Being able to write character arcs is a key skill for a screenwriter. Not only is it a mark of good characterization, it also gives your script a sense of progression and shape – but how exactly do you go about creating one?
Most people know that character arcs involve a character undergoing a process of growth or change, overcoming their own flaws or becoming a hero in the process. But what most people don’t realize is that it’s about more than just characterization.
A character arc draws on all other areas of the script, with structure, supporting characters, and theme all playing a role. People don’t just change for no reason at all, after all! So the situations you put your protagonist in and the people you surround them with need to all have an impact that encourages them to change.
There’s a reason why classic “mythic” structure – popularized by people such as Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler – is so popular and works so well for screenplays: it takes the lead character on a step-by-step journey that teaches them everything they need to become a hero.
Traditionally, according to this structure, the protagonist initially refuses the call to action, indicating that they want to maintain the status quo – so when they subsequently change their mind, it shows a willingness to change. When they first head out into the world, they are often shown making mistakes that they must learn from – often picking up a skill that they use in the film’s climax.
Their journey in the second act continues to shape their character, moulding them in the hero they need to be. The midpoint of the script is usually the moment when all hope seems lost, a defining moment that the protagonist must survive to prove themself a hero.
While this classic structure isn’t the only, definitive way to write a script – or a character arc for that matter! – it’s a template that has worked well for a long time. But structure is just the beginning. There are a host of other things to consider as well…
It’s not just the events and structure of your script that shapes your protagonist, it’s the other characters as well. Classic archetypes such as mentors, rogues, and tricksters should all challenge them to become better in some way, helping them to face their flaws and provide them with guidance.
The original STAR WARS film is, of course, a film that uses this structure to maximum effect. Luke Skywalker’s character arc follows this exact structure, and he is surrounded by people who help him become the hero he is destined to be – notably, Obi-Wan Kenobi as the mentor and Han Solo as the rogue.
The key when writing character arcs is to remember that every situation you put someone in, and everyone you surround them with, should impact them and help to shape them. If you find that something isn’t doing that, it may not be worth keeping in your script!
Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, where we continue to discuss the subject of character arcs – focusing on how sometimes, unlike in STAR WARS, a character arc isn’t about becoming a hero and defeating your enemies, but overcoming your own internal flaws…