Understanding the Arc of a Main Character

Is it possible? Can a work of narrative fiction relate the journey of a character who refuses to back down on their most important personal issues and still mean something? Of course it can. The key becomes separating the emotional from the objective.

Following up on last week’s article The True Nature of the Inciting incident, the attention is now focused on the actual “arc” of a story’s central character. Recall the original writer’s contention that Clarice Starling and Dr. Richard Kimball had transformative arcs? To summarize, screenwriter Bird felt that Clarice transformed by confronting her past, thus allowing her to find Buffalo Bill in a rural area. Dr. Kimball transformed by valuing “health and justice over escaping” and by refusing to change himself into a “hardened fugitive.”

The question is, are these transformations addressing where the character stands in regards to their own personal issues, or are they simply acknowledging less important tertiary objective issues? Are they examples of characters truly altering their own personal paradigms? In short, are they changing the way they see the world?

Mixing and Mashing Meaning

Bird makes the distinction between a “change” arc and an “individuation” arc. Whereas the former seems to refer to the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey paradigm that many are familiar with, the latter seems to reflect the kind of story where the central character discovers they already had what they needed to solve the story’s problem.

most movie heroes don’t start as an everyman. Most types of heroes start with skills and rely on those skills throughout the movie.

At first it seems Bird might be on to something with this discovery of the arc of “individuation.” Of course, what he is really referring to is a story where the Main Character maintains their resolve through the end of a story, what the Dramatica theory of story refers to as the Steadfast Main Character. But unfortunately he doesn’t quite get there, preferring instead to mix the two arcs into one. The result is an understanding that leads to the belief that Clarice and Kimball were truly transformative characters.

And the understanding that Luke Skywalker “doesn’t really win by gaining new skills.”

Resolve is Everything

A complete story is an attempt to argue a particular point-of-view in regards to the appropriate or inappropriate way to solve a problem. The Main Character’s final resolve–whether they maintain or alter their approach–is perhaps the most important part of a story. It is the keystone for the Author’s argument.

To suggest that Luke Skywalker succeeds by revaluing skills he had from the beginning (as is done in this article), is to completely miss out on what the story was actually saying.

Luke’s problem, from the very beginning of the story, was his persistent need to test himself. From the “drag race” discussed in a cut scene, to his encounter with the sandpeople to his fight with the alien in the cantina and his arguments with Han, Luke constantly gets into trouble because of his drive to see how well he matches up.

The entire meaning of the film is tied up in his development beyond this problem–to stop relying on his previously held justifications of test and begin a new approach founded in trusting something outside of himself. Only then is the young farmer able to use his “skills” in order to defeat the Death Star. In fact, the argument could be made that the only way he was able to blow up the Death Star was because he stopped trying to test himself.

Luke was not born with the ability to trust, it was something Obi Wan had to impress upon him, something that required a major paradigm shift. He didn’t use his “inborn skills” to defeat the Death Star, he CHANGED his resolve–the way he saw the world–transforming on a personal issue that was causing him problems.

Clarice and Richard differ significantly from Luke in that their personal paradigm does not change.

The Growth of the Resolute

Steadfast does not mean static. It means resolute and unaltered within the context of the Main Character’s own personal issues. So, it is not so much that this kind of character “values the skills” they began with, as it is that they are making a meaningful decision to stay resolute within their own personal point-of-view.

This is how a story creates meaning.

A steadfast resolve still allows for growth. As elaborated on within the article What Character Arc Really Means, this kind of character has to grow, has to “arc” or “change”, but it is not a transformative growth:

when you talk about change and how the Main Character “has” to change, you’re making an assumption about the nature of that growth. Not all growth is transformative. Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them. This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world.

Identifying the Main Character’s Personal Issues

The problem with Bird’s analysis of Luke’s arc, and consequently those of Clarice and Richard, is that he is arguing for the wrong throughline, or rather, arguing two throughlines at once. By combining the objective and emotional perspectives of the story’s problem into one, great inaccuracies come into play.

Take, for instance, his analysis of The Silence of the Lambs. He has taken the Audience’s viewpoint and combined Clarice’s role as Protagonist with her deep-seated personal issues as Main Character. Certainly her confrontation of her past has granted her success as a Protagonist, but has she truly changed the way she sees the world?

Clarice’s personal issues, those issues pertinent to her role as a Main Character, have to do with the screaming lambs and her inability to save the innocent from slaughter. This is what drives her, what keeps her up at night, what drives her into law enforcement, and what motivates her every move within the story. When it comes to her final resolve, the question to ask is not whether or not she stopped Buffalo Bill, but rather did she or didn’t she alter her personal paradigm? Did she somehow find a way to stop caring, to stop fighting for those who can’t protect themselves?

In other words, are the lambs still screaming?

They are. Thus proving that she is still motivated by that personal issue. She has not resolved it. She may have found Triumph in her role as Protagonist, but as far as Main Character goes–the most intensely emotional part of the story–she is still left angst-ridden and torn up. She has not transformed.

The Fugitive’s Personal Paradigm

What of Richard Kimball? Was his personal issue truly about valuing his health and justice? Or was there perhaps some other point-of-view he held that created all the problems for him in the story?

Of course there was. Richard believed he was innocent. He believed that he didn’t kill his wife. In fact, he said that several times, at several key moments within the story. He even pointed his finger at a guy or two to make his point. That was his core personal issue. Now, it might not have been as dramatic or as deeply resonant as the personal issues present in The Silence of the Lambs, but it is still there nevertheless. The Fugitive, after all, is not going to win any awards for serious drama.

As simple as it is tough, the question to ask, again, is whether or not Richard altered this belief?

He did not.

He does not transform on the deep personal issue presented as being essential to his character’s throughline. However, there is someone else in the story who does alter the way they see the world and by doing so, brings meaning to the events on-screen.

The Resolve of that Other Character

Every complete story depicts the battle between two different points-of-view, two different perspectives on the best approach to solving the problems within a story. In order for an author to argue his or her point, in order for the story to actually work, one of those approaches needs to change, needs to alter to adapt the other’s approach. By doing this, the author is saying, See, if you alter your approach this is what is going to happen OR See, if you stick to your approach this is what is going to happen. After all, complete stories have something to say.

For The Silence of the Lambs it didn’t work out so well for Clarice. She was left miserable. The Fugitive, on the other hand, was a different story. By sticking to his approach and his belief that he didn’t kill his wife, Kimball found emotional relief. He found affirmation of his own beliefs. And he found it when the other significant character in the story altered his approach.

Instead of seeing Sam Gerard as a co-protagonist, it would be far more accurate to see him as the Impact Character. This is the character in every complete story that provides an alternative approach to the Main Character’s method of solving problems. The Main and Impact Characters of every great story create the emotional battleground of the Author’s argument.

How does Gerard respond to Kimball’s plea that he didn’t kill his wife? “I don’t care.” Short and sweet, but it says all we need to know about where he stands.

And how does that resolve end within the context of the story? It alters. Gerard changes, or transforms, on this most important issue. By telling Kimball “don’t tell anyone,” what he is really saying is I believe you and I agree with you. By altering his own personal point-of-view, he brings a happy ending to Kimball’s story and a greater understanding of how to solve problems to us, the Audience.

It’s Not All Roses

This same transformation happens with Lecter. By telling Clarice that the world is far more interesting with her in it, he is in effect altering his own viewpoint on the world. Whereas in the past he might have looked to cause further psychological torture upon her, Lecter now focuses on the recognition that Clarice had an effect on him. He may still be off exercising his particular skills, but he does so a transformed man.

So, Clarice may have grown in her ability to discover Gumb’s whereabouts, but that really wasn’t the message of the story. The Silence of the Lambs was arguing that yes, by sticking to your guns you may find success, but you’re still going to be haunted by those internal demons and by all that screaming. And there really is nothing you can do about it emotionally.

(This understanding is why the film feels so darkly moving.)

Detecting Meaning Within a Story’s Events

The problem with mixing and mashing “change” arcs with “individuation” arcs and taking the Audience’s perspective of a story’s meaning is that it makes it extremely difficult to see what is really going on. It causes one to focus on seeing transformation in an area that is not important or pertinent to the story’s ultimate message. If instead one seeks to separate the Main Character’s emotional issues from the larger, more objective issues that everyone in the story faces, the answer to whether or not they truly transform becomes readily apparent.

You can never accurately analyze a story until you make these distinctions. Refusing to do so or ignoring the reality of a story’s framework leads to all sorts of errors in judgment, including the evaluation of a Main Character’s transformative nature based on what they do or don’t do as a Protagonist.

The final product naturally melds all the throughlines together, blending them together so as to provide the nuance and artistic vision of the individual writer, so it makes sense that many make this mistake. But if the idea of analysis is to give writers better tools and a better understanding to create their own stories, it only makes more sense to make said evaluations from the perspective of the Author, from the perspective of the one with the intent to bring meaning.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Dramatica theory of story provides this perspective for prospective writers. Instead of trying to figure out what a story means based on what we the Audience see and interpret, Dramatica seeks to provide the framework, or concoction of ingredients, that formed the story itself. It is, at times, cold and distant, and always somehow frustrating…

But isn’t that what writing is all about?

The creation of a story shouldn’t be a fun read. The story itself should be fun, but not the process of creating it. Or at least, not the evaluation of said process.

The problem with the term Change in regards to the Main Character’s Resolve is that every writer instinctively knows that their character must change. Static characters are dead, why would anyone want to write a character that is Steadfast?

This growth that everyone recognizes as being important to every character is covered in the Dramatica concept of the Main Character’s Growth. This particular appreciation works in connection with the Resolve, to help identify how the Main Character will develop over the course of a story, and is where many writers will find solace in their own instinctual understanding of story.

If one still cannot get past well-worn preconceptions of Change and the central character, perhaps the more appropriate question to ask is whether or not the Main Character alters her point-of-view. If she alters her paradigm, then she has a Resolve of Change. If she doesn’t, then she is Steadfast.

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