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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:




Pixar Rules of Story #6 – Conflict and Emotional Arc

What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pixar’s Rule #6 is closely linked to Rule #1 as it is related to conflict – putting your protagonist in a bind, taking them out of their comfort zone, and seeing how they react. The key here though is to make sure it is not conflict for conflict’s sake. Just because you can throw a brick wall in your hero’s face, doesn’t mean you should. We need to be a bit more creative with our conflict and blocks.

This is important as the conflict should be related to the character’s emotional arc and development through the story. This is where the “how do they deal?” question comes in – those blocks and troubles we design for our characters should develop them emotionally and illustrate this growth/change in the way they deal with each conflict.

However, despite the wording of the rule, we don’t just want to throw something that is the polar opposite to them – that is easy and can lead to stale story-telling. We want to challenge them with something that forces them into a polar opposite mindset or existence.

For example – and going back to our friend George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life – the conflict and blocks that George faces throughout the film conspire to stop him getting away from Bedford Falls. He dreams of getting away, but those challenges throw him into a polar opposite – a world that he can’t escape from. However, they also allow him to develop as a character and come to learn just how much he has right in front of him – which is the emotional arc of the story.

If we had been subjected to two hours of conflict around him losing a pair of shoes, or filling out a tax return, it would have been a hell of a lot less interesting. Those conflicts, while we may be able to identify with the frustration, don’t really develop George as a character or reflect his desire to leave his home town and the difficulties he has in doing so.

Thinking about this makes me feel that this is also all closely bound to a character’s Wants and Needs. Conflict challenges the external Wants, while channeling the character towards their Need. Again this all ties closely with the emotional arc of your story and characters.

As another example, in his analysis, Stephan Vladimir Bugaj talks about a violinist. He discusses how the polar opposite of playing the violin is not playing the violin, but that, in itself, doesn’t make an interesting story. [He then goes on to discuss a more detailed example around a compulsive liar – but I thought I would stick with the violinist!]

Thinking about this some more, and in relation to Want and Need, we might have a Violinist who Wants to play the violin at the highest level and be world-renowned. She will never make that level (she doesn’t know that yet though), but she is determined and her life is dedicated to playing. However,  this is at the detriment of her relationship with her partner and child, who she never has time for as she is so focussed on her impossible dream. Her (obvious) Need is to recognise what she has in her family and to give up the impossible dream to spend more time with them.

So, we don’t just get her to stop playing the violin – that’s too easy. Perhaps we have an incident where the family needs money urgently and her antique violin is the only thing they have of value. Perhaps she injures her hand and needs the money for the healthcare fees? She has to decide whether to sell the violin. There is conflict directly related to her Want and puts her into a position of opposition as she can no longer play the violin. She is taken out of her comfort zone and into a new world, the polar opposite of what she is used to.

This kicks off her emotional arc as she spends more time with her family and starts to realise what she is missing. Perhaps this helps open her eyes to the fact that she won’t ever really make it. She takes a job tutoring young players and finds that she enjoys that link to the old world….but one that allows her to stay in the new.

Then you could play it back the other way and have something crop up that tempts her back to the old ways – in opposition to her new life and recognition of her internal Need. A great opportunity that throws in another conflict as to whether she does something drastic to buy back her violin or learns from the changes in her life and lets the old world go forever. Will she? Won’t she? Great conflict, lots to lose and all related to the emotional arc.

Probably an appallingly cliched and simple example, but one that, hopefully illustrates the concept: Conflict that throws your character into opposition with themselves.

And hopefully you can see how this concept of throwing the polar opposite at a character is a useful way to think about your “inciting incident” and/or “break into ActII” if you use those stages in your beat sheets and outlines. Those early scenes in your script are the ones that introduce the “problem” to the character and the audience and tend to launch your protagonist out of their comfort zone/the status quo and into a new world of conflict and contradiction to the norm.

In summary, we know we have to throw conflict at our protagonists. But don’t just throw anything at them. Link the conflict to the character, to their Wants and Needs and to their emotional arc to ensure that the conflict is relevant. And make that conflict throw the character in the opposite direction to the one they expected to be going in or, perhaps, tempts them towards it. Take them out of their comfort zone.

Sorry for the lengthy post – perhaps I need to go back to Rule #5?

How do you decide what conflict to throw at your characters?

Do you link it to their emotional arc, Wants and Needs?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #7 – Start with your Ending

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!

(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images!)

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