screenplay is often defined as the one which undergoes the greatest change. To slavishly adhere to this definition would deny the main driver of the action and exploration of a film’s core theme from being identified as the main character.

Dramatica defines a character as either being steadfast (non-changing) or changing. Character change has been divided into GROWTH (the ability to explore all the factors which cause a conflict) and RESOLVE (a fundamental shifts in values).

Character growth is often referred to as the journey or the character arc. To illustrate, consider “The People versus Larry Flynt”. Larry Flynt is the principal propagator of the plot as he argues the merits of free speech in accordance with the American constitution. He has experienced internal growth by facing public derision and incarceration for his beliefs. However, there is little resolve because he hasn’t gained knowledge during his journey or changed his core values. In fact, he clings on to the value of freedom of expression more than ever.

There are other examples of main characters not overtly changing. There is a category of characters called TRAVELING ANGELS which are diving in nature, but cause those around them to profoundly change their attitudes and beliefs.

Such films include “Forrest Gump” and “Rain Man”. The main characters in these films have grown internally by experiencing being powerful catalysts for the change of others. The joy of these steadfast characters lies in the fact that sometimes they instigate dramatic change with minimal effort; they’re just being themselves.

Villains are also typically STEADFAST characters. During “Batman”, Heath Ledger’s chilling portrayal of The Joker didn’t result in any change in resolve. He ends up more evil as he concocts new ways to create chaos and keep Batman employed.

In summary, not all characters must change in your film script, but they must cause change either to their environments. situations or to others.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. wannabescribe says:

    Great advice. I’m going to film school now and find it frustrating a times. Instructors (not all) almost by default insist on the character changing, growing in the classic Aristotelean reversal/recognition/pathos. Nice to have some examples where the main character creates change vs. experiences it. Knowing the classic model does help in building plots, I just wish the industry wouldn’t treat it like a check list.

    1. most stories have a moral lesson, so the character needs to grow, learn, start or stop doing something. static character arcs are relatively new, so travelling angel characters causing change must be made obvious.

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