Character arcs are the inner emotional or moral transformation that characters undergo over the course of a screenplay. While plot details the external progression of events, character arcs showcase the internal growth and change.
From flawed heroes overcoming weaknesses to villains further declining into immorality, how protagonists evolve throughout a story helps filmmakers deliver a more profound cinematic experience.
In this comprehensive guide, screenwriters can uncover how crafting compelling character arcs enhances their scripts and captivates viewers.
The Key Elements of a Character Arc
Remember, audiences invest in characters first before caring about plot. So developing a relatable, deep lead character with an impactful arc drives engagement. Here are the vital components screenwriters must incorporate:
A Thought-Out Starting Point
Whether a movie is character-driven or based around external events, its lead character (protagonist) requires an established backstory—wounds, flaws, fears, environment influences and all.
This context spotlights where the arc sets off from and the inherent contradictions within the character. Is your hero a skilled doctor lacking empathy after a traumatic childhood? Or an arrogant warrior harboring insecurities? Define all this background context up front.
An Inciting Incident
What pivotal external event throws your protagonist’s world off-balance? The inclusion of a strong inciting incident forces the lead character out of their usual world and status quo into one where change becomes inevitable.
This could involve the sudden death of a loved one, a call to action, confrontation by an enemy—any disturbance disrupting their ordinary. In Frozen, Elsa’s inability to control her magical abilities at her coronation provides the life-altering jolt.
A Transformation Progression
The progression anchors the character arc. After the inciting incident your protagonist will confront an evolving series of challenges.
Each test forces more change as they pursue external goals and address internal flaws simultaneously. Ensure the progression ties into the background you establish.
Does the doctor lack empathy due to childhood trauma? Have patients reawaken those painful memories so he overcomes them. Link external plot and internal arc using specific story milestones and plot points.
A Resolution & Climax
As your lead character approaches the climax, they must demonstrate change in the final resolution.
Present them with an ultimate test tailored to make them apply the lessons they’ve internalized and evolve past their earlier flaws or beliefs.
This emotional final exam proves they deserve their story’s lessons and becoming wiser versions of themselves.
An Earned New Equilibrium
By the story’s conclusion after the climax, protagonists emerge changed in a earned, believable manner. Avoid sudden flip flops in persona as that screams “scriptwriter at work!”.
Instead showcase gradual, subtle evolution. The once arrogant warrior now exudes quieter confidence without insecurity.
The doctor develops empathy for patients. Dedicate screen time to demonstrate the changed equilibrium. Audiences must buy in that the lead genuinely transforms.
The Three Types of Character Arcs
While every movie offers its own unique character arcs, most adhere to three common templates.
Some theorists argue that writers can even derive the key arc progression points mathematically to form an engaging curve. But before crunching numbers focus first on picking the appropriate arc foundation:
Positive Change Character Arcs
The most common arc features protagonists transforming for the better by fixing inherent flaws. Called a “hero’s journey”, the initially faulty individual becomes a superior, wiser person by story’s end.
Flawed doctors find empathy, irresponsible men uncover responsibility, immoral types gain virtues—the variations are infinite. But the arc flows in one direction—upwards towards enlightenment.
Use positive change arcs for your hero facing an internal rather than external antagonist. Their own shortcomings provide the challenge to overcome.
Gladiator showcases General Maximus Decimus Meridius on a positive transformation from vengeful slave to altruistic savior.
Negative Change Character Arcs
Rarer yet more gut-wrenching, these arcs showcase originally righteous lead figures declining into immorality or weakness due to story conditions.
Rather than overcome shortcomings, they succumb to inherent vices or flaws. Positive values like honesty and empathy decline steadily.
Morality erodes through gradual corruption or violent tragedy. Michael Corleone in The Godfather endures a negative arc moving from idealism to ruthless criminality to preserve his family.
Flat Character Arcs
Not every protagonist undergoes change. Some remain stalwart embodiments of unchanging virtues or flaws throughout for plot or thematic purposes.
Unbending in beliefs, personality or worldviews, flat arc characters tie into larger messages about morality absolutism. They contrast against dynamic entities.
Look at Batman. All arcs involve the Caped Crusader confronting adversity while retaining fundamental qualities that define the cultural icon. His dedication against crime and loss doesn’t fundamentally change across interpretations.
Tips on How to Write Character Arcs
With the foundations set, here are vital tips for bringing well-crafted arcs alive:
Connect Character and Theme
Character arcs must service a screenplay’s central themes or explorations of human nature. If set in a medical environment, themes of death, empathy, isolation get addressed through the doctors themselves.
When focused on redemption, ensure the protagonists seek that through personal moral growth. Intertwine external and internal journeys.
Shape Subtle, Realistic Progression
Well-crafted character arcs feature nuanced progressions where the seeds for change get planted early.
Spock from Star Trek undergoes a subtle shift from coldly logical to displaying human compassion—a journey set up right from initial scenes showing his dual heritage.
Craft analogous bookends in behaviors to highlight differences between the early and evolved protagonists. Modern audiences recognize even gradual transformations.
Root in Backstory
An old writing adage says “wound them so you can heal them.” Anchor your protagonist’s flaws, fears or beliefs in formative background events for meaningful change.
Tony Stark’s penchant for self-sacrifice ties back to guilt over profiting from war. Katniss from Hunger Games distrusts government due to an father’s mine worker death. When change addresses painful history, it resonates more.
Build Meaningful Relationships
Well-developed supporting characters enable the arc through relationships exposing flaws or accelerating growth. Love interests, family members or mentors reflecting protagonist traits often feature.
Elsa’s mistaken fear isolation protects Anna in Frozen leads to tragedy before both sisters rebuild a new bond. Ensure these special relationships encourage positive progression.
Why Character Arcs Matter
Beyond bringing personal flavor, memorable character arcs serve other crucial story functions:
- They Captivate Viewers – Even in action-packed plots or sequence-driven ones like The Fugitive, audiences emotionally invest in watching strong characters evolve. This need drives entire fandoms and franchises from Star Trek to Harry Potter. Iconic arcs equals engaged viewers.
- Enable Powerful Thematic Resonance – Character transformations directly serve themes about morality, ethics, redemption or human resilience against trauma for heightened storytelling meaning. Change arcs act as thematic delivery mechanisms.
- Organically Reveal Characterization – Showcasing how protagonists grow via experience is far better than explanatory backstories or monologues. Screenwriters can “show don’t tell” most effectively through plot-driven development.
Top screenplay contests like Academy Nicholl Fellowship or Austin Film Festival specifically assess submitted works for effective character craftsmanship.
Arc mastery remains a vital skill in a screenwriter’s toolbox for writing not just stories but also resonant human experiences.
Legendary Pixar scribe Andrew Stanton summarized this best by saying writers must “make me care” about their characters above all else.
Conclusion – What is Character Arc in Screenwriting
As discussed above, character arcs stand central to cinematic storytelling. Whether positive change or negative, externally imposed or rooted in personalities, they showcase protagonists evolving philosophically and emotionally in engaging ways.
While execution remains challenging, especially avoiding sudden transformations, pattern-driven approaches can prove useful.
By adhering to the established arc anatomy and tips, screenwriters can sculpt transcending tales high on dramatic influence.
The next time you watch a memorable movie, analyze what specifically changed internally for the principles rather than just plot details.
That awareness offers inspiring insights into mastering this vital skill of driving audience investment through impactful character arcs, the true spine of cinematic masterworks.
A thoughtfully penned arc captivates viewers, enables thematic resonance and reveals characterization organically over any explanatory shortcuts.
Frame your next immersive story around substantive inner change. As for execution, heed Pixar’s wisdom: “Make me care!” If achieved, the emotional journey traversed guarantees your screenplay leaves a lasting impression.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an example of a character arc?
One of the most famous character arc examples is Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He starts off as a bitter, miserly man but through supernatural experiences that force him to revisit his past and realize how his choices hurt people, he transforms into a caring, generous person by the story’s end.
What does it mean for a character to have an arc?
When a character has an arc, it means they undergo substantial internal change over the course of a story. Their core personality, motivations, beliefs, or moral alignment evolves due to plot events and challenges. Dynamic arcs show personal growth.
How do you structure a character arc?
Effective character arc structure moves the protagonist from their ordinary world into a new status quo, takes them through escalating conflicts while incrementally changing, builds to a climax where they demonstrate resolution of internal flaws, and concludes with their emergence as a wiser, more enlightened version of themselves.
Why do authors use character arcs?
Character arcs captivate readers seeing the personal evolutions unfold. They act as vessels for the story’s theme and lessons. Flawed characters also provide built-in inner conflict alongside external plot challenges. Overall, arcs showcase rather than tell dynamic characterization.
Who has the best character arc of all time?
Some of the contenders for one of the best character arcs include Ebenezer Scrooge, Luke Skywalker, Odysseus of Homer’s The Odyssey, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.
What is an example of a bad character arc?
Bad character arcs feature abrupt, inexplicable changes in beliefs or personality lacking setup and earning. For example, a villain suddenly renouncing evil without justification or catalyst comes across as unconvincing writing. Similarly, an originally upstanding protagonist suddenly revealed to be immoral also proves dissatisfactory.
What is the difference between character arc and narrative arc?
The narrative arc refers to the sequencing of external plot events focused on action, twists, and suspense. The character arc instead conveys internal emotional, moral, and psychological change demonstrating personal growth through deeds and behaviors. The narrative drives the story while characterization enhances the theme.
What is Marty McFly’s character arc?
In Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s character arc depicts his journey towards courage and maturity. Though adventurous, he lacks conviction initially failing to stand up to bullies or rejection. His time travels build his assertiveness and willingness to fight without being provoked by others’ judgments.
Does a character arc have to be good?
No, character arcs can depict negative change or moral decline rather than upliftment depending on the story’s goals. While rare and riskier, decline of once upstanding individuals into villains can deliver powerful albeit depressing messages on the human condition. Not all arcs instill hope.