Articles

Understanding How Character Arc Works

The purpose of growth is to support the premise, not the character.

Writers first stumble upon this concept of the character arc in high school. Whether in a creative writing class or a snarky YouTube video, the aspiring Author assumes that for a story to "work," she must showcase the central character changing. Great transformation becomes the focus of her writing endeavors, and anything less—regardless of how it resonates with her intuition—falls by the wayside.

Great writing falls victim once again to insufficient and remedial understandings of a narrative.

When it comes to matters of Resolve and the principal characters of a story, many writers see evidence of change in everyone. And to many, this intuitively feels correct. Stories are about people learning from one another, and so it only makes sense that the central characters of a piece should somehow both change. These misguided writers wonder if perhaps there is some greater meaning to be found when two characters meet each other halfway.

There isn’t.

One, these characters aren’t both changing their Resolve.

And Two, characters aren’t people.

They’re perspectives.

Resolve and Meaning

The Dramatica theory of story establishes a functional narrative as a model of the human mind at work. Problems and the justifications that led to them unravel through the process of Scenes, Sequences, and Acts. Key to manufacturing this model are two opposing views that cannot be held at the same time and from the same perspective.

In short, an inequity.

The meaning of a narrative—what it hopes to communicate—is the appropriateness of one point-of-view over the other. This is the foundation for the premise of a story.

And this is why the Main Character Resolve exists as an essential Storypoint—and why at the end of a story one perspective Remains Steadfast, and the other is Changed.

If both changes, like many assume and believe, is possible, there is no Narrative Argument. No premise. No purpose.

The Audience checks out.

Perspectives, not People

Many writers confuse their characters for real people.

They’re not.

The characters that populate a story are Players—vessels that maintain a particular perspective.

Once we start adopting this more objective view of narrative, the light afforded us by Dramatica, the easier it is for us to construct meaningful narratives.

The easier it is for us to make sure our stories aren’t broken.

Stories as Models of Psychology

This question of Resolve and perspective appears when one sees a Steadfast character overcome their fears, seemingly “changing” in the process.

Boo, the young girl in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., is an excellent example of this in action. She eventually grows to a point where she defeats her personal monster and demon, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seemingly transforming in the process.

Boo and her monster, Randall

While it may seem to us that she changes and grows as a person, the central narrative storyform for Monsters, Inc. does not feature her emotional change as an integral part of its meaning.

It's not a part of the premise, and therefore, not an actual change.

The storyform is a model of human psychology at work. And from that point of view Boo is a perspective, not a person. Overcoming her fears was not the substance, or meaning, of the narrative. Instead, Boo growing beyond her fears is integral to the storyform because of the Steadfastness of her point-of-view.

Remember that Boo’s role in this narrative is to challenge the monster world’s preconception of the terrifying nature of a human. Humans are an unknown, and it’s Boo’s steadfastness in staying an unknown and staying surprising to a monster that eventually breaks Sully (John Goodman) out of his own prejudices. Boo dislodges his justifications because she doesn't fall into those tried and true preconceptions of what it means to be a human.

Sully and his monster, Boo

When seen as perspectives from a consistent point of view, not characters, one sees Boo’s “change” as an example of Steadfast Resolve. Not steadfast in terms of her as a person or as a character, but as a perspective that influences and challenges another to Change.

For her perspective to change, she would have to exemplify and show Sully that the monsters were right in believing humans dangerous. She would need to adapt to his worldview.

And that would be an entirely different story.

On Substories and Evidence

If growing beyond her fears and changing perspective was essential to the Author, then there would be more scenes supporting a second narrative. Boo's fear of monsters like Randall would need an alternate challenging perspective to motivate her to move beyond her preconceptions. Stories can contain multiple narratives—it's merely a matter of intent and purpose.

Unfortunately, there just isn't enough information in Monsters, Inc. to warrant further investigation into a secondary narrative. Even sub-stories, narratives with incomplete or insufficient data, find more significant evidence than what is seen in this film. Think of Han Solo's sub-story in the original Star Wars or Nemo's aquarium episode in Finding Nemo. These sub-stories drew their characters out of justifications by echoing the structure of a functional narrative.

Boo's personal issue with her fear of monsters did not, and therefore slips under the wake formulated by the central narrative of Monsters, Inc. Sully grows by Changing his Resolve, Boo grows by Remaining Steadfast in her Resolve. The completeness of this dichotomy and its correlation with the premise is what we take away from the film.

It's not our fear of monsters that needs to change, it's our belief that we are not the monsters that needs to change.