To Arc or Not to Arc? That Is the Question...

To Arc or Not to Arc? That Is the Question...

A friend of mine on Facebook recently posited the following question: “Hey Jason, I had these thoughts while I was baking muffins this morning. A person’s personality is a balance between the angel and the asshole. What defines a character is the ratio between the two. Character development is how the Angel/Asshole ratio changes throughout the story. Thoughts?”

Thoughts? Oh, I got ‘em.

First—what the fuck? You’re not even gonna offer me a muffin? Some “friend.”

Secondly: My “friend’s” Angel/Asshole paradigm—while definitely a gross binary oversimplification of the vast, nuanced array of human personality types—might actually serve some utility in terms of rendering a compelling character in a work of fiction. A great many iconic characters in literature and films work this way or at least, on the surface, appear to.

Take Ken Kesey’s first-ballot, inner circle Fictional Character Hall of Famer Randle Patrick McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You could write a reasonable thesis tracking this seminal character as he evolves from hell-raising immature egomaniac (Asshole) to sacrificial hero and shepherd of the oppressed—and psychically self-oppressed—denizens of Ratchet’s ward (Angel).

The same could be said of Melvin Udall in James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets (or any other number of Jack Nicholson characters, while we’re at it): He tracks from “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability” to “You make me wanna be a better man.” I mean, we’re talkin’ The Stuff of Legend here. Rushmore material. You could do a lot worse than to ape this method of constructing a character.

But let’s be real here: what we’re usually talking about when we say “character development” is Character Arc—and the way the Muffin Man posed the query that precipitated this piece, it presupposes that a Character Arc (or at least some form of intrinsic, internal change as you plot your character’s journey between the Angel and Asshole poles) is requisite to a well-rendered character … to which I say: “nay.”

Don’t get me wrong, Character Arcs can be extremely effective. Witnessing the human capacity to change—even in a fictional character—in the truncated time it takes to devour a book or movie gives us hope that we too can change. Arguments regarding the actuality of free will aside, this is one of the most powerful, resonant ways in which art affects us. Only the true narcissist believes he or she is a finished product worthy of minting—most of us struggle mightily in the Sisyphean tasks of self-actualization and optimization, and when we look around at the people we know in our own lives we are oft as likely (if not more likely, if you’re asking this pessimist) to see people who are trending in the wrong direction. Real, meaningful change is hard. Real hard. So hard, in fact, that it often feels impossible. But wait, there’s Dickens’ Scrooge to prove to us it’s never too late.

That said—and I should divulge that I am speaking more from experience in terms of screenwriting than publishing—anyone who has spent even a short time in story development in Tinsletown can tell you that there’s a very good chance the Pixarification and insistence on shoehorned transformative arcs will be foisted upon you by every exec in town who has read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! … a well-intentioned and even useful book by the dearly departed scribe of such films as Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot! and Disney’s Blank Check. But, as useful as the book may be in giving a boilerplate if prescriptive breakdown of a functional movie, its easily digestible lessons have been imparted upon a generation of gatekeepers who use it as a cudgel to beat writers into submission. “What’s the arc? How does the character change to achieve his or her goals?” are all too often the mindless mantra and mandate of media middlemen.

Again, these kinds of arcs can be profound. They work. But they ain’t the only show in town, and when you force one into damn near every story ever told, they all begin to lose resonance by default. We can smell the artifice and the bullshit being slung at us. We know all too well that there are other kinds of stories to tell and to take in, ones that not only ring as true but often truer…

Take the Cautionary Tale. The Tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle demarcated dramaturgical works into the twin arenas of Comedy and Tragedy. A Comedy, according to the philosopher, must end happily. A Tragedy, its mirror—but in Poetics, Aristotle still insists that we hang our hopes on a Tragic Hero, who must essentially be admirable and good. Thankfully we have moved past that stringency, and can extrapolate his thesis to include more modern (and post-modern) interpretations. I like to include in tragic works the character who is immutable, and by way of a Fatal Flaw doomed to be destroyed. In other words—the exact fucking opposite of a transformative arc.

Casting aside his somewhat sophomoric (or even Snyderian) insistence that a protagonist be noble or heroic, Aristotle coined it a character’s “Hamartia”—that flaw that ultimately brings about his or her downfall. Think Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Here is a man whose singular pursuit and obsession come at the cost of companionship, love, respect, and his own sanity. His overriding need to win, to be the consummate taker, leaves him broken and alone. Shakespeare did major damage with this device; see both Hamlet and MacBeth—the former’s self-doubt and indecision and the latter’s paranoia are the fatal flaws that did them in.

In contemporary television, look no further than Breaking Bad’s Walter White, whose pride is so great that he would rather embark on a bloody, murderous, kid-poisoning spree as a meth kingpin than accept the charity of a former rival in order to pay for cancer treatments. These characters do not arc, and the stories are all the more impactful for it. These are cautionary tales, which serve as vital a function in informing and allowing us to reflect upon our nature as do any tales of hopeful transformation—which so often devolve into been-there-done-that pat, platitudinal themes like “we have to learn to work as a team in order to beat the bad guys and save the galaxy” or “I have to find my inner confidence or I’ll never win the big dance-off.”

Aside from the grade-A beef of tragic cautionary tales, there are many other interesting ways to play with Character Arc, like what you could call the False Arc. Think Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven. When we meet him, it is not only as a widower but a reformed mean drunk and murderer (his dear departed wife cured him of such wickedness, we’re told). He sets out to right a wrong, and to earn a little cash in doing so to feed his children. But by the end of the film he reverts back into the demon he arguably always was—only lying in wait—when he reaches for that bottle, drinks from it, and commences with the killing.

While this arguably works with the Muffin Man’s Angel/Asshole paradigm, there is a complexity at hand with such a character that we rarely see in the linear, mainstream transformative arcs of the multiplex or even the poetic journey of an R.P. McMurphy as he tracks from sinner to saint. Munny struggles, like Mitchum’s wrestling, tattooed “Love” and “Hate” hands in Night of the Hunter … and masterfully revealed at the summation of that struggle is a chilling tautology: that he is what he is, and always has been—a cold-blooded killer of men, and a damn fine one at that.

Part of my beef with transformative arcs is their placement, the idea that they must be tied to a climax. This rings false in my mind, and is hard to jive with my observations of human behavior. From my admittedly cynical vantage, rarely does one change at the right time in order to win the day. For this reason, if you’re going to insist upon a transformative arc, I tend to resonate more with a trigger moment that forces an irrevocable change in our character and sends them on a new trajectory in life. Think William Wallace in Braveheart, who simply wanted to return to the land of his birth to raise crops and, Lord willing, a family—but when his wife (whom he marries in secrecy to avoid the evils of Longshank’s “prima nocte”) is murdered by a tyrannical feudal lord, Wallace is forever changed and he sets out on a personal warpath that foments a righteous revolution. Most revenge tales—a staple from The Bard to Bronson—operate in this manner. The inciting incident is in fact where the arc is ultimately plotted.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: does a movie need an arc at all to be effective? And can shoehorning one in—even if the protagonist doesn’t arc, but is a catalyst in the arc of another—make the film worse? Look no further than Die Hard as Exhibit A. Die Hard is a great fucking movie. Die Hard is what you might call a Right Man For the Right Job film. There’s no need for a character to arc—John McClane just happens to be in the right place at the right time to be the “fly in the ointment” and fuck up Hans Gruber’s plans. Many killer action flicks operate like this. See Speed as another example. Hell, the worst thing about Die Hard is the insistence on jamming in an arc for Reginald VelJohnson’s Sergeant Powell. Because the creators insisted on an arc being in place for somebody, anybody, we get the insanely cringey denouement of Vreski (who should be deader than a doornail after he was left hanging by a chain), running back out guns a blazin’ just so Powell can shoot him down and reconcile his past (feel free to bring this up anytime someone tells you Die Hard is a “perfect film”). What’s the transformational character arc in Psycho? The Big Lebowski? No Country For Old Men? Basically any James Bond movie. I could of course go on and on.

That said, a protagonist working as the catalyst to force an arc in others can work well. Examples include 12 Angry Men, in which one unwavering man has to convince 11 others to see things his way. There are even films in which the change that is catalyzed and kickstarted by the protagonist is arguably supposed to be in us, the audience—as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Now, if you do insist on employing transformative character arcs, I’ll tell you where I think they tend to ring much more true than in a standalone film: Longform storytelling. While movies equate more to short stories, in terms of their bite-sized nature (where character arc’s seldom a focal point), television and novels are much more amenable to charting meaningful character change, in my opinion. In television characters have the space and breathing room to change the way most of us in the real world do—gradually, over long swathes of time.

So, if you’re enamored with transformative character arcs and wear employment of them as a storytelling badge of honor, you might want to consider longform narratives or piggybacking one on an inciting incident to force an early catastrophic character arc, as opposed to obligatorily tracking towards one in order to “win the day” late in the game—or grow the fuck up and jettison the device in favor of a good, old-fashioned, fatal flaw cautionary tragedy that will stand the test of time. If it was good enough for Shakespeare it should be good enough for you, no?

Now where’s my goddamn muffin?!

*Feature Photo: Louise Fletcher and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest/ Fantasy Films (1975)

As one half of The Thornton Brothers—along with his bro Chris—Jay's a filmmaker (Cactus Jack), writer, podcaster (Hard Out), binge eater, gadfly, and non-practicing humanist. Repped at Rosa and UTA.
More posts by Jay Thornton.
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