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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:




Character Change

Another, unwritten “rule” of screenwriting and character development is that a character should change during the course of their story. They should learn something on their journey that makes them a different and/or better person. Starting in the status quo of their current lives, something happens that throws them into their new world and makes them reappraise the situation they were in and the beliefs they held.

Taking one of my favourite examples, It’s  Wonderful Life, we see George Bailey go through a lot of trials, hankering to get away from Bedford Falls, a place that he has seen as a weight around his neck since childhood. Everything conspires against him in the story, to the point that he reaches a very low point; penniless, hating himself and, sadly, even resenting his own family. Through a mysterious stranger George is given the opportunity to reflect on his life and literally see what the world would have been like without him. He learns a lot about himself, his family and friends, finally realising that he is, in fact, the richest man in Bedford Falls despite thinking he has nothing. His WANT – to leave Bedford Falls and make his fortune is replaced with the realisation of his NEED – to stay in Bedford Falls where he already has everything he will ever need. Although George is an all round good guy, he does undergo some change during the film as he makes this realisation.

But, do characters have to change?

Of course not!

It wouldn’t be a screenwriting “rule” if we didn’t encourage each other to break it. Many would argue, for example, that Ripley doesn’t change at all during Alien – she’s a kick-ass character all the way through. In fact,  some characters are more about the change and effect they have on the people around them in the story. Check out Forrest Gump for an example of that.

The reason for posting this is because I recently caught up with Nightcrawler. I enjoyed the film, but I wasn’t “blown away” as I was led to believe I would be. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job with Louis Bloom, a man of questionable morals who lies, fights and kills to get to the top. Ultimately, I just didn’t really like the character and, at the end of the film felt that he hadn’t learned anything on his journey – he was just as amoral at the end of the film as he was at the start. He may actually have been worse.

However, the film, like Bloom, has a way of getting under your skin in the days after watching it – which was probably the point. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this is more like Forrest Gump than It’s a Wonderful Life. It is more about the effect Bloom has on those around him; most notably TV Exec, Nina and Rick, his ill-fated assistant. Their desire to “get on” are probably matched by Louis’ but their characters are corrupted (further?) by getting involved with Louis and his slightly twisted view on the world. Nina’s slightly dodgy ethics worsen in her desire to get bigger and better videos for her station and Rick’s desire to help and be successful are his downfall when partnered with Louis’ desire to get the “shot” regardless of the cost.

That’s when I started to realise that Nighcrawler wasn’t really Louis’ story – it is Nina’s and Rick’s – as an exploration of the effects of corruption. Louis is like a physical force blowing through the film; an amoral tornado tainting everything it touches.

Like the feeling when you have been up all night, Nightcrawler  seeps in unexpectedly, taking you by surprise (much like Louis’ introduction in the film) and, like the announcements on his police scanner, takes you by surprise, just when you think you have figured it out.

Any film that makes me think for more than a few hours after the event is more than worth a look, and I am sure it would stand up to repeated viewing. It certainly grew on me. Definitely recommended as an exploration of character and the perfect example of a protagonist who doesn’t change.

Just because a character doesn’t change, doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting.

Do you think all characters should change?

Thanks for reading and feel free to comment below!

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