Close

Character Arcs: Growth, Recovery, Change

By Ron Moskovitz · November 10, 2011

“Character arc” is a term thrown around frequently when discussing movies and screenplays. As a catch-all term for character change, it’s a useful tool which can help you improve your screenplays, no matter what genre you work in. In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of what and arc is, and how it works. But we’re only scratching the surface here. Expect lots more on this subject in future columns.

Growth

A character arc can take many forms, but one of the most common is the arc of growth. An example of this is film Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and directed by Shekhar Kapur. Cate Blanchette’s Elizabeth undergoes a dramatic transformation, from the naive girl we first see dancing in a field, to the stern queen willing to condemn many English nobles to their deaths.

When you watch the film, there are many cues to the character transformation. Note, for example, the changes to hair, makeup, and costume as the story progresses. But all of those changes are designed to support the character’s written arc, which comes out of the intersection of her desire to secure her throne and her desire to love and marry.

We first meet Elizabeth dancing and flirting in a field with Robert Dudley (Joseph Feinnes). When their intimate moment is interrupted by soldiers from London, the central conflict is clear. But what makes the arc work so powerfully is that we see Elizabeth try but fail to reconcile her conflicting goals, so her ultimate decision carries weight.

Time and time again her femininity is at expressed or implied odds with her duty as queen, whether it’s Norfolk charging into her bedroom to goad her into war, or the attempt on her life which happens during a relaxing cruise on the river. But over the course of the film, she gradually rejects the trappings of romantic girlhood, rejecting the kindly father figure Sir William (played by Richard Attenborough) and her duplicitous lover Robert, until all that is left for her to reject is the trappings of femininity itself, which she does by cutting her hair and painting her skin a pale white.

Recovery

Another common arc is that of recovery. Some refer to this as a “psychic wound” arc. A great example of this is in Aliens, written and directed by James Cameron. When we meet Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley at the beginning of this film – a sequel – she’s tortured by the events of the first film, unable to sleep, and haunted by the loss of her daughter who died while she was in hyper-sleep. To drive this home, we first meet her in the middle of a nightmare.

But through the act of rescuing the orphan girl Newt, she heals herself of the loss of her biological daughter. The final dialog exchange of the film, in which Ripley tells Newt that they can sleep all the way home – and dream, too! – is the closing step on this arc, and the final shot of the two of them sleeping serves as a clear counterpoint to the nightmare in Ripley’s first scene.

Growth & Recovery

Often, a character’s arc may combine both of these types. For example, in Pixar’s Up, written by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy (directed by Docter and Peterson), Carl – the old man voiced by Ed Asner – is clearly suffering from depression due to the death of his wife. He’s living in the past, and his recovery from that psychological wound is connected with growing into the ability to embrace his life.

Up also illustrates two other fundamental aspects of a good character arc.

Change: Greatest Pressure and Commitment Tested

First, the change occurs at the moment of greatest pressure. Carl changes at the moment when he has failed. The house has hit ground at Paradise Falls, and Russell, the overeager Boy Scout voiced by Jordan Nagai, has decided to put himself in harms way – and potentially lethal danger – in order to rescue the rare bird Kevin. He has just given up on his promise to his late wife at the moment that he finds the note from her which precipitates his decision to commit to helping Russell. This timing helps make the change seem organic to the character, rather than pasted in to fit a box on a development checklist.

Second, Carl’s commitment to change is tested. It’s not enough that he has to decide to go after Russell – he also has to throw out all the mementos of his old life in order to do so. The writers make Carl prove that he’s willing to let go of his old life – in his case, literally, by making him throw away all his material possessions in order to go after who is most important: Russel. This makes the change feel earned, and thus more satisfying.

But not all characters have an arc nor should they. In my next column, we’ll look at some characters who don’t, but none the less, understanding character arcs will always be a powerful tool that belongs in your screenwriting arsenal. A strong arc can deepen the audience’s emotional connection with a character, and make the resolution of your story stronger. Study some of your favorite films to see how the characters grow, how they recover, how they change, and apply what you learn to your own scripts.