In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how in writing character arcs, your protagonist should be shaped by all the other elements of the script. Structure and supporting characters should all play a role, having an impact and encouraging the protagonist to change.
In short, in order to become a hero, your protagonist needs to be challenged by everything around them. They should learn by making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes, eventually proving themselves worthy.
But sometimes, becoming a hero doesn’t involve beating the bad guy – whether that’s by defeating him in a duel, outwitting him, or dropping him off a skyscraper (here’s looking at you John McClane).
Sometimes, it’s the internal challenge that matters more – the protagonist must overcome their own flaws, their mistakes, or their past. And that’s a fact that can complicate things, and means that writing character arcs is not quite as simple as just following the hero’s journey of mythic structure.
The key thing to remember about this kind of character arc is that it doesn’t necessarily conclude when the protagonist conquers their opponent or wins the final battle. The two events often coincide, but not necessarily.
So while the character arc is still shaped by the structure of the script – the various situations that the protagonists find themselves in – the things that they learn along the way may not be to become a hero.
At least, not in the traditional sense.
Often, in these kind of cases, the real mark of a hero is not someone who is the strongest or the fastest or the quickest – but someone who has the biggest heart. A common theme is recovering lost honor, with the protagonist trying to prove their worth.
A classic example of this is ROCKY. At first glance, the character arc of Rocky Balboa seems to be about amateur boxer who gets the chance to fight the World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed, and who must therefore learn the skills to win that fight – just as Luke Skywalker must learn the ways of the force to defeat Darth Vader.
But that’s not actually the case. Instead, Rocky’s character arc is about him taking pride in himself for the first time. With his life going nowhere and his potential unfulfilled, Rocky has spent his life fighting small-time matches, brawls more than boxing fights.
So when he gets his chance to fight Apollo Creed, it’s not about his chance to win, it’s about his chance to stand up and be counted. It doesn’t actually matter in the end whether Rocky emerges victorious as long as he can stand in the ring for fifteen rounds and prove his worth.
It’s a similar story in CREED, the 2015 follow-up which sees Donnie – the son of Apollo Creed – seek out Rocky to train him as a boxer. When he too gets his shot at the champion, you might think that winning will complete his character arc, showing he has learned the skills he needs to succeed.
But Donnie’s character arc is never really about winning – it’s about coming to terms with his father’s legacy. He initially refuses to go by his father’s name, calling himself Donnie Johnson instead as he tries to carve out his own place in the world and step out from his father’s shadow.
And it’s only when he finally embraces that name, calling himself Adonis Creed for the fight against Ricky Conlan, that his arc completes. He has overcome the mental and emotional wounds of his past, his own doubts. He has found a way to reconcile the fact that he is both Johnson and Creed.
It’s an important fact to keep in mind when writing character arcs. It’s less about winning against an opponent than it is about winning against yourself.
And it turns out that that is the sign of a true hero.
Keep your eyes peeled for Part 3 of this series, coming soon – where we’ll be talking about how sometimes, the best thing to do for dramatic effect can be to not use a character arc…