Character Change

Michael Corleone by cal.almonds, on Flickr
Michael Corleone” (CC BY 2.0) by  cal.almonds 


While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:

(the full post is available HERE)

What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.

Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:

“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:

“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).

“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).

Which is exactly right –  change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.

Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.

However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.

So what’s going on here?

Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.

Don’t believe me?

What about:

to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.

Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!

This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.

So that gives us something to aim for.

How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?

Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?

 

Further Reading:

 

 

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Posted on July 6, 2016, in Character, empathy, Films, Learning, Structure, theme, Writing, Writing Rules and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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