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Friday, April 25, 2008

Arc, Who Goes There?

By Christopher Keane

Let me try to clear up for some of you out there what a CHARACTER ARC is. Everybody bandies about character arcs as if they know what they’re talking about, and some of them do. Some of them don’t.

One of the best definitions I’ve heard is this: the moment by moment, scene by scene, act by act decision-making process a character goes through during the course of the story.

That’s all well and good. He decides to take a bath. She decides to kill her mother-in-law. He decides to kill her mother-in-law. She decides to run a bath to drown out the sound of murder.

Lets narrow down that definition: the moment by moment, scene by scene, act by act high stakes decision-making process a character goes through during the course of the story. A decision making process that involves the choice between two very different and equally balanced options. About five of them per script.

That’s better. It’s the toughest decisions a character has to make, the ones that will give the character his or her character. The decisions that are not overloaded on one side or the other that the writer makes so obvious and predictable that the story flattens out and the character becomes a vehicle for the writer’s lazy half-assed attempt to get across a point.

That leads to the question: What is character?

Character is the behavior that a character shows as a result of his decisions over the course of the story. It’s the writer’s job, let’s call obligation, to balance the choices in such a way that the character, at the most critical moment under pressure, has to make.

Let’s say that the character has five such high stakes, high-pressured decisions during the course of the story. And if one were to study the progression of these decision one might see that the character has, during this time and under these given set of circumstances, significantly changed his or her way of thinking and acting.

A weak woman becomes strong; a confident man turns to jelly.

For instance let’s say a Seattle brain surgeon is rushing to a hospital where he has to perform emergency surgery on, say, a South African heart surgeon who is world renowned for his medical breakthroughs. The South African will not survive unless our Seattle doc operates within the next hour.

Our Seattle brain surgeon is the only man alive who can possibly save this South African, and let’s face it, if successful, which the brain surgeon believes he will be, his own reputation will be greatly enhanced.

Native American tribes inhabit many areas of the Great Pacific Northwest. It just so happens that as the Seattle brain surgeon speeds along a remote highway towards the hospital to perform his emergency operation he spies a couple of Native American women in an old sedan by the side of the road. The sedan is on fire. The Native American women are trapped inside, hands pressed against the glass, crying out.

It won’t be long before they’re engulfed in flames and perish. The brain surgeon is the only one around and he knows it. The question is: will he stop to save the women and certainly lose the famous doctor, or will he push on to the hospital and leave the women to die.

He has a split second to decide.

These are the kind of critical decisions that your character must face in order to show what she’s made of. If her decision comes in the beginning of the story and she chooses to leave the women and go to the hospital, she has room to become someone else by the end of the story. Or if she stops to save the women and the famous doctor dies, she has room to grow and become a different woman by the end of the story.

It’s your decision, your character. Look at the pressure this woman is under. Look at the elements inherent in each decision, the prejudices, the self-interest to consider, the consequences. And they all roll through her in no time at all.

Hit the break or hit the accelerator. These character elements can, and will, turn a mediocre story into a memorable one.

It’s called the character arc. Try it. It should improve your script

-Chris Keane has written many books, originals and adaptations of others’ books and his own into movies and TV series. Among his books are three on screenwriting. His latest – ROMANCING THE A-LIST: Writing the Script the Big Stars Want to Make.

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Tyler said...

Great post... reminds me of something I read yesterday which I wrote down in my journal:

"We look forward to exploring a character's emotional tug-of-war between two equal choices. The more difficult the decision your character has to make, the more you'll compell your audience."

Which is basically saying the same thing. Awesome advice, though!

rayannecarr said...

Interesting post. I love the surgeon dilemma scenario.
I do have one question.
At the moment I am developing the character of my Main Opponent, and have a solid profile of his motivations and goals at the start.
The plot is shaping up around the push/push back from the heroine.
But here is the thing.
I still cannot see my opponent having a character arc where he will grow during the decisions he has to make in response to my kick ass heroine.
Any ideas?
[ Perhaps I need more cupcakes..]