Character Arc Is About Change. Or is it?


Movies still remain one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. Film producers are always in search of a great story. It all begins with a solid screenplay. Writing a movie script from scratch is no easy feat. Think of your story in terms of change.

Screenwriting is also about character growth. Plot is how characters achieve this growth. Characters should undergo some internal of external change. If not, they should cause change in their communities.

So the question of story isn’t “To change or not to change?” But rather “What will change?”

I have previously discussed characters’ mission to confront fear and negativity and pursue  happiness and joy, both on a conscious and subconscious level.

Emotional Change

The most common form of character growth in successful films is emotional. Let’s take a look at what psychologist Martin Seligman has to say about emotion. He identified five positive emotional elements which can be applied to your character arcs to make them more fulfilling in your screenplay. They are:

  • engagement
  • relationships
  • meaning
  • accomplishment
  • positive emotion

The Hero’s Journey Demands Change

A key factor in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is that the main character is reluctant to change. They are forced to change. Part of the resistance to change is fear. Part of it is wanting to maintain the status quo.

Martin Seligman has another theory on why protagonists are reluctant to change. He developed the concept of “LEARNED HELPLESSNESS“.

Characters initially believe that their negative situation cannot change through personal, environmental or social factors. They don’t have the skills, knowledge, resources or wherewithal to bring about change. Therefore there is no point in trying.

This can be likened to your characters’ dilemma, problem or critical incident.

The main character may also refuse to believe a change is necessary. Either due to ignorance or denial.

This is the exploratory or wanderer phase of their story; their call to adventure.

A Character’s Loss Instigates Change

There must be a loss which creates the space for your characters to grow. The loss or abandonment triggers the inciting incident, which forces the character to act.

After a few false strategies (usually two), the main character sinks to rock bottom at the end of act 2. At this point, the main character is often alone and feels hopeless. The mission is declared a failure. No change is possible. Then, the final strategy is put into place, leading to a victory.

Characters not only need an arc in terms of achieving an outer goal and growing as a person, they must also grow in terms of their relationships with other characters.

Contemplation (inner need) can be achieved in solitude, but it must occur in the context of other characters to satisfy the audience and make your story cinematic.

Change Brings Rewards 

Character arcs need to be rewarding both to the audience and the characters. The growth must be meaningful in terms of a lesson being learned. That is what the audience connects with because it helps explain their world.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. fifth is positive emotion. well spotted. jgs

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