How Can a Static Protagonist Compel an Audience?
Michael Corleone. Ferris Bueller. Beatrix Kiddo. John Wick.
What do these four famous film characters have in common, other than that they all hail from classic movies? Well, if you haven’t really considered the title of this piece yet, the four main characters that I listed from The Godfather Part II, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Kill Bill, and the John Wick trilogy are all ones who don’t change or grow by the end of their cinematic journey. They are static protagonists. Sure, they may struggle to get what they want, but make no mistake, they’re basically the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.
The same is true of the main characters in Taken, Young Adult, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Social Network, and a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They don’t change a lick. Even this season’s King Richard showcases a lead who stays wholly steadfast in his rigid desire to turn his girls Venus and Serena into tennis stars. It’s a bit disquieting to watch papa Richard Williams act so pigheaded as he remains unchanged in his narrow worldview, but sometimes people don’t change in real life, nor do the characters in Hollywood stories. And writing such screenplays becomes tricky in finding ways for audiences to stay enthralled even when the lead characters don’t grow.
A hero’s journey traditionally dictates that the main character has a learning experience, one that changes them to help them achieve their goals. Dorothy matures in Oz, Scrooge discovers it’s never too late to change, and Ariel learns she can’t have it all without standing on her own two feet. Sure, audiences may love seeing the staid and stoic Dirty Harry mow down all the bad guys in his typical fashion, but they’re likely to be more moved by watching another Harry learn to bend so he can win the heart of Sally.
So, if a protagonist is going to be static, what can the writer do to ensure the audience stays with the story? Well, obviously a good yarn helps. Indiana Jones doesn’t change as a person but he does manage to overcome incredible odds and numerous Nazis here and there to achieve his goals. That’s a pretty good story. But if the quest isn’t quite that ginormous, where can a writer go?
One key tactic is to have another character in the story fulfill the arc. Consider Ferris Bueller—he may be the title character, but the arc belongs to his best friend Cameron. After all, while Ferris remains a lovable scamp from first frame to last, Cam is the guy who learns to break out of his comfort zone, live a little, and decide to stand up to his bullying father. In many ways, Cameron is the main character, while Ferris fulfills the role of the dynamic character, the one who influences the main one, as defined by various screenwriting classes. The dynamic character tends to be a colorful supporting one who pushes the main character into his or her quest and will continue to affect them along the way. Bueller is technically the lead, but the true arc is Cam’s.
Giving a major supporting character the genuine arc isn’t all that common, but it’s not rare either. One can discover the ploy used in everything from the original Ghostbusters to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the horror-comedy, Dana Barrett has the true character arc, going from innocent bystander to demon from hell to the girlfriend of paranormal professor Peter Venkman. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, British spook George Smiley starts off intrepid and stays that way throughout the caper as he tries to discover who’s the mole in MI-6. Meanwhile, it’s the character of his assistant spy Peter Guillam who gets the arc. He's the one who risks life and limb to help the whole way through, even putting his own gay personal life on hold to help Smiley’s investigation to thwart the Russians.
If a writer decides to have neither his lead nor a significant supporting character carry the arc, it can be fudged by having the world at large be the ‘character’ that somehow changes. Think of how the superheroes in the MCU are always saving the planet from death and destruction, or how James Bond saves the world time and time again. There’s a sort of an invisible character arc in such worlds as they change from the edge of disaster to a place where everything is safe and sound again.
Additionally, if a static protagonist heads up a story, and a supporting character or the world doesn’t carry a considerable arc, the protagonist’s actions can serve as a version of the trope as well. That’s essentially what happens in The Godfather Part II where the lead character of Michael Corleone stays the same awful man throughout the story.
In The Godfather, his character arc went from war hero to ruthless don. He changed, for sure, though not for the better. (Change in a character is essential in a proper arc, be it good or bad.) But as Part II begins, Michael is an awful human being, the same as when we last saw him at the end of Part I. He’s consumed with vengeance against any threats, even from his family.
As we watch Part II spool out, the audience wonders if Michael will realize the error of his ways and change and strive for redemption. He doesn’t, at least not until The Godfather Part III. But in II, he remains steadfastly vicious, never bending, never learning, never changing. Once again, Michael is the destroyer, wrecking the lives of his enemies, various family members, and anyone he feels even remotely threatened by. By the end, Michael is the same monster he was at the beginning, victorious, but alone. Very alone. And very much the same.
That isn’t a typical character arc on film, though it is with franchise characters whom audiences tends to prefer resilient and reliable. (That mindset governs plenty of TV shows too where beloved characters change very little, no matter what that week’s plot.) But in the case of Michael Corleone, his lack of arc is stunning. There is a big one though, and it’s in the audience.
As we watch, we turn wholly against Michael. Long gone is the WWII hero who loved Kay, was loyal to his family, and protected his hospitalized old man from assassins. In the second film, he’s a monster who even slays his brother Fredo just for spite. By the end, we are appalled.
Now, that’s an arc.
*Feature Image: The Godfather Part II by Jeff York