We all have favorite movies and TV shows, and favorite movie and TV characters. They help us get through our day, and are examples we use in everyday conversation. So when you set out to work on your projects, writing characters that may someday enter the cultural lexicon can make it all seem daunting.
How can my character ever be in the same breath as Michael Corleone from The Godfather or The Bride from Kill Bill? And how can I avoid flat character arcs?
When you start to think about writing a great character in a screenplay, it can become a problem like the chicken or the egg.
What came first, the character or the character arc? And when do we fall into character tropes?
The truth is if your goal is to get past screenplay readers and get your script turned into a feature film or TV show, then you have to figure this out and write GREAT character arcs. And have a character facing story that lures in top talent.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand that's what this post will answer!
Today we're going to go over compelling character arc examples, look at the character arc definition, and talk about how you can create character arcs that will compel your readers to keep turning the page and fall in love with the story
So let's learn about character arcs together!
Table of Contents
What is a Character Arc?
If you're in a literature class, hitting up the Reddit screenwriting boards, or just reading about filmmaking, chances are you'll find someone talking about character arcs. A lot of times, I see that those people often get a character's arc confused with story structure - so I want to go over the character arc definition to solidify what we'll talk about today. The inciting incident usually sets your character off on their journey. There can be negative character arcs, where someone shrinks away. Or positive ones, where a character progresses forward. These happen in secondary characters too.
Character Arc Definition:
A character arc is an emotional and physical transformation that a character undergoes throughout a film, tv episode, tv season, or tv series. The character arc depends on the person's physical and emotional response to events in the story. As a character encounters obstacles on their journey, it affects them emotionally and physically, and those contribute to the character arc. We want to see how the character develops over time.
Your character arc should follow the story arc.
What's the Definition of A Character Arc Mean For My Writing?
It all starts with a great character introduction and an even better character description, but getting a character to arc requires building a cohesive plot that sets your characters off on a journey that tests them.
Your challenge, as the writer, is to make these character arcs so convincing that from the opening scene to the closing scene, the reader/viewer understands and believes that change has occurred.
Sometimes the change HASN'T occurred.
We'll go over that a little later. But first, the basics.
Check out this spectacular character arc image that follows Woody in the first Toy Storymovie.
For an even more in-depth take on the character arcs in Toy Story, check out the video after the image.
Create Captivating Character Arcs in Your ScreenplayCredit: Khan Academy
When we meet Woody, he's content as Andy's favorite toy. He's the leader and in control, but the arrival of Buzz turns him jealous. And we see Woody fall. And then Buzz falls out a window. When the other toys turn on him, we see Woody forced to become a better person as he tries to save Buzz. But it takes him a while to learn how to share the limelight. It's a great character arc. And one that's worth studying.
The first Toy Story movie is all about getting Woody to arc into being less selfish and getting Buzz to learn that he's just a toy. And there's nothing wrong with that. These are both internal arcs, but they are very different. There are four distinct kinds of character arcs. Let's take a closer look at them and how they apply to your screenwriting ventures.
For that, we made a Character Arc Worksheet!
Character Arc Worksheet
There are two things I like to use when I'm mapping out the character arcs I'll explore in my tv and film screenwriting. The first is called the "Le Menu." And it's as cool and French as it sounds.
At the beginning of “Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect” by Claudia Hunter Johnson, there is an exercise the writer refers to as “Le Menu.” It asks the reader to fill out a survey to figure out what kinds of stories they should write. Hunter Johnson paraphrases her playwriting teacher Sam Smiley when talking about the Le Menu.
“To create art works of many worth, each artist must have something to say, some values, some attitudes, some store of experience – a vision.”
Instead of filling out the Le Menu for yourself, I'd ask the writer to pretend to be the character and then write five to ten answers to:
- What I love
- What I hate
- What I fear
- What I believe
- What I value
- What I want
- What I know about
- People who made a difference in my life
- Discoveries that made a difference in my life
- Decisions that made a difference in my life
These leading questions can help you learn about the character and decide how they can change over time.
If you're not into that version of events, then I'd direct you back to the Story Map. Sure, this looks the same as it did above, but now I'm going to fill out each step with character incentives. This will help you see where they should be throughout your screenplay.
Our incredible graphic designer, April, took these notions and threw them into this great infographic you can use to build your characters. She also did a riff on our Story Map to make it more of a Character Map.
Check it out!
- Unraveling The Map - Introduce us to your characters in the beginning and show us who they start the screenplay as and what are their personality traits.
- The Launch Point - Put your character in a situation where their shortcomings are evident. Show us how their problems will be exposed.
- The First Leg - Put your character in situations where they learn to be different - ease them into it.
- Change Course - Let your character embrace this new version of themselves and see how it can help them.
- The Foot of the Mountain - What can the new and improved person accomplish?
- Climbing The Side - As they go through the story show pushback on who they are versus who they used to be. Should they continue to change?
- Through The Cave - Shed some light on the new person and how these new traits change the world.
- Reassess the Problem - Is there a way for the new version of the character to confront old problems? Or will they revert to who they used to be?
- Try and Fail - Let the arc put the character in new and terrible situations. Let them fail at things where they used to succeed.
- The Fall - How does their new self completely ruin what they wanted? Did they go too far? What can they learn?
- The Hidden Clue - What personal conclusion did their emotional journey lead to that they need to embrace now?
- Race To the Finish - Now, as their fulfilled self, they can tie the plot up.
- The Treasure Chest - Do they change?
- Where We Go From Here - Keep your options open for how that person can continue to change in the future.
As you can see, thinking about how characters and plot can help you build a character arc that fits naturally into your story. So now that you have a map to get through the arcs, let's go over the four kinds of character arcs!
The Four Kinds of Character Arcs
I'm against screenwriting "rules" or grand and sweeping generalizations about storytelling, but near as I can tell, we have four versions of character arcs.
While you may find nuance or combinations, I wanted to talk about the four versions of character arcs that are prominent in most TV and movies. You'll see these arcs cohabitate with the hero's journey to guide your characters with the events of the tale.
1. Transformative Character Arcs
So maybe you don't obsessively study story and structure as we do at No Film School, but the transformative character arc is as old as the spoken word. I'm a big fan of Joseph Campbell and the Story Circle because I think they work to help get the beats of the transformative character arc out.
This is an arc where you follow a character undergo a transformation, like being an underdog, and see them rise to the top and find success. It's Rocky. Creed. Or Invincible. Also, other movies that don't happen in Philadelphia.
We often find out that the characters in these stories have hidden talents or strengths that they find as they encounter problems or story beats. By the end of these screenplays, usually, our character looks different or carries themselves differently. A lot of movies like this end with a character redoing something they did in the beginning with no confidence, and seeing them shine.
In television, these transformations usually go a lot slower. So you have to look at the whole series to truly analyze this stuff. We'll get to that later, but think about the transformations that characters like McNulty go through throughout The Wire.
He was a drunk but eventually cleans up to become good police. He finds the right side of the law, and he adopts a code that makes him a much better person.
2. Maturation Character Arcs
Maturity isn't just about getting older. It's about learning the ways of the world and learning better coping mechanisms to deal with those challenges. The maturation arc asks the character to undergo emotional growth. Can a person overcome their inner demons and come out on the other side as a better person?
We ask this a lot on television. Gilmore Girls is a show about three women of different ages finding maturity in different ways. That's true of lots of their characters.
If your characters address their issues, you can usually see this person evolve. Look at the arc and evolution in a movie like It's A Wonderful Life - we see George Bailey's entire life and almost the end. George is frustrated by all the things he wanted that he never got, but he learns instead to value the fantastic (wonderful) life he has almost entirely taken for granted.
I think it's one of the greatest movie lessons of all time.
3. Alteration Character Arcs
We covered two obvious arcs, so let's dive into nuance and subtly for a minute. An alteration arc is not the wholesale shift in beliefs and actions the way we see in a maturation. But it is a slight shift in the way a person acts and what they believe. They usually remain more of who they are, with a smaller understanding of how the world works.
Think about Ted in How I Met Your Mother. He's the same hopeless romantic throughout the series. And even when the people around him grow up, even as he learns hard lessons about love and loss, he's that same guy. But only slightly changed. He knows a little more about what love is - that's apparent in his voiceover. But he's always that guy, just a better version.
Okay, that clip always makes me cry, so let's look at a movie clip that always makes me laugh.
Scent of a Woman is an underrated masterpiece. And in the end, Al Pacino's character is virtually the same guy. He just wants to live now. And I know that sounds monumental. But it's a small shift in who he is because as someone who wants to live the way we see him arc is defending his young companion and possibly seeking out a future with a woman.
That's the power of the subtle shirt. Tears. Laughter. Life. And creepily knowing what perfume someone is wearing.
4. Declining Character Arcs
The last character arc is an obvious one as well. We've seen the ways people change for the better; now we have to see what ultimately damns a character. Declining character arcs take the worst parts of people and exacerbate them again and again until we're left with someone who is wholly unchanged.
This can be a descent into madness, drugs, alcohol, or self-loathing.
These movies and TV shows can become hard to watch but are compelling nonetheless.
Breaking Bad is a great example.
We see Walter White become Heisenberg and never look back. At the end of the series, he's sacrificed friends, family, and everything else to become a legendary drug kingpin.
That's depressing. Is there a way to do it funny?
One of my all-time favorite movies is Young Adult.
It's a dark comedy about a woman who returns home to steal her high school boyfriend away from his wife and to wreak havoc in the town. Instead of arcing, she's met with enablers who allow her to worsen and worse as the story continues. It's a great portrait of someone becoming the worst version of themselves and declining into their mania.
You can also do a declining arc in just one character, like Killmonger in the Black Panther script.
After his hate consumes him, Killmonger will stop at nothing to get his revenge on the whole world. This hate consumes him and (spoiler alert) ultimately leads to his death.
Examples of Great Character Arcs in Movies
We've covered the different types of character arcs, but I wanted to focus on a few great character arcs in movies that I think move the needle with most writers. These are arcs that come across clearly to the audience and elevated the material to the next level.
Let's start under the ocean with Finding Nemo.
Finding NemoCredit: Vulture
Every character in Finding Nemo has a solid arc. Nemo learns to listen to his Dad, Marlin learns he needs to give his son some elbow room to relax, and Dory learns to trust herself and let her memory come to her. Some of these arcs are more obvious than others, but they all work in tandem to deliver something special.
Look at how all three arcs seamlessly integrate into the story. One thing you need to keep an eye on is making sure your character arcs also fit within the story. These naturally lend themselves to a story about a father looking for his son and make the journey more identifiable with the humans watching.
Another character arc set that works in tandem are the ones in Jurassic Park. Hammond needs humility and arcs into that. But look at Dr. Grant. He hates kids and who does he get stranded with inside the park? Kids. I know this all sounds simplistic, but thinking about these things when you're writing will elevate your work.
Finally, let's talk about one of the darkest arcs ever, Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
Michael begins the movie as a young man in love. He's a war hero and lives on the straight and narrow. But as his mafia family engages in a war and his father is almost murdered, Michael gets brought into the family business. Eventually, Michael becomes the head of the family and kills a police officer. Then he becomes the actual Don and enacts a coup of every organized family in New York. The once sweet war hero is now a certified criminal, and his descent into the underworld has two more movies and like seven hours to go...
Examples of Great Character Arcs in Television
Character arcs are not just for movies. They need to occur on television too. But they happen in different ways. People arc over episodes, seasons, and series.
We've written about the excellent character arc work in True Detective Season One, so I want to steer clear of that masterpiece for a bit and focus in on a few examples from both TV dramas and comedies that are indicative of characters who are arcing throughout an episode, season, and series.
Let's dig in.
Character Arc: TV Episode
You have your opinions on what the most celebrated TV episode is of all time. I waver between "The Constant" on Lost and what I consider to be the best...
Mad Men's "The Suitcase."
It's hard to watch this episode because it's so good.
It's "Fuck you" good.
It takes a walk around the block good. But why?
Well, the character arcs presented are incredible. Sure, we've seen the building of both these people for a few seasons. But they change in this one episode. Don and Peggy love each other.
It's familial love, but it's love. Still, there's resentment growing. Peggy is jilted at the beginning. Don is feeling superior. He wants to teach her a lesson. Samsonite needs its copy.
Match meet power keg.
In this episode, we take both Don and Peggy from anger and opposite ends to the same side. They both understand who they are to one another, and they both come to terms with who they are themselves.
It's an exercise in vulnerability and letting your guard down.
And it has the best scene in the entire series.
Thank Don, along with Jesus, for giving you a great character arc.
It also happens in comedy.
One of my favorite Simpsons episodes of all time is when Lisa becomes a vegetarian. In season seven, episode five, Lisa Simpson meets, and lamb and then is faced with the horror of eating lamb chops.
Throughout the episode, we see Lisa undergo a profound change and analyze who she is within the context of the world. This is a deeper move for The Simpsons but 's a great twist for the character as she then battles the judgment of her friends and family.
What's great about The Simpsons is that every episode allows different characters to change, but this episode with Lisa carries over into her character in later episodes too. And shows that she's available for change moving forward.
Now let's try and connect the character arc dots throughout an entire season.
Character Arc: TV Season
A season of television usually lasts 6, 8, 10, 12, or 22 episodes. Regardless of the number of episodes, you need to show characters changing over time. For my money, there's no more significant change throughout one season than Jaime Lannister's change over season three of Game of Thrones.
Jaime has come a long way since he attempted to murder a child in the pilot episode. But Season Three has him confronting how own mortality and morality of his actions. He learns a lot losing his hand, and he ultimately returns Kings Landing a humbled man.
While it takes all ten episodes, he sheds his party and womanizing ways and instead learns to rely on his inner strength. It's a self-reflexive season where Jaime examines his past and decides to change his future.
It all is summed up in one scene in the bath. Where we understand who Jaime will become throughout the series. And who he has been in the past.
Character Arc: TV Series
It would be easy to pick Breaking Bad again, but I want to dig a little deeper. What about Michael Scott?
Hear me out.
The premise of The Office is that Michael Scott is a horrible boss who thwarts everyone around him with his obnoxious behavior.
But as the series goes own, and The Office focuses more on humanity and growth, Michael sneaks up on you.
You see Michael date, love, lose, and you start to be on his side. He evens out, matures, changes, and suddenly you start to see Michael become a good boss. He even leads a rival company against Dunder-Mifflin and wins. Michael's change throughout the series is a textbook example of how you can create a character who can grow episode to episode and season to season. When you spend a ton of time with someone, you want to see them change.
Michael's change is significant and memorable.
How to Develop and Outline a Character Arc
Now that you know the four kinds of character arcs and all the character arc examples let's talk about how you can develop them in your writing. I know we've mentioned treatments before, they can be a great way to map out your characters and align their arcs with what's happening in the plot.
Our Story Map looks like this:
- Unraveling The Map - Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
- The Launch Point - Where are we, and who are we with?
- The First Leg - What’s a normal day look like in this world?
- Change Course - What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
- The Foot of the Mountain - Okay, we’re going on this journey together.
- Climbing The Side - It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go.
- Through The Cave - Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
- Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
- Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart; can they handle it?
- The Fall - The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
- The Hidden Clue - What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
- Race To the Finish - They’re up and running no matter what.
- The Treasure Chest - Did they get what they came for?
- Where We Go From Here - Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
The Story Map is a great way to get your plot on the page, but what if you need to track your character arc?
Some people like using the Hero's Journey, which I included in the infographic below.
Credit: Shore Scripts
But look, I'd be lying if I told you every story has a main character who arcs. Sometimes they just don't. And that's okay too.
What About Characters That Don't Arc?
Some genres have fewer arcs than others. Sometimes they have arcs and arks like Indiana Jones in Raiders. While I'd argue you might have an alteration arc in the movie, it's clear that Indy is the same at the end as he was at the beginning. He's still an adventurous guy who's always trying to put things in a museum.
But when you make sequels, his arc becomes more prominent, like his need to reconcile and forgive his father.
James Bond is in the same boat. His movies are all about his adventures and less about the lessons he learns at the end. Bond is consistent across decades. We love him, he's entertaining, but never arcing.
Lastly, I'd like to look at Forrest Gump. The guy unflinchingly loves Jenny with everything he's got. That's who he is as a kid, as a teen, and as an adult man. Look at this scene in Act III where he admits it.
But the cool thing about Forrest Gump is that everyone around him changes. It's a movie that has everyone arc except the lead character. Jenny learns self-worth. Other people learn empathy. And you can argue that Lieutenant Dan finds a lust for life and let's go of his alcohol abuse. Forrest stays objectively the same. But the world changes.
And that's beautiful.
What's Next After Writing Captivating Character Arcs in Your Screenplays
Well, I hope you and your understanding of character arcs have arced throughout reading this article. Remember, character arcs need to be built from conflict. So take a look at our internal and external conflict post for ideas of the kinds of situations you can put your characters inside that will force them to arc.
And don't forget about the six emotional arcs that you can use to help your screenwriting as well.
These kinds of stories span film and television. It's important to think about the kinds of changes and how they'll carry over a movie, an episode, a season, and a series.
Got a great idea for a pilot or a feature?
Like and share if this helped, and if you have questions, post them in the comments.
I can't wait to read what you write next...
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- Michael Corleone's Arc in 'The Godfather' Films Proves He's the Best Character of All Time ›