Saturday, November 24, 2012

Arcs and Transformations - Part Two

The second type of transformation that can happen in a movie is the type that doesn't happen within the main character.  In this type of metamorphosis, the main character stays consistent within the story and their actions and personality have a transformative effect on another character within the story. Or, in some cases, the main character's actions change the entire world (or, at least, the world around them).

Mary Poppins [SPOILER ALERT] is a good example of this type of character. She doesn't change, but she has a profound effect on Mr. Banks and, in doing so, improves the life of the Banks children.

Forrest Gump is also a character that doesn't change. No matter how dark, serious and complicated the world around him gets, Forrest retains his simple outlook and sense of hope, which influences the people around him and makes their lives better.

I started this series by saying that war movies don't usually involve arcs, but "Mister Roberts" is one exception. In the film, [SPOILER ALERT] Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) doesn't change, but his bravery in standing up to his tyrannical captain (played by James Cagney) and his ultimate sacrifice to do what he feels is right have a huge transformative effect on Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon).

It's interesting to note that in all three of these cases where the main character is the agent of change the title of the film is their name. Some people refer to these type of movies as "traveling angel" movies (I believe Blake Snyder coined the term).

Ferris Bueller (from the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", of course) is another example [SPOILER ALERT]. Ferris doesn't really change, but the day that the two of them spend together has a profound effect on Cameron, who arcs from someone who is scared of his father and intimidated by him, to someone with the guts to stand up to his father.

Sometimes, in these types of movies, the main character is bent upon obtaining a goal and they drive towards that goal with unflinching determination, even as people tell them they'll never be able to achieve their dream. Their passion and resolve inspires people around them as they try to reach their goal. At some point, the character loses their drive and passion and questions whether or not they'll ever realize their objective, and even start to think that they were fools to undertake this journey in the first place. Right at the moment that they're considering giving up, someone that they've inspired along the way comes along and re-inspires the character and gives them a renewed sense of purpose, which re-ignites their drive.

  "The Muppet Movie" follows this kind of structure, and I'm pretty sure the film "Rudy" does as well (but it's been years and years since I've seen it, so I'm not 100% sure that's correct).

One of the things I liked about working on "Tangled" [SPOILER ALERT] is that it has a bit of an unusual structure - it has both types of characters: one that undergoes a personal change, and one that changes the world. Rapunzel doesn't necessarily go through a big change -  in the end, she realizes that her life is an entire lie, but that doesn't involve an emotional change in her psyche, that's more of an external change in how she perceives the world. She's more of the kind of character that has a positive effect on the world: she transforms the people she meets along her journey, and by returning to her parents at the end, she rejuvenates the kingdom.

Flynn has more of a traditional arc: he goes from being a larcenous thief who doesn't care about anyone else to someone who changes his priorities as he falls in love with Rapunzel, and eventually realizes that she is more important to him than material possessions.

James Bond is a character who has a big effect on the world in every movie in which he appears. He's constantly saving the world from being destroyed or taken over. He doesn't really have much internal transformation, though. Clearly, his internal landscape is not what the films are about, and anyway, it would be odd to come up with a different emotional arc for him in every film. After a few films he would start to seem like a strange, overly sensitive and wishy-washy person with constantly shifting emotions. Also, it would be confusing if you watched the films out of order. His personality would be at a different point in each movie and he would seem completely erratic and inconsistent as a character.

This is why, traditionally, TV shows don't really change the characters that much either. You can't rely on viewers to watch a show from the first episode and watch every episode every week, so you can't really arc the characters, because it would be completely confusing if you miss an episode or watch the shows out of order. Traditionally,  sitcoms are trying to create enough episodes to reach syndication, where the episodes will be replayed in infinity (but not necessarily in order), so it would be really strange if the characters were constantly evolving and changing in every episode. The characters you've come to know and love wouldn't be the characters you'd fallen in love with....they'd be a different person every week! So once shows find an archetype or personality that can generate humor and connects with an audience (Bart Simpson, Kramer, etc) they'll mine that character for as long as possible. If anything, the rule seems to be that the longer a show runs, the more the characters seem to get more and more one-dimensional and become reduced to a few character traits.

When it comes to dramatic one hours shows (things like "Law and Order"), it seems like the characters are consistent every week and the "change" within the story is whatever crime that's set up and solved within that week's episode.

Even if you tried to create a series of movies or a TV show where the character had a big emotional arc every week, it would start to feel completely insincere after a while. If you can have a big emotional swing every week, how deeply seated are your emotions, anyway? In any transformation, whether it's a character changing or the entire world changing, it ought to take an enormous amount of effort to affect the metamorphosis. People don't change lightly and, as we all know, it's not easy to change the world. The most dramatic stories are the ones where a change only takes place after much struggle, effort and conflict. Change should never come easy, whether it's internal or external. Change that comes easily to characters is not very interesting, compelling or inspiring to watch.


Mahesh said...

Hey I'm loving your series on character arcs ..:)

I think character arcs are important not only in movies but in series too.. I mean if you watch Supernatural series the brothers and important characters have amazing character arcs throughout the 8 seasons.. it's just incredible ...
But it's not like they changed every episode, but they have changed over the seasons , the journey have transformed them ..
So as the Dexter not only he but almost all the major characters have good character arc.  I think Rapunzel have beautiful character arc too.. she's like exciting, optimistic baby with little dream seeing the lanterns and after dream talk when memories come back .. she definitely transforms .. "am I mumbling now mother??" ..she is willing to take charge and ready to make her own decisions by herself.. She even offers to trade her life for Flynn's that's huge change considering Flynn was the first other human being she met who was a thief

I mean it would be debateble but I have always found James Bond as really shallow character... We enjoyed Chris Nolan's Batman because he not only had character arc for 3 movies combined but there's Two different character arcs .. Bruce Wayne's Character arc and Batman's character arc.

.. usually the major character who don't have character arc is Mentor character

The Kung fu panda one was so awesome because not only Poo but Shifu had character arc too

You are right about sitcoms they mostly don't have character arcs .. but look at The Big Bang theory
Almost all the characters have character arc
And they still have maintained humor standards and their popularity too.'s Concept of Pyramid Of transformation I wrote while ago, its simple but really cool concept for character arcs and transformation
I hope you will take time to read it

Mark said...

Love your posts on character arcs.
One interesting example is "Real Men" 1987 with James Belushi and John Ritter. There characters, during the course of the movie, transform each other adapting the traits which they desire from the other one. Sensitive Wimp, into tough guy and the tough guy develops a sensitive side. What has always impressed me is the way that transformation takes place over the movie. Believeable and true to the characters.

Ashton said...

As Mahesh says, above, one way this can be done very successfully in ongoing series is to have long, slow character arcs that extend over multiple seasons. This method has resulted in some of my favorite storytelling moments of all time, because the sheer length of the tv series format allows for a level of depth in exploring a character arc that you just don't have time for in a 2 hour movie.

This seems to be less common than the completely episodic, unchanging model that you discussed, probably because it can't be milked out as long. Once you start introducing character arcs into a story, it implies the existence of a beginning, a middle, and an end to the story. But I, as a viewer, think this is for the best and consistently pray for it. I mean, no show is going to last forever. Even the best character will grow tired over time if he and his world never change.

As a creator, you can either have a one-dimensional character that you milk for as long as possible, who eventually ends with a whimper when the gag finally grows old, or you can create a compelling character that changes over time in meaningful ways, then end with a bang in a way that actually resolves the story. Of course this means the story ends there, just when it's most poplar, which producers hate, but I don't really consider that a disadvantage. Better to end popular than unpopular, if you're going to end either way. Better to end with a bang than a whimper.

This means the only real disadvantage is that you can't display the show out of order. This is a minor disadvantage, in that your show will not hold as much appeal for casual viewers who may chance across the show mid-season. But I think the tradeoff is very worth it, as the show will have a much stronger capacity to attract and retain serious fans. Allowing and creating solid character arcs opens the door to forming a real emotional connection with your viewers, and that's going to keep them coming back. Without any hard data, I would still speculate that one serious, committed viewer is worth at least 2-3 casual viewers, from a purely financial perspective.

The film-medium storyteller who excels most at this type of story, as far as I'm aware, is Joss Whedon. Buffy is one of the best examples of character arc in a series that I know, and it's still popular years and years later. Firefly, even though it only ran one season, was definitely building up to real character arcs. Firefly still has an extremely active fan base, and it only ran for one season ten years ago. How many shows can say that?

So I'm glad to see you talking and thinking about character arcs. That's the meat and potatoes of any good story, in my opinion. But please don't discount the possibility of character arcs in ongoing shows! The level of storytelling possible in long-form film (i.e. ongoing series) is in my opinion the best there is, and it kills me that so many american shows are created specifically to avoid any meaningful character arc.

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

Also have to mention Walter White & Jessie's character arc through the 5 seasons of Breaking Bad.

tim b said...

This isn't only true of cinema: one of the classic 'rules' about novels is the necessity of the character's transformation over the course of the book. But there are loads of novels for which this isn't true.

One of my favorites, Austen's Persuasion, has a central character whose happy ending is a result of her successful resistance to the changes being pushed on her from outside characters and circumstances.

Tenacity can be as heroic as transformation... but maybe it's more of an adult virtue and the stories it more rightly belong to older characters, rather than characters in the midst of figuring out who they are/want to be.

The protagonist of Persuasion is older by several years than the protagonists of Austen's other, more transformation-centered novels.

Steve Hulett said...

There's an interesting character arc in a single scene of the movie "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940, John Ford.)

Steely waitress who doesn't cut anybody slack gets asked by the Joad kids how much the candy next to the cash register is.

She asks how much they've got, then lies about the cost of candy, gives it to them. They exit, and she gets called on her soft-heartedness (not in evidence before) by two truck drivers.

Stills from the scene:

(No actual footage, copyrights sometimes work.)

Paul Burrows said...

Youre right about most drama shows where the character doesn't change, like Law and Order, but there are a few exceptions like Lost, Fringe a few others where its impossible to run them out of order since the characters and storylines do change over time.

Prinnigma said...

Traveling angel movies is a great term, never heard it before. It's interesting to look at characters like that, or ones like James Bond with a consistent emotional constitution, as an enduring archetype necessary to certain kinds of storytelling as opposed to just plot devices. For example, I love Seinfeld's Kramer for his reliably whacky antics but hate Lisa in the Simpsons for always being "that character" who thinks too much and yet doesn't seem to grow from any of it. I suppose one's attitude towards these kinds of characters depends largely on how open they are to the personality type more generally.

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