Main Character Throughline and Main Character Growth
Transformation of character is one thing; how they got there is another. Continuing an in-depth look at the most important character of any story, we now shift our attention towards the direction their growth takes.
This dynamic identifies the kind of growth the Main Character must take before they can finally address their resolve. It is the closest thing to what most story gurus or story-structure enthusiasts refer to as the Character Arc. The problem with this generally accepted definition of “Arc” is that it assumes that every character must fundamentally change in order to grow. This assumption is half-true as there are millions of meaningful stories where the Main Character grows, yet does not change. These Main Characters grow into their resolve.
Storytellers would be wise to understand the marked difference between transformational change and the development of character.
The Dramatica understanding of this concept attempts to define the kind of growth the Main Character undertakes without insisting that it lead to change. Instead of defining the end result of the character’s journey, it focuses on the process of getting there (as a definition of growth should). There are two ways to label this development in a character: Stop or Start.
It’s important to note too that this appreciation is generally felt more by the audience, rather than something that the Main Character is actually aware of.
The definition of this growth changes depending on the Main Character’s Resolve. A Main Character who Changes by Stopping something will feel to the audience as if they have a chip on their shoulder or as if some great burden is weighing them down. Woody from the original Toy Story has a major chip on his shoulder when Buzz is introduced to their tight-knit community. Before he can become selfless he must first “stop” doing all those jealous jerky-things he does to maintain his position as Andy’s favorite toy (like knocking Buzz out of a window).
Note: The above analysis of Woody in Toy Story fails to accurately describe the Main Character/Influence Character dynamic in the film. Woody is, in fact, a Steadfast Main Character with Buzz functioning as the Changed Influence Character. For a more updated, and far more sophisticated look at this film, please read The Toy Story Dilemma.
On the other side of growth, a Main Character who Changes by Starting something will feel to the audience as if they have a hole in their heart, or that they are lacking something important. Rick, in the classic Casablanca, is an empty shell of the great man he once was. He “sticks his neck out for no one” and thus, must “start” taking action to insure that the love of his life leads the life she has always dreamed of.
This dynamic changes if the Main Character remains Steadfast till the end.
When looking at Main Characters who maintain their resolve to the bitter end, it is more appropriate to look at their growth as a response to the world outside of them. As they themselves don’t fundamentally Change, their growth is seen as a matter of buttressing up against forces that they wish to change. Again, the nature of that change in the external can be described as either Start or Stop.
In a story with a Main Character who Remains Steadfast by Stopping, the Main Character will appear to the audience as someone who is holding out for something to stop. Like Kirk holding out for Nero to “stop” seeking revenge in the latest Star Trek movie, William Wallace in Braveheart is holding out for England to “stop” its reign of tyranny.
In stories with Main Characters who Remain Steadfast by Starting, the Main Character will be holding out for something to start. In these kinds of stories, the Main Character is seen to be holding out for something better to come along. Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams keeps following the whims of a ghostly voice heard in a cornfield. “If you build it, he will come” describes Ray’s growth as a process he undertakes in the hopes that something inexplicably wonderful will start.
In American Beauty, we have already seen how Lester fundamentally Changes at the end of the story. Taking a look once again at the original screenplay, we can see the direction his growth takes:
INT. COMMUTER TRAIN - A SHORT TIME LATER LESTER sits IN the crowded TRAIN, his head UP against the window. He’s fast asleep. LESTER (V.O.) Both my wife and my daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. He has a paper CUP OF COFFEE IN one hand, haphazardly holding it against his knee. Slowly, it tips over, spilling onto his pants leg. He remains asleep. LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d) And they’re right. I’ve lost something very important. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this…sedated.
And here’s the video montage again in case you missed it from the first article:
In the final version, the filmmakers even added the line, “But you know what? It’s never too late…to get it back.” A perfect example of a Main Character who will grow in the direction of “starting” something.
In next week’s article we’ll discuss how Lester sets out to tackle these new changes.