Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - Character issues, Part Deux, The Arc of the Transformative

In a follow up to Rapping On Writing - Character issues . . . I wanted to riff for a minute about that strange and wonderful thing in screenplays, the transformative character arc.

Firstly, let me restate the most valuable information I’ve ever found regarding character.

WHAT plus WHY equals WHO.

What a person does plus why they do it equals up to who they are.

That’s who people are, in a nutshell.

Mystery Man pointed out recently that he thought it was better if we, as an audience, DON’T always know why a person does what they do, we only have to believe they truly do it.

I agree.

So a story’s characters really are just doing what they do, sometimes they don’t even know why they do it (hardly any of us do, if we did, shrinks would be out of a job) and sometimes they discover why on their own or maybe we, the audience, can see it while the character cannot.

Get it? LOL! That’s okay. Let me share an example.

I just rewatched The Departed again recently, and I have to say, I liked it more than I did the first time I saw it (or, in a B’ahston accent, the first time I s’arw it) . . .

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I don’t believe it was the best picture of that year, but it’s definitely a pretty damn good one, absolutely.

(as an aside I don’t know that any Best Picture winner is the absolute best picture of that year, or even the best nominated . . . I remember when Chocolat was nominated for Best Picture and Almost Famous wasn’t, so there. And how the hell did Pretty Woman get nominated for even a Golden Globe? Matt Damon says the only real way to judge Best Pictures is to wait ten years and then figure it out . . . I’m think Matty is a lot smarter than people think he is, and people think he’s pretty smart - but obviously, I’ve digressed.)

Like I said, I rewatched The Departed again and it’s a great film, full of sound, humor and fury and the acting is top notch.

It’s great because the ending is non-typical, and while when I first saw it, I tended to agree with what many critics noted, that the Vera Farmiga character seemed a bit of a stretch, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the second time I saw it, which goes to show you, we are definitely influenced by what we hear about a picture. She does irrational things, even though she’s a shrink.

I buy that. I read about Doctors doing irrational things in the newspapers all the time.

Anyway, the other lovely thing about The Departed is that the characters are just who they are.

There’s a little bit of backstory, Matt Damon was influenced by Jack as a kid, grows up loyal to him. Leo is from the wrong side of the tracks, but decides to do some good for whatever reason.

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The interesting thing about this movie is, the characters DON’T REALLY CHANGE, not radically.

They suffer from the choices they make, they discover things about the world around them, they learn from their experiences, but they are essentially the same at their core from the beginning to the end. And Matt Damon makes a great bad guy, I think.

The characters each have their own desires and work to achieve them. They succeed or fail (or both, depending how how you take the ending) and that’s it.

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No one finds Jesus, no one comes out a radically different person. Matt Damon is the same character at the end that he was in the beginning and so, in a sense, is Leo. Don’t get me started on Jack. Or Mark Wahlberg.

I loved it because they just were who they were, without demonstrating how they’ve changed.

See, in a lot of screenwriting books, they’ll talk to you about this thing called a transformative character arc.

It’s a real convenient way for the zoo-keepers to chart whether or not a movie character works.

So let’s say a character is shy, at some point in the movie they’ll be given a choice when they have to either choose between their shyness or lose whatever it is they seek. They reach a crisis, change and they’re suddenly not shy anymore and credits roll, happy ending.

So we get a lot of movies where a character undergoes this transformative arc . . . and to be certain, that type of action CAN be a great film . . . A CHRISTMAS CAROL, for example is about exactly that. A character transformation.

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Or one of my personal favorites, Groundhog Day, which is ironically enough about a guy that FIGHTS change all the way through (he goes through the five stages of grief, in a sense) though I might argue that Phil Conner is more fun before he becomes a nice guy. Face it, you think so, too.

But that’s what those movies are about, about that point in time (frozen) where a person has to change or die, shit or get off the pot.

The reality is, most people DON’T change radically, not fast.

People resist change and fight to keep order as they know it, in fact.

So I don’t have an argument that transformative character arcs have a place in movies, I simply don’t believe that we need them in every movie, nor that if one doesn’t have it, it means the movie is less great.

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I’ll go back to my other example, The Silence of the Lambs. I believe the characters in that movie don’t really change . . . Clarice is tougher and wiser at the end, but she certainly makes it clear to Lector that she’s still gunning for him (sequels notwithstanding) and Lector certainly hasn’t changed.

They’re both free of what held them back, but they are not different.

They are still the same characters, with the same desires, at the end of that film.

They are who they are because of what they do and want.

First thing they teach actors in acting class, when approaching a character.

What do you want in this scene?

Because what you seek, what you desire, and what you do to fulfill that, that’s what defines you.

In fairness to the screenwriting books, they all state that characters need to WANT something and they have to actively seek it. I agree with this, for the most part.

I like it when characters WANT something and actively seek it.

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Then again, Forrest Gump was a pretty passive character. He pretty much just followed what everyone else suggested, and while he certainly wanted Jenny, he didn’t spend the whole movie seeking her, in fact it was quite the opposite.

He yearned for her and didn’t get her until she decided she needed him. He didn’t search for her, he didn’t hire a detective to track her down, he let her be.

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Most of the time, he just went where people told him to go, witnessed history. What did he do to get Jenny? He didn’t enlist for her, he didn’t play ping-pong for her, he didn’t run across the country for her, specifically.

When she ran away, he let her go. He was the ultimate passive character, the ultimate witness to history.

But still, what a great character.

That movie has flaws too, I’ll admit, but Forrest Gump was for sure a character to remember. Besides Jenny, what did he want? And what did he do to get it?

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Let’s take that other popular movie of 1994, Pulp Fiction. What sort of transformative arcs did the lead characters go through?

Jules thought God performed a miracle, and at the end he lets Ringo live instead of killing him.

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However, Jules is a supporting character. And I would also argue he hadn’t changed all that much, he was still a bad motherfucker, just one that was going to do a little less killing at the end.

Even more important, Jules’s decision to change happens at the beginning of the movie, not the end . . . it’s the BIG EVENT of that character’s story. His arc is not transformative, it doesn’t end with that . . . it begins with him making a change, getting out of the life . . . the middle part of his story didn’t even address it, and the end his decision comes up, but there’s no crisis, he simply decides he’s out and done with it.

Vincent, on the other hand, was the lead actor and he didn’t change at all, did he?

If anything, he tried to talk Jules out of leaving the life and refused to acknowledge the miracle.

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And I’m not entirely sure what he wanted out of his life, other than to get high and not get killed by his boss, but I don’t really know why he did what he did.

But here’s the thing: As long as the actor playing Vincent convinces me he’s real, who cares if I don’t know? The character was interesting, engaging, funny and real . . . that’s why people responded, that’s why I responded, that’s why the man was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. No more, no less.

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Let’s go back to the women, let’s talk about Fargo, Marge Gunderson.

Same fracking person at the end that she is at the beginning.

And we’re glad.

Because we like her, we don’t want her bespoiled by all the terrible things humans do to each other, the fact that she remains unchanged is a victory for us, as an audience.

It’s like I’m trying to tell you . . . People resist change . . . real people don’t want to change, and if we force it upon them without earning it through the story, it doesn’t always ring true . . .

Maybe it’s because I began as an actor, but whenever I talk to folks about screenplays and they talk to me of transformative arcs, I get a little dizzy. Because it really depends on the story, and the arc is just one small part of character and it’s not even really necessary to win me over.

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Samual Gerard didn’t have an arc in The Fugitive and I loved him and neither, for that matter, did Richard Kimble (though Kimble certainly endured a lot) . . . so why do we need a transformative arc for a great character every time?

Because to me, the great characters of literature and film are who they are RIGHT out of the gate, they are who they are AT the beginning and many times all the way to the end (or, in the case of Unforgiven they go back to who they USED TO BE).

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Listen, this isn’t a knock on movies that genuinely earn the transformative arc . . . like Groundhog Day, or Jerry Maguire, an ironic and funny movie about a sports agent finding his soul.

Those kind of movies are good movies . . . I simply don’t accept that we have to have that in EVERY movie made. Sometimes Great Characters are who they are, even if we don’t know what they do or why they do it.

Sometimes figuring out why they do what they do and, as a result, who they are, is part of the enjoyment of story, right?

Like Mystery Man said, sometimes it’s better if we, as an audience member, DON’T know why a character does what they do, then it lends more depth to it . . . if there’s a transformative arc, it’s quite often spelled out for us and that’s boring.

I mean, admit it, weren’t you all bored once you found out why Hannibal Lector ate people? Isn’t what he did and how he did it more fascinating, in the end?

Isn’t it more fun, sometimes, when there are things we DON’T KNOW?

Haven’t you ever had a chat with a stranger at the airport who bloomed out, fully formed, as a real life engaging character? And you couldn’t stop thinking about them afterwards?

Isn’t that how people are?

Sure, they endure and discover. . . To me, great characters feel real and endure . . . that’s what we really want to see in movies, we want to see great characters in great situations to see how they get out of them and what they discover about life and maybe themselves, but we don’t really want them to change, if they change, they’re not great characters any longer . . . We want them to strive and suffer and live . . . We want to see what they do and how they get out of life . . .

We want to know how Clarice got out of that basement with Buffalo Bill, we want to see what happens when Leo and Matt face off on a rooftop in Boston, we want to know how Forrest dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, we want to see a hit-man forced to dance in his socks, we want to see Marge catch a killer feeding his victim into a woodchipper and see what she does about it.

So that’s my riff on the character arc, feel free to flame away as needed . . . .

3 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Character issues, Part Deux, The Arc of the Transformative”

  1. Mystery Man Says:

    Superb article. I couldn’t agree more.

    I watched “Seven Samurai” the other day. Man, those Samurai never arc’d. They did their jobs and they either lived or died. Period. The villagers changed, however, but not the main protags.

    Or how about the old Sam Spade films with Bogart? We simply watched him outsmart the bad guys. And that was it. And we admired him every step of the way. He was so damn cool to watch. At times, though, he made us wonder if he was bad with the questionable way he was dealing with someone, but in the end, Act iii reinforced that he was always one step ahead of the game and us as well, and he was, in fact, still good.

    Mim likes to remind me (when I harp on no character arcs) that even if a character doesn’t change internally, many of them still experience a change in their external world, aka, they did or did not get what they wanted. “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly” - the man with no name never changed who he was at his core, but in the end, he sure walked away with a lot of money. I mean, geez, there was ZERO character arc in Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” but hey, he had Marion.

    Sometimes, we’re happy to see a character go through hell and come out all right in the end. And there’s nothing wrong with that, ya know? McKee was hopelessly wrong about arcs. Bastard.

    -MM

  2. Joshua James Says:

    it gets confused, I mean, our characters should have an emotional life, you bet (part of their want is tied to the emotional life of the character) but to have a transformative arc FOR EVERYONE is a bit of a stretch, mainly because people really aren’t that way in real life . . . people generally don’t change, at least not without a hell of an effort (or a bullet in the head)

    Even alcoholics, when they stop drinking, don’t stop being alchololics . . . they’re always alchololics, whether they’re drinking or not . . .

  3. Character Arc « Ray-Anne Carr Says:

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