Writing Organic Character Arcs – Part 1


I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by yet another L.A.-based script guruess, Julie Gray at The Writers’ Store.  Heck, she teaches at Warner Bros, so I guess she knows a few things about character.

Back to the topic of developing memorable characters. Firstly, a character arc is defined as a shift in character from an old way of being to a new way of being. The change can be incremental or a quantum leap. Usually it’s a combination of both. This change is what audiences connect with on an emotional level.

Since Hollywood prefers a positive change in characters, since it corresponds to higher ticket sales, ensure your characters are unlikeable at the start of your screenplay and become likeable (or less unlikeable) by the end.

Structure your character arcs by asking three pivotal questions:

1) What do they WANT? This is a tangible, attainable goal. In “Juno”, Juno wants to find a good home for her unborn child.

2) What do they NEED? This is the underlying motivation driving their main want? It is caused by a psychological wound or other trauma. Ask yourself how the inner need drives the outer want. In Juno’s case, she needs to find peace and forgive her mother for abandoning her.

The complexity of human psychology often reveals that our outer wants are inversely related to our inner needs. In Juno’s case she is “abandoning” her baby as a way of dealing with abandonment by her mother. We tend to lash out at the one’s we love most because we are most vulnerable to them.

3) What is their FLAW? The Ancient Greeks spoke of a fatal flaw or the Achilles heel. It makes the character more human and vulnerable, and therefore more relatable to audiences because it helps explain a their behavior. The main character is either oblivious to it, or completely underestimates it.

Make your character’s flaw cinematic. How does it manifest itself? Consider at least five SYMPTOMS, or active visual manifestations of the flaw. Consider how your character would react at a dinner party, in an airplane or in traffic if they were shy, short-tempered or psychotic?

Flaws are what generate tension and conflict in your story. Flaws help shape your character’s decisions and therefore drive the plot. Therefore plunge your character into a situation that most triggers the flaw. This will raise the stakes for attaining their goals. For instance, the vain, prim Elle Woods went to the stuffiest of universities (Harvard) where her vanity would be ridiculed. The greater the trigger, the better the conflict. Make your character earn their stripes in their quest for purpose and identity.

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