In the first two parts of this series on character arcs, we’ve talked about not just how to write them, but how important they are – how, by combining with other elements like structure, they give your script shape and a sense of progression.
But here’s the thing… Every rule has an exception. And what that means is there are times when you might want to NOT use them!
Generally speaking, a character arc is a change or growth in a character where they learn to overcome their flaws in order to resolve a conflict that can be either external or internal: for example, Luke Skywalker becoming a hero so he can defeat the Empire or Rocky resolving his own doubts and proving himself in the ring against Apollo Creed.
The arc can also be used for villains as well. If someone learns the wrong lessons, they end up going down a darker path. They certainly still undergo a process of change, but it doesn’t exactly end well for them – or anyone else! (This kind of arc was attempted with Anakin Skywalker in the STAR WARS prequels… although not very well.)
This isn’t exactly what we’re talking about, however, when we say that sometimes it’s best to not use character arcs. What we mean is that sometimes, the best thing that can happen is for a character to not change at all.
In particular, you’ll find this is most effective in two genres that are complete opposites of one another: comedy and tragedy.
Looking at comedy first, it can be used to great effect to have a protagonist who never learns. In sitcoms, for example, an episode’s inciting incident is often when the protagonist makes a mistake of some sort. Instead of admitting that mistake, however, they often double down on it, making things worse and pushing the situation to the heights of absurdity!
You see this in films as well. In SHAUN OF THE DEAD, Shaun’s answer to everything is to go to his local pub, the Winchester. At the beginning of the film, his girlfriend breaks up with him because that’s all he ever wants to do – a warning that he should change and turn his life around.
Yet when the zombie apocalypse hits, what is his response? “Let’s go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over!”
Tragedy, of course, uses the lack of character arc to different effect. The key is to put the protagonist in situations that they either can’t or won’t learn from, and to surround them with characters that don’t encourage them to change. As a result, they become destined to fail.
In SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, for example, the titular character returns to London hellbent on revenge against the vile Judge Turpin, who fifteen years earlier had him falsely imprisoned and destroyed his family.
Sweeney Todd is single-minded in his pursuit of the judge, but he also doesn’t have anyone to turn him away, to help him become a better man. Quite the opposite, in fact. His only real ally, the obsessive Mrs Lovett, enables him in his quest and ends up helping him.
The result is that Sweeney Todd comes across as a sheer force of will. Unrelenting. Unbending. It becomes compelling to watch his story precisely because he will not change – and because we know it will end badly, both for him and for everyone around him.
So consider whether you even need a character arc – whether the lack of one could actually be used for either comedic or dramatic effect. Character arcs are a powerful tool for any screenwriter – but it’s knowing when to use them and when not that shows true mastery.