These days I tend to stream a lot of free movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and lately I've been catching up on some war movies I've never seen before.
I like war movies, but I find many of them unsatisfying in the end. They're rarely very emotional. War movies tend to be about accomplishing a certain mission or winning a particular battle, and the characters rarely have any kind of emotional journey or personal change.
That's a different approach from most other types of movies. In general, most stories (be it novel, play or movie) involve a certain amount of transformation. Generally, this is done in one of two ways: either the main character changes in some way throughout the telling of the story, or the main character doesn't change but has a transformative effect on the world around them.
It's not required that a story meet this criteria, of course. Many people will say it's just an arbitrary rule that some screenwriter made up. But, for me personally, my favorite stories are ones in which there's some sort of change that happens. In general, I'd say that most movies that have any emotional component get this emotional rush based on changes that happen within the movie - either within the characters or within the world of the story.
I think a change within the telling of the story is important because the events of a story just
feel more meaningful and have more weight if they have the
ability to change a character. What's the point of a story if it doesn't
have the power to change a character (or a world) in some way? If a
story doesn't transform somebody or something, then what's the
point of the story? If a story doesn't create a change within the
telling, it's probably just a recitation of events. A recitation of events is more what you'd expect from a documentary or an informative TV special....but not from a movie.
So for this post, lets focus on the first type of arc: the type of story where the character changes over the telling of the story. This is the most common kind of transformation in stories.
John August and Craig Mazin have a podcast on screenwriting called "Scriptnotes", and in an episode called "Endings for Beginners", they have a great way of framing how this type of story works:
"At the end of the movie, the character should be able to do something that they were unable to do at the beginning."
...I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember the exact quote, but that's a great way to think of it. Check out that episode here, or download their podcast from iTunes if you're interested.
The clearest way to state it is that you show a character that is unable to do some certain thing at the beginning, and then the events of the story change the character in a way that enables them to do that certain thing at the end that they were unable to do at the beginning of their journey.
"UP" and "Finding Nemo" are two of the clearest examples of character transformation that I can think of [SPOILER ALERT].
In "Nemo", Marlin loses his family, except for one son (Nemo), who he is (understandably) over-protective of. The first part of the movie shows many different ways that Marlin is unable to "let go" of Nemo.
Marlin's protectiveness causes him to stress out about his son's first day of school. Marlin's anxiety causes him to create a confrontation on Nemo's first day of school that ends with his son being kidnapped.
Marlin is forced to go on a journey to retrieve his son, and that trip has a cumulative effect on Marlin that changes him in a profound way. Being forced to confront all of his greatest fears shows Marlin that he can face fear and survive. Spending time with a surrogate for his son (Dory) lets Marlin work through his issues with his son. Meeting the turtle Crush and hearing Crush's philosophy about raising a child give Marlin a chance to hear a different point of view on life and parenting. And thinking that he's witnessed his son's death makes Marlin appreciate how much he loved his son and see how his fearfulness made his life empty before.
(I haven't seen the film since it came out, and I'm restating the film as best as I can remember, so forgive me if my interpretation is a little off here....but you get the point).
All the experiences that Marlin is forced to go through have a transformative effect on him, and in the climax of the film, Marlin is in the throat of a whale where he faces a choice: he can either "let go" and trust that things will work out, or stick with his old way of thinking.
In "UP" [SPOILER ALERT], the whole story is based on Carl's drive to preserve his house as a symbol of what he wanted his life to be. In the end, he literally lets his house go to achieve a goal he wouldn't have fought for in the beginning.
Another way to show the transformation of a character is to give them a goal at the beginning of the story that they're working towards - something that they think will make their life complete, or fix their life - they desperately want some goal that means everything to them. Late in the story they will get that goal, but by that point they've changed in a way that means they don't want that goal anymore. It's a hollow victory, because their priorities have changed and they want something else - some other goal that has become more meaningful to them.
My favorite example of this type of arc is "Up In The Air" [SPOILER ALERT]. George Clooney plays a businessman who is required to travel constantly to perform his job. He loves the nomadic nature of his life, staying in a different hotel every night, traveling with a minimum of baggage and never forming deep or meaningful relationships. His ultimate goal is to earn 1,000,000 frequent flyer miles.
He meets a woman and starts to have deeper feelings for her, and he begins to question the wisdom of the life he's led so far.
When he hits the 1,000,000 frequent flyer mile mark, he gets all the rewards that he's long dreamed of receiving, but he no longer really wants them. It seems like an empty and shallow achievement to him now, because of how he's changed from the beginning of the movie.
"Tangled" has this type of arc as well [SPOILER ALERT]. Flynn is desperate to get the crown back through most of the movie, but by the time he gets it back, he doesn't really want it anymore. His priorities have changed because he's fallen in love with Rapunzel and isn't interested in material things anymore.
Characters don't have to go through giant, sweeping changes for their journeys to have an emotional impact on the audience. Some films aren't built to do that, and in those type of movies it would feel false tonally if suddenly a character had a huge arc from one extreme to another. And in other films, you buy this without any hesitation.
So what are some of the problems that arise when trying to create characters that transform over the course of a story?
One pitfall is when you create characters that are too transparently "broken" at the beginning. If it's completely obvious to the audience how the character is going to change by the end of the story, then there's no surprise about where the character is going or how they're going to end up. It can be very predictable and it's not at all surprising when it actually happens. You see this a lot in films made for younger audiences.
I'll take this opportunity to name this the "Jim Carrey" effect.
Take any Jim Carrey (or Eddie Murphy) movie made for kids, and they'll be invariably playing a character that has a very obvious flaw at the beginning. Usually this takes the form of a businessman who's so focused on his high pressure job - and so focused on getting a particularly high-stakes deal done - that he doesn't spend enough time with his kids or appreciate his long-suffering wife.
We all know where this is going: by the end of the movie, he'll have told off his tyrannical boss, made up with his kids and his wife, and pledged that they're his new priority and that he'll never put work first again.
(Then, he'll be surprised to find out that the person he was trying to impress to get the business deal done was actually looking for someone with "good family values" the whole time, and that person will give Jim Carrey the deal he was working towards, based solely on how impressive Jim Carrey is at interacting with his wife and kids).
Once you've seen one of these, you pretty much spot the pattern as soon as you see the wheeling-and-dealing character in the beginning that's great at schmoozing clients and can sell anything to anyone....but doesn't make it to the Little League game or school play that he promised his kids he'd be there for. We've all seen these types of movies and a big part of why they seem so tedious is because you know exactly where it's going from the first scene.
The other problem that happens when trying to craft a character arc is when the "story math" doesn't add up. By that I mean that the steps the character goes through in the course of the story don't seem like they'd logically lead to where the character ends up.
An example of good "story math" is Marlin's transformation in "Nemo". I completely buy Marlin's transformation. I can see how everything that happens during the film changes his perceptions and leads him to see the world in a new light.
There are some films that attempt to arc characters without showing us any "story math". This is when characters transform and become the opposite of what they've been just for cheap surprise. For example, we've all seen movies where a character was cowardly during the whole movie, but then did something incredibly heroic at the end. It's surprising, but not earned. It feels false because we didn't see the moments that changed the character and transformed them into a different person.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a film that I love, but it's an example of a movie where I don't totally follow the "story math" that lead to the transformation that Indy undergoes [SPOILER ALERT].
In the beginning, Brody warns Indiana Jones that the Ark is like nothing he's gone after before, and that Indy should be careful because the Ark may have incredible powers. Here's the exchange:
Well, I mean that
for nearly three thousand
years man has been searching
for the lost ark. It's not
something to be taken lightly.
No one knows its secrets.
It's like nothing you've
ever gone after before.
Marcus, what are you trying
to do? Scare me? You sound
like my mother. We've known
each other for a long time.
I don't believe in magic,
a lot of superstitious hocus
pocus. I'm going after a
find of incredible historical
significance, you're talking
about the boogie man. Besides,
you know what a cautious
fellow I am.
So Indiana Jones is clearly a man at the beginning who doesn't have any belief or faith that the Ark might have supernatural powers. But at the end of the movie, right before the Ark is opened, he tells Marion to close her eyes, because now he believes in the power of the Ark, and he knows that opening it will unleash some kind of terrible force.
I love that idea: that the course of the movie's events have changed Indy and now he believes in the supernatural. I just have to say, though, that for me, personally, I'm not totally sure what brought that change in Indy about. At what point (or points) in the story did he experience things that changed his mind and gave him a new perspective?
Again, don't get me wrong, I love the movie, but I didn't see this transformation the first time I saw the film, and it took me many viewings to even detect that there was a change in Indy at all.
Anyway, next time I'll talk a bit about the other kind of arc: the kind where a character transforms the world around them.