Last time, we discussed the character arc sequence known as the Hero’s Journey.  It was a general overview of the protagonist’s steps as they grow and change from the story’s start to its end.  Today, we’ll examine why this arc is important to your main character’s existence.

In the Beginning…

As we’ve discussed, “the main character undergoes a metamorphosis during the course of the story” (Dancyger & Rush 4). This change can be huge or subtle, but the majority of fictional protagonists evolve as they deal with the trials and tribulations of the conflict they find themselves in.  Those changes come from the protagonist’s choices and actions as they react to what’s happening around them.

All protagonists start at Point Zero when they’re introduced to the audience.  We get a sense of who they are, what they are, and how they interact with the world and those around them.  This is what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  The protagonist is just minding their own business before an incident happens that launches them into the story.

Then, once the protagonist is thrown into a new set of circumstances, we get to witness how they deal with those new conflicts, problems, triumphs, and defeats as they move toward their intended goal.  It is during these moments where “[t]he finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling” (McKee 104).  The audience must see the character’s change progress as the story unfolds.  It’s okay for the main character to resist and even reject change sometimes; it makes them more human.  

Ultimately, the protagonist’s choices and actions help them transform into someone different – even if only slightly – than they were at the story’s start.

Who’s Behind the Wheel?

According to Robert McKee’s book Story, “[a]ll stories are character-driven” (McKee 107). While there are narratives that are more plot-driven in nature, the protagonist and their actions drive both types of stories forward.

Think about any story, and you’ll see this is true.  If Walter White from Breaking Bad finds out he has cancer, then keeps working as a teacher as he gets chemo and moves on same as before, his character has made a choice.  It’s a boring choice, but it is one of the dozens of options the character could take.  In essence, they are in charge of where the story goes.  

However, his decision to begin to cook meth as a way to earn money for his treatment and to help his family – at least, at the start of his story – is a much stronger story that also reveals larger changes in Walt’s character since his action result in much more dramatic consequences and changes.  Even when Walt isn’t in 100% control of what’s going on around him, his actions during those moments still reveal his true inner nature as a character. 

A main character has “a range of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning” of their story (Truby 79).  These changes and possibilities have to have a level of logic based on what we are told about the character before the events of the main story begin.

A Particular Set of RELEVANT Skills

Character credibility from the story’s start helps the audience connect to the protagonist and empathize or sympathize with them as the story unfolds. This means that the audience should be given enough information about the character’s skills—either intellectually or physically—to indicate that they might be capable of much more if put to the test.

A basic example is John McClane from Die Hard. Before the film’s events kick off, we know he’s an NYPD detective traveling to meet his ex-wife at a Christmas party at her workplace. Based on what we’re given as an audience, we can infer that McClane knows a thing or two about dealing with bad guys.   

So, once Hans Gruber and his men take over Nakatomi Plaza, McClane’s police training kicks in, and we know we’re in for a fun and wild ride as the events unfold. 

If McClane was an insurance salesman who never used a gun, Die Hard probably would have a different title: Die Fast.

This leads to the next point: the skills introduced at the start must be RELEVANT to the story being told. Breaking Bad has a lot of ground to cover with Walt if he isn’t a chemistry teacher who decides to cook meth. If he was a P.E. teacher, he may have the physical skills needed to work in the drug world, but not the needed skills to create his special brand of meth.  

This doesn’t always mean the protagonist is prepared for what’s ahead, but the audience has to believe that this particular person has some level of competence that will help them navigate their new circumstances.

Another example is Alan Grant in Jurassic Park.  He has zero experience with live dinosaurs, but the knowledge he does have about them aids in keeping himself and the kids alive once the storm hits and they are out on their own in the park.

Next Time…

We’re just scratching the surface of this topic!  There’s more to come about character arcs next time.  See you then!

Sources:

Dancyger, Ken & Jeff Rush. Alternative Scriptwriting. Focal Press, 2007.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.

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