Character and Change

The psychology behind character arc

While many writers understand the idea of a character arc, the specific storypoints that define that development receive little consideration. Parsing the Main Character's path through a story reveals two key appreciations of story structure: the Main Character Resolve and the Main Character Growth. A better understanding of these two principles allows a writer to see that an arc is more than merely change.

A Reason for Rules

Structure grants meaning and gives purpose to a complete story.

Rules tend to offend the sensibilities of creative writers. The intricacies and nuances of crafting living, breathing characters from ink and type require free abandon. They rebel at the very thought that there could somehow be some order to their chosen form of expression.

Yet, works bred of ego and blind ambition often flounder when crossing the finish line that is Audience Reception. They show up--yet ultimately have nothing meaningful to say, in part because they didn't follow the "rule".

The First Rule of Narrative Science

By "rule", of course, we refer to a standard set when looking at story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Rather than yet another in a hundred and some odd ways to beat the Hollywood reader, this reality occurs because of the processes that go on within the act of working out a problem. Dramatica (the first iteration of Narrative Science) sees story this way. If you don't, if you see story as having no boundaries and no limitations then by all means, write to your heart's content. Fly, be free.

Just don't expect the rest of us to remain engaged in your work.

Audiences expect stories to think like they do. Run counter to their instinctual responses and they'll turn away in droves.

One of the very first of these rules to be encountered within Dramatica states that when it comes to the two central characters of a story--the Main Character and Obstacle Character--one will change, and the other will remain steadfast.

If they both change the story breaks.

How Can a Character Not Change?

Eventually this standard finds the need to defend itself when it comes to certain great films. Consider Toy Story. When asked which principal character changes, Woody or Buzz, many answer both. Woody finds it within himself to allow another toy the top spot and Buzz discovers he's not really the Space Ranger he thought he was. What about The Sixth Sense? Obviously Malcom Crowe (the Bruce Willis character) changes, but doesn't little Cole change as well when he finally musters up the courage to visit the poisoned girl? And what of Pride and Prejudice-- doesn't that classic beloved novel tell the story of two characters meeting in the middle?

Perhaps Narrative Science misses the mark. Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule...

…not quite.

The problem lies in Dramatica's definition of change and what most people mean when they think of characters changing.

How Narrative Science Sees Character

Contrary to centuries of thought on story, Dramatica sees the two central characters of a story not as fully imagined three-dimensional people, but rather as a context for perspective. Remember the basic given about stories as analogies to problem-solving? To fully comprehend and gain meaning from this act of problem-solving, all perspectives need to be addressed. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter? That's the kind of dissonance differing perspectives offer; that's how a story grants greater meaning to its events.

The Main Character gives the Audience an intimate perspective of the story's central problem. From here we experience what it is like to actually deal with the problem personally, as if "I" have the problem. The Obstacle Character offers up an alternative to the Main Character's stance by showing how someone else deals with the problem. From there we experience what it is like for "You" to deal with the problem.

The Objective Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline round out those perspectives by offering us a chance to see how "They" experience the problem and how "We" experience the problem, respectively. But for now, seeing the Main Character and Obstacle Character as perspectives rather than fully-realized people makes it easier to explain the reason for that first rule.

Giving Meaning through Problem-Solving

The Obstacle Character enters the picture and tension mounts. Conflict now occurs because two competing perspectives have come into play; two different approaches towards solving the story's central problem. Both believe their view correct, both believe the other wrong. In order for this model of story as problem-solving process to work out, one must eventually give way to the other. Capitulation leads to resolution which in turn, leads to meaning. By showing whether or not the "winning" perspective leads to triumph or tragedy, the Author proves the appropriateness of using a certain perspective to solve problems.

The Author crafts greater meaning to a story's events.

Sometimes the Obstacle Character was right, the Main Character changes perspective and the story results in triumph (Star Wars, The King's Speech and Finding Nemo). Sometimes it was the Main Character who was right, the Obstacle Character justly surrenders and the story results in triumph (Star Trek, In the Heat of the Night, and The Iron Giant). Sadly though there are times when being "right" was actually wrong. The Main Character "wins" with the Obstacle Character changing perspective, yet the result tumbles into tragedy (Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge! and Reservoir Dogs).

Regardless of the particular combination, the reason one character "changes" and the other "remains steadfast" becomes apparent: by showing the result of one taking one perspective over another an Author offers up their take on the appropriate (or inappropriate) way to solve a particular problem. In plain-English, the writer basically says, "Take this approach and you'll likely end up in the dumps"(The Wild Bunch) or "Adopt his way of seeing things and you'll likely end up triumphant" (Amélie).

The rule gives purpose to story.

But What About Meeting Halfway?

If both principal characters change their perspectives, the outcome of the story loses all purpose. Who's approach was the best? How am I to solve my own problems in life? What exactly was this story trying to say?

Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.

When a story simply shows two characters coming together, both changing, that alternative perspective ceases to exist and a hole the size of Texas (or perhaps Antarctica) opens up within the story's argument. The Author fails to show the problem from all sides. Suddenly the Author leaves space for exceptions, giving opportunity for an Audience to dissent and eventually discount their work wholesale.[^bothchange]

In other words, no one will go see the movie.

A Call for Greater Clarity

Rules of story structure--at least the kind of "rules" found in Dramatica--exist to give purpose to the telling of a story. Break them and the story itself becomes dysfunctional. Rare is the Audience member who voluntarily hangs out with a schizophrenic mind.

Still, one can't argue with the success and greatness of Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice. Do these stories fail in making their arguments? Clearly the principal characters in each changes their perspectives. How does one explain their effectiveness as complex stories within the context of this rule of change and steadfast?

The answer lies within the next in this series on Character and Change: Flipping Perspectives

[^bothchange]: Look no further than Disney's Tangled and Brave for real-world examples of what happens when both principal characters change. These disasters of story structure suffer from a lack of narrative purpose.

Flipping Perspectives

An effective character arc measures both the growth and resolve of the point-of-view.

Parsing meaning from story requires an eagle-eye for detail and a refusal to participate in generalities. Along with this greater focus on accuracy, however, comes the responsibility of making allowances for deeply held beliefs over how and why a story operates.

No greater does this responsibility make itself known than in the argument over whether or not certain characters change within a story. Dramatica, the first iteration of Narrative Science, seems to only call for one major character to change. How can that be when one considers stories like Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice where it seems both principal characters change?

Counter-intuitive as this must seem in light of these examples, an effective story demands it.

A Rule That Supports Meaning

As covered in the previous article A Reason for Rules, an effective story proves the Author's argument by featuring two principal characters with conflicting perspectives on how best to solve the story's central problem. One gives way to the other resulting in a rational and emotional outcome. If the one that "wins" ends up bringing everyone to triumph, then the Author has successfully argued for the efficacy of that winning perspective. If instead the winning approach leads to tragedy, then the Author has argued that that perspective was most inappropriate.

Authors use the perspectives of the two central characters to prove their take on the world.

A Change of Resolve, Not a Change of Growth

Dramatica's first story point deals specifically with the perspective of one of these principal characters--the Main Character. Referring to this bit of story structure as the Main Character's Resolve, it simply asks whether the Main Character Changes or Remains Steadfast in their resolve. In other words, has the Main Character stayed consistent within their worldview (Steadfast) or have they "flipped", and completely adopted a whole new way of seeing things (Change)?

As an aside--and another "rule" of story structure--whatever the Main Character's final Resolve happens to be, the other principal character in the story, the Obstacle Character, will seemingly share the opposite resolve. More on this in just a bit.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Rick in Casablanca and Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph all clearly adopt a brand new way of seeing things. They shed the old for the new.

But Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) from The Fugitive, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) from Field of Dreams, and Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) from Eastern Promises clearly don't behave in this manner. Instead of growing by transferring their point-of-view to another track, they stand their ground and grow by remaining true to what they hold most dear.

These Main Characters grow, but they don't change their mindset. Change as Dramatica sees it speaks of adopting a brand new point-of-view--one that requires eschewing all remnants of the past. Still, even with this explanation firmly in mind many struggle with the idea that of some Main Characters not changing.

A Problem of Semantics

Unfortunately Dramatica runs into this issue quite often. Greater accuracy and insight into how story structure actually works often requires a redefining of some terms previously taken for granted. The concept of Protagonist works in a general sense, but when delineating the objective perspective of the Objective Story from the personal first-person perspective of the Main Character, the common general approach muddles the Author's argument (For more on this, please see Redefining Protagonist and Main Character). When answering Dramatica's structural questions or trying to determine a certain aspect of your story's structure, you have to know what it is you are actually looking at.

But perhaps this use of the word "Change" and applying it to only one of the principal characters becomes too much. It may be the most accurate way to describe the process of a fully-functioning story, but it might also be creating confusion where there shouldn't be. Like some of the terms found in earlier versions of Dramatica such as Subjective Story (now Relationship Story), a slight modification might be in order.

Suggestions for Clarification

Instead of asking whether or not a character has changed or remained steadfast, perhaps we should be asking if their initial perspective has stayed consistent throughout the end of the story or has it been transferred or rejected, or even better--has it "flipped"? Instead of Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast, perhaps Main Character Perspective: Consistent or Flipped. Or better yet, how about just making it a decision between a Changed perspective or a Steadfast one. This at least brings them into harmony with each other, and specifically refers to the Resolve of the Main Character. In this way we drop the rather-charged word of "change" from the equation and make it easier for Authors and analysts to define where and when a story needs fixing.

In Subtxt, all references to a Main Character Resolve of Change appear as a Main Character Resolve of Changed. In addition, the dynamic itself signifies a Changed perspective--comparing the end of a narrative to the beginning.

More importantly though, we should drop the idea that the converse is true (if the Main Character stays consistent the Obstacle Character will flip). Why? Because stories define Obstacle Characters by their impact on the Main Character, not by how their perspectives have changed personally for themselves. Structurally speaking we don't jump into their shoes the same way we do with the Main Character. From the vantage point of the Main Character it's not important whether or not the Obstacle Character's Perspective stays consistent or is rejected, but rather whether or not their influence over the Main Character has stayed consistent or grown irrelevant.

Greater Understanding

With this in mind the problems concerning the dynamics between the Main and Obstacle Characters in Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice quickly fade away.

In Toy Story it seems as if Woody changes. How else would one interpret his ability to share the top spot on the bed with another toy? Yet, if one dives deep into the structure of this great film clarity shines through. Woody doesn't change his point-of-view, he matures into it. "It doesn't matter how much we're played with--what matters is that we're here for Andy when he needs us" describes his initial perspective. That belief grows throughout the film until it becomes so strong he is willing to sacrifice everything to be there for Andy.

If Woody had shed his identity as Andy's toy and somehow became as delusional as Buzz then yes, he would have been considered a Change character. Changed characters disown their original point-of-view.

Malcom from The Sixth Sense and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice operate this way. They both reject their initial perspectives. Malcom sees things for how they really are and Elizabeth agrees to marry the man she promised she never would. Looking at their respective Obstacle Characters Cole and Mr. Darcy, we begin to see the importance of indentifying their influence over their respective Main Characters and where that ultimately ends up.

In The Sixth Sense Cole may see things personally in a different light, he may have seemingly "changed" but when it comes to his actual influence over Malcom, it's still there in the end. He may understand what it is the ghosts want from him and he may be finally facing his fears, but that influence he has over Malcom--that stubborn denial of peer pressure and verbal attacks against his character--that's still there as well. He puts up with everyone thinking him a "freak" because he sees things others don't, an attitude that ultimately influences Malcom to open up his own eyes.

In regards to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, the man in question may have endeavored to prove how much he is willing to change for Elizabeth, but his pride and general demeanor which held influence over her did not become wholly irrelevant. Why else would her father still question her final decision if he did not still sense that sense of pride within Mr. Darcy? His quality of character may have subdued a little by taking a different direction, but it was not rejected outright.

Contrast these instances of consistent influence with those of Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) from The Fugitive, Field of Dreams, and Eastern Promises. These characters grow in such a way that their influence ultimately becomes inconsequential to their respective Main Characters. Gerard's "I don't care" turns into "I care enough to keep the Police from killing you." Mann's refusal to open the door to his own apartment turns into a willingness to step into the unknown. Nikolai's rise to power insures the safety of the baby and ultimately Anna herself.

All of these reflect instances where the actual influence upon the Main Character to question their own way of seeing things essentially vanished. By becoming inconsequential, these characters solidified the stalwart resolve of the counterparts.

Change Clouds the Meaning within a Story's Structure

To search for change within a story's structure only befuddles the observer. Change is everywhere. The change from one Act's Transit to another, the change within the Story Continuum as time runs out or options disappear, and yes, the change within the Main Character as they grow to a point where their resolve comes into question.

Talented writers know change must happen, they know their characters must grow else the story lie dormant and dead. To tell these same writers that only one principal character actually changes while the other remains steadfast runs counter to their instincts and fuels the fire for the inaccuracy of Dramatica and Narrative Science as a whole. Better to quantify and clarify what the storyform actually seeks out rather than stay true to original terminology..

By seeking instead for the consistency or "flipping" of the Main Character's perspective, writers and analysts close the story structure book on this issue of changing or not changing. In addition, by understanding the true role of the Obstacle Character within the structure of a story and how it is their influence that should be judged, not their personal resolve, and understanding of how these two perspectives work together to define the meaning of a story, writers and analyst can confidently get back to the work of creating fully functional and purposeful stories.