Polly don't need no cracker
Characters have to arc, right? The Protagonist has to be a good guy? Trying to stay within these two simple sounding boundaries can really stifle your creativity can’t it? What if your character isn’t even that damn important to you, and you don’t feel like having him change? You can’t tell a story then?
How often do you hear about the ‘degree’ of arc needed being related to the genre?
“Oh, he doesn’t need to arc because it’s a comedy”…
Hmmm. Could be that relates alright, but not so directly as it might seem. More importantly, in terms of realizing what degree of character development is required, desired, or possible, is the ‘type’ of story you are telling. Oh shit. I hear you groaning out there. Down in front! Did I ever steer you wrong? Never mind that. I know just where I’m going.
The Genre often impacts the degree of character development only because particular genres tend to fall into specific types of stories. Thus, the seeming link between character development and genre.
I’m sure you have heard the expression, “Character Driven”, to express the basis for a script. Replace ‘Driven’ with ‘Type’ and you might avoid confusion. You see how type is different from genre? You might tend to automatically think drama, because it is the genre most often used for ‘character type’ scripts, but does it have to be? I think not. And that’s why type and genre are not the same thing. Certainly genre tends to adapt itself more readily to specific types, but as a storyteller, it is within your power to effectively tell the type of story you wish in whatever genre you find suitable. Not to say it’s easy, just possible.
My recent script, “ZomBody to Love”, is quite distinctly in the horror genre, and yet it would be considered a ‘Character’ type film, because the focus of the story is specifically on the development and change of a character. And it is that ‘Focus’ that determines what ‘Type’ of story it is. Character development, arc, is absolutely critical, because that’s the focus of the story. It’s the promise made to the audience. It has action. It has zombies. It has humor. But the focal point is the change in a specific character. I’m not at the point of calling it successful mind you, but that’s what re-writes are all about.
As I touched upon in other blogs, a good writer makes a contract of sorts with the audience. That contract is made in the first act, when the writer ‘sets expectations’. Among those expectations, the type of story should be clear, as should the tone, genre, theme, and goal. If the story doesn’t ultimately meet those expectations, then the audience rightly feels disappointed. It is why people often say a bad third act is the result of a weak first act.
So, to get more directly to the point, what the hell ‘types’ of movies are there? It may be helpful to think in terms of ‘focus’ in understanding ‘types’. The type of movie is determined by what the story focuses on.
I have found that all stories fit within one of 4 basic types:
Character. Idea. Event. Milieu.
Tore-establish our link to the point of this blog, the type of story you are telling, will dictate the amount of character development required, desired, or possible.
Character Type: Obviously, character development is the central focus here, and consequently, the character MUST arc, change, become someone other than who they were.
The action, scenery, ideas, and events serve only as tools of change to the character. It is the characters development that is the focal point of the story. It is that promise to change the character in a significant way that is part of the contract you offer the audience when you set expectations.
The Theme of the story must be expressed by the character’s change. The Tone must be consistent with the character. The Genre is simply the style, mood, or circumstances in which your character will develop. They can, and should, be interesting and relevant, but they must nurture and support the point of the story, not distract from it. It is easy to see why drama is often the genre for character type stories, but it doesn’t have to be.
Look at the Jim Carry film, Liar, Liar. Genre. Comedy, obviously. But what type of story is it? What is the lynchpin without which the story will not work? Character. It is a Character Type movie. Does it have events? Of course it does, but all of them serve to help develop the character. What’s the goal? Jim wants to keep his son in his life. Interesting to note that the goal of Jim isn’t to change, but that a change is the POINT. Without this change in his character, he is unable to achieve his goal. Yes, we want him to succeed, but we all KNOW he HAS to change for that to happen. All of the events, all of the comedy, all of the circumstances that play a part, and could form the basis of a different ‘type’ movie, are secondary to this basic promise, which ISN’T that Jim will end up with his kid, or reach his goal, but that he will CHANGE.
Bottom line: Character MUST arc, and it should be profound.
Idea Type: In this simple structure, a problem, puzzle, or mystery is presented in the first act, and the inherent contract with the audience, is to solve the riddle. That’s the focus. It’s the point of the story. The solution to the question posed is what fulfills the contract of expectation.
Murder mysteries are a prime example of this type. The story opens with a murder, and a set of characters that can all be considered suspect. The promise to the audience is to solve the riddle of who committed the murder, and the journey (second act) is all about how cleverly that is done.
Is character development required? No. Character definition, flavor, and personality can all be included of course, but it is not critical to the story. No arc is required in terms of any of the characters. A character CAN have an arc of course, but doesn’t have to in order to fulfill our promise to the audience. If you transform a character through the story, but never solve the riddle, you have broken your contract.
Interestingly, an arc, or change in the primary character can in fact hurt. In an Idea type story, many of the most famous detectives for example, rely upon our solid understanding of who they are, in order to reuse them in subsequent stories. This seems odd at first glance doesn’t it? You would think for instance that Perry Mason stories were about Perry Mason, and thus be Character driven, but look closer. Perry never arcs. In fact, if Perry changed, he would likely lose popularity, because we know him and love him as he is. His stories are never about him. They are Idea stories, and Perry is our reliable viewpoint for unraveling the truth. Any dramatic change to Perry risks shattering the bond created with the audience.
Note that this does not mean that characterization isn’t established. Often times, especially in American styled detective mysteries, the detective is very rich in terms of being a fully fleshed out ‘real’ person with well established quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. They simply don’t change over the course of the story.
Bottom line: Character MAY arc, but it is not required, and the change in the character should not overshadow the focus of the story.
Event Type: Every story has events, so what makes a story an Event Type? You should have already figured this out. When the event itself is the point, or focus of the story, it is an event story. Yeah, I know. This may be tough to get a grasp on.
Event type stories may well have been the very first type of story. They are based primarily on our need for order in the world. Balance, rightness, normalcy. When this is not the case, we feel the inherent need to correct it, to restore order. Or perhaps prevent disorder.
It is responding to an event, or trying to prevent or prepare for an event. In either case, the critical key of the story is the event itself, the thing that is wrong, be it an injustice, a threat, or a condition that upsets the rule of order. Such event can be big or small. It can be centered on all of mankind, or relate solely to a few individuals, but in any case, it is the event that the story deals with.
A meteor racing toward earth with the threat of destroying mankind, is an event type story. So is a man seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. In both cases, it is the event which drives the story, and without which, the story falls apart. The prevention of, or restoration to order and justice, rightness and normalcy.
How important is characterization, and does the protagonist have to have an arc? This is wide open for the author. An event story can be quite effectively told with base and unchanging characters, and yet can be enriched by more developed characters that are changed in the process. The Event Type story is the most flexible type for the writer to determine the complexity, depth, and arc of the characters.
Bottom Line: Characters MAY arc, and in so doing, can potentially strengthen the story.
Milieu Type: Every story takes place somewhere. When somewhere, the place, the buildings, the landscape, the culture, the tools, the setting itself, is the focus of the story, it is a Milieu Type story. Sounds a bit boring doesn’t it? Well, that’s why there aren’t many of them, at least not pure ones. They are relegated to the confines of natural science, utopian fiction, satires, and travelogues. In these pure milieus we are generally introduced to the area by a character from our own time and place, and led through the new world, examining the details of it. In such an environment, we certainly do not want a character arc. We want the character to be interesting maybe, but not changing. Even the indigenous people themselves serve as types or models to reveal custom and culture, not evolving characters. The character that carries us through such an adventure is ‘everyman’ or ‘blandman’, because we want to experience the place, the culture, the feel of this strange new land, not get carried away in the personality of the character. The promise of the story is fulfilled when we return home, and what is fascinating about this type, in regard to character arcs, is there is none. It is not only not needed, but unwanted, as it distracts from the promise of the story..
Bottom Line, PURE Milieu: NO Arc.
While there are few ‘pure’ milieu type stories told these days, it does nevertheless play a large part in stories that are of another basic type (idea, character, or event). Stories that take us to far away or exotic places, or into space, or under the ocean, or into the future or past. Much attention is paid to milieu in these stories, as the environment plays such an important part, and generally we must understand it at some level in order to serve our story. But it is not what the story is about.
Look at Lord of the Rings as an example. Milieu plays a significant part, even more so in the book than the movie. Elves and goblins. Men and Hobbits. All sorts of strange and wonderful creatures, places, cultures, laws and physics. Magic and mayhem. It is a huge part of the story, and yet it is not the story ‘type’. If we enjoy the milieu, we give license easily to the songs of the elves, and the loving and detailed descriptions of places and things. The Hobbit, ‘There and Back Again’, more adequately fits the milieu, because it’s all about the journey and discovery of these strange lands and people and culture, but LOTR is …. what type? I’ll give you a minute….
Character? Surely there are many characters in the story that have significant arcs and press on through many challenges and dangers as they grow and change… but no. There is no promise made for these. They are ‘extra’ and add great depth and appeal to the story, but it’s not the basis of the contract the writer promises.
Idea? There are many smaller pieces of the overall story that are based on ideas, each a sub plot in the main storyline. Puzzles to be solved, mysteries to unravel… but no.
What is the one critical component without which the entire story cannot succeed? The promise made to us early on?
Event! Why? Because that’s the promise made. Something is not right with the world. A great threat to the very existence of everything we hold near and dear looms in Mordor. The evil lord Sauron rises and threatens to upset the balance of everything. The destruction of the ring is the only way to put the world right. That is the promise made, and everything else serves to move us closer to fulfillment of that promise.
Bottom line: MAY require arc, dependant on the primary story type.
So then. It should have become fairly obvious that characters don’t always have to change. It should also have become a bit more clear how the ‘type’ of movie is not the same as the genre. You may well notice that you can take any movie and with analysis, effectively define them into one of these categories. You will likely find a way to define them into more than one category, but you can discover the true type by simply asking yourself what the contract was. What did the writer promise you at the start?
It should be clear by now that the same story can be told different ways, by deciding on the type of story you want to tell, and ensuring that you make that promise clear at the start, and then uphold your end of the contract as the writer.
Failing to set expectations will cause the audience to lose interest. Failing to meet those expectations will leave the audience feeling cheated or let down.
In the final analysis, a character arc is rarely a bad thing, unless it distracts or weakens the promises you made or draws attention away from the focal point of the story, but it is not always required, which frankly, is the whole point of this blog. In any story where a character develops and changes, you have elements of a character type story, but that does not make it a character type story, unless that is the promise made and is the all important element without which the story doesn’t work.
The type of story you tell is determined by the expectations you set and the promises you make. If you promise to make a character change, they better change. If you don’t make such a promise, then use character arcs only to strengthen, support, and add depth and interest to your story, not just for the sake of making a character change. That will, more often than not, simply muddy your story.
Just as Liar, Liar cannot be told without a change in Jim Carry’s character, so too would Independence Day be totally unsatisfying if we never dealt with the invaders, no matter how many characters had a satisfying arc. A puzzle story that never solves the puzzle can’t be saved by having interesting character arcs.
Bottom line: Give a character an arc when it serves your story, not when you are simply serving some ill conceived rule or advice you found on some stupid blog 🙂