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Character Arcs Revisited

Banes at 12:00AM, April 12, 2018

A character starts in one state of being, and ends in a very different state of being.

The Character Arc in a nutshell!

Every time the subject of character arcs comes up around the site or on the Quackcast, one of the first examples that comes to my mind is the main character's arc in District 9. This is a standard character arc that takes a character from one extreme to another. It's powerfully done in District 9; that movie even shows an earlier clip of Wikus that shows us how much he's changed since the beginning of the story.

Avoiding spoilers, he's completely changed. For better, or for worse…well, the movie's worth a look if you want to decide that.


The classic arc would take a character from one state to a BETTER state. The naive character becomes mature and experienced; the timid character becomes courageous; the cynical character's heart grows three sizes.

So we have movies like Groundhog Day, Scream, Star Wars, and, well, probably the majority of movies/stories.

This does not spell CLICHE; it's the kind of arc that people respond to emotionally! It inspires us and makes us think we can do better in our own lives.

This can often run counter to the plot events or outer reality of the story, of course. The character's circumstances may seem the same or even worse than when they started. But they've become a better person in some way.

Non-Arc Arc

Sometimes there isn't an arc. The main character ends up pretty much the same as when they started. Perhaps it's the characters around them who change (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Or the story they've undergone is the most important/interesting one of their lives, which made it a story worth telling in spite of little change in the person (Chinatown, many horror stories). Or maybe it's the plot that matters, or the change is just subtle (Big Trouble in Little China, Bond, Indiana Jones).

The Downer

The opposite of the classic “improvement” arc is the downward arc, where the character ends up worse off than when they started. Did Walter White become “better” in some sense, by accepting who he really was in the end? Maybe, but I'd say his journey was kind of a downward spiral by most measures. An amazing, compelling, fantastic downward spiral!

Do you think about character arcs in your own work? Is including the “non-arc” series of examples an indicator that character arcs are not essential? And hey, what about arcs in sequels, or in series?

“Arcs in a series” might be something to discuss next week…



bravo1102 at 8:07AM, April 12, 2018

There's also the arc that isn't seen but hinted at throughout as others react to the change that happened off-screen. Indiana Jones is an interesting example because the Young Indiana Jones series (arguably better than at least two of the movies) shows the arc hinted at in the movies. You see his experience in the Great War and then Hollywood create the character we know from the movies.

Banes at 6:47AM, April 12, 2018

@KimLuster - Thanks! And please never let those dream die! Er...well, maybe THOSE dreams are better set aside...

Banes at 6:47AM, April 12, 2018

@ozone: I'm arc-welding!

KimLuster at 6:26AM, April 12, 2018

How do you think up these wonderful articles, chock full o' goodies?!! Yeah, the Godstrain arc is the classic 'gettin' better' arc. Those kinds of arcs do make us feel all fuzzy inside... But the downer arcs stick with us too. Requiem for a Dream (4 downer arcs in one show) made me give up my dream of becoming an addict and a prostitute!

Ozoneocean at 6:13AM, April 12, 2018

What arc are you doing? :)

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