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Today’s post is the 6th in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”
Part 6: Crafting an All-important Character Arc
Last time we introduced the notion of inner versus outer conflict, the inherent demons of personality and psychology that affect the hero and prevent her or him from doing what must be done, squaring off against what is blocking their path toward accomplishing the mission at hand.
What are those inner demons? Cowardice, selfishness, addiction, fear, conceit, arrogance, hatred, bias, lack of confidence, heritage, poverty, ignorance, a lack of honesty, naiveté, a spotty moral compass, sexual deviance… in general, any aspect of humanity that isn’t in line with the expectations of others or the requirements of success within the boundaries of this story.
Great heroes have one or more these. They aren’t perfect. If they were, they’d be boring.
Character arc is the process of conquering those inner demons. Pure and simple. Of learning. Of gaining strength and insight. Of acquiring that which is lacking. Of shedding that which is hindering. Of making a better decision when it counts.
For example, the thematic mission of a story is rarely about how to conquer alcoholism, but rather, how to save a marriage that is being destroyed by alcoholism. The hero’s quest is to save the marriage. His alcoholism is merely an obstacle in his way. The outer conflict is that his wife has filed for divorce and is seeing someone else, so the clock is ticking. But the inner demon — of the stuff of the real drama in a story — is the grip that alcohol has on the protagonist as he tries to win her back.
Two levels of conflict, inner and outer. In some stories the inner journey is every bit as dramatic and powerful as the exterior journey, which is the stuff of bestsellers and smash hits.
In the movie Top Gun, almost all of the inherent conflict in the story was in Maverick’s inner realm. Very little else happened, which is why this particular movie is not considered a model script. Just model box office.
In The Davinci Code, not so much… the appeal of that story was conceptual and plot-driven. Landgon showed us very little in the way of inner conflict, and therefore, there was little inner drama or potential for character arc. Langdon was pretty much perfect from page one.
As you can see, commecial success doesn’t often hinge on how well you execute the basics. If you allow that to rationalize your approach, much anxiety and pain await you.
And, it just goes to show how powerful a strong concept can be (The Sixth Sense is another example), even in the face of mediocre performance elsewhere.
In The Cider House Rules, though, the characters move through spheres of personal challenge and growth in a way that rivets the reader every bit as much as the plot itself.
Notice that Top Gun and The Davinci Code weren’t up for any writing Oscars. The Cider House rules won one for best adapted screeplay, based on John Irving’s #1 bestseller (note: he also wrote the screenplay).
Where inner demons come from is the role of backstory. How they affect the story is the realm of character arc.
Conquer inner demons, and you have character arc.
Your hero should exit the story enlightened, enriched, evolved and enabled in comparison to how they entered the story. This learning cannot occur in a vacuum, it should be result of trial and error, of action and consequence, literally of learning a lesson from the hero’s experience within the story.
You’re familiar with the age-old principle: show, don’t tell. Character arc is the most critical element for which you need to apply it. We must see and feel the character bettering their weaker self, rather than simply reading the news of it or have it spring from no logical, discernable source. They can’t just wake one day and suddenly get it. (This is where some paranormal stories fall flat — the hero learns via a sixth sense, rather than experience.)
With hard-learned lessons well in hand, the hero will come to a place where she or he will make better decisions when it counts, which is in Part 4 of the story. Where they – by definition – become the primary catalyst in the overcoming of the obstacles that results in the story’s conclusion.
In Top Gun, Maverick learned to work within the system, to not leave his wingman when it counts (his new wingman; he’d already killed off the first guy by being an idiot), and in doing so he got the girl, saved the day and protected America from the bad guys, all without a hair out of place.
And if that isn’t heroism, I’m not sure what is.
Image credit: Seiho
Next post: Character — A sum in excess of its parts.