At first glance, it would seem the answer to this question is obvious. It’s oft said so-called “good” characterisation is about change by writing Gurus, script readers, editors and educators. A character – usually the protagonist – must make a personal realisation or change something physical (or indeed, both), whilst DOING something else (usually the situation apparent).
What’s more, the notion of “arc” and “character development” is drummed into writers of ALL descriptions, but especially screenwriters. Since the advent of transmedia and convergence of all the mediums then, it makes sense that novelists and writers of web stuff take note of this idea too, especially if they want to hook the potential of other platforms.
But is good characterisation REALLY about change? My takes:
This is the traditional route, as outlined above. It’s what’s taught on screenwriting courses and it’s what a script editor, producer, publisher or filmmaker might ask you IF you’re lucky enough to nab a meeting.
And we can see this at work in popular movies throughout the ages, with none more obvious than movies meant for children and family audiences. Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios movies always feature stories in which their protagonists must come to some sort of personal realisation during the main event, such as:
Rapunzel’s realisation she is in charge of her own destiny in TANGLED
Woody’s realisation he must share Andy in TOY STORY
Fiona and Shrek’s realisations who they *really* are in SHREK
Diego and Manny’s realisations what friendship and loyalty is worth in ICE AGE
Mary Katherine’s realisation we all have our place in the world in EPIC
WHY: It’s not difficult to see why family films choose this route: they’re the type of movies that favour moral messages, so if yours is too – whether a movie, TV script, novel, web series, comic book or something else – then you probably want to make sure your character/s come to some sort of realisation in the course of the story, too. But that’s not the end of it …
“WTF?!!” You say. “But a “good” character HAS to change … Saying s/he doesn’t goes against I’ve everything I’ve learned!”
I know, good ain’t it? Break those rules, baby. Chew on this:
Let’s take two movie icons from cinema history: Ripley from the first ALIEN movie … and John McClane in the first DIE HARD. Where is the change in their behaviour, throughout the movie? Tell me.
I’m waiting …
—oooooooh outta time. UNLUCKY.
I put it to you there is NO CHANGE in Ripley or Mcclane’s arcs or development in those two movies, for the following reasons:
Ripley is a smart, motivated worker, who does things by the book. We also see she doesn’t really like or relate to her co-workers that much from the get-go. Some, she even goes so far as to actively DISlike, such as Parker, Lambert and Ash. But bar the odd barbed comment here and there (“You’ll get whatever’s coming to you”), Ripley works on the basis she is there to do a job … And she does it. She won’t even let Dallas, Lambert and Kane back in when the alien attaches to the latter’s face! The only reason it gets on board the ship is because Ash overrules her.
In other words then, Ripley is one of life’s SURVIVORS. And guess what: survive she does.
Yes, yes as the situation goes to Hell and their lives are in danger she modifies her behaviour towards Lambert and Parker, but that’s a survival tool, not evidence of any specific change in personal arc at grass roots level. Don’t forget, Ripley DOESN’T modify her behaviour towards Ash for the very same survival reason: she is suspicious of his motives and she’s right to be. It’s her who finds out about The Company’s infamous directive, “crew expendable”. And yes, she does shed a tear for Lambert and Parker when she finds them dead in the cargo bay – but again, that’s less to do with “change” and more to do with the fact that if she didn’t, not only would she seem like a psychopath, the audience would not like her as much.
John McClane is an old fashioned guy. He’s stubborn and a pain in the ass when it comes to his pride and his honour, which is signified by his troubled relationship with his wife, Holly. Not only has she taken the kids and moved to further her career, she’s had to do it without John, because apparently “he’s a New York Cop who doesn’t know how to do anything else” and certainly he does very little, if anything, to persuade us the opposite of this during the course of the movie. Granted, he wants to fix his relationship, but lacks the emotional tools to do it, even when Holly reaches out to him. Instead he sabotages this peace offering by quibbling about her using her maiden name, which is Gennarro.
So McClane starts a proud man and ends one, standing on the doorstep of the Nokatomi Building the victor – because he would not give in, no matter what.
“Oh, but wait!” You say, “He introduces Holly to the news crew as “Gennarro”!!”
You’re right, he does … but what does she say? She CORRECTS John and tells the news team her name is McCLANE. So any change he MAY have had to make, however small, is effectively null and void: he gets his own way and the victory is his AGAIN. (And let’s not forget there’s a very important reason pertaining to the PLOT she was called Genarro anyway … It meant the terrorists didn’t realise Holly’s hostage value as McClane’s wife until the second turning point).
WHY: It’s no accident that GENRE films meant for adults feature icon characters like Ripley and McClane who effectively START and END the same; these movies were made BEFORE the majority of writing courses, books etc and their (frankly flawed) obsession with character “change” being the be-all and end-all. Whilst it is of course possible to write a genre movie (or indeed anything else) with a great and effective character who DOES change (GRAVITY, anyone?), they’re few and far between as scribes essentially overcomplicate characters’ motivations and screw them up. So, learn a lesson from cinema history: worry about giving your genre characters a DISTINCT PERSONALITY instead, like Ripley and McClane.
But as with anything in this writing lark, it’s not about either/or: whilst you MAY or MAY NOT introduce change via your protagonist, there are also other ways too – which your protagonist MAY or MAY not be a significant catalyst for. Like these:
The Change Agent # 1
Sometimes protagonists are change agents. That is, the protagonist is so unusual and/or so remarkable, they inspire the other characters around them, for good or ill. An obvious example of this would be Forrest, in FORREST GUMP. His simple outlook on life, inspired by his mother’s steadfast belief in him (and immortalised in the famous line “Life is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get”) is not his OWN call to action, but the inspiration for others’, like Jenny and Lieutenant Dan.
The Change Agent # 2
Sometimes a protagonist is lost and floundering, not knowing where to turn. This type of character often turns up in the Romantic Comedy genre and a secondary character as mentor will inspire them *somehow* to get a hold of their life and steer it in the right direction, even if the protagonist does not know that’s what’s happening, as in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. Summer is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype often dismissed by feminist commentators, yet I feel is *generally* a positive representation: she knows what she wants and won’t apologise for it. This is signified by Summer’s marriage and pregnancy at the end of the film, to someone else. This in turn teaches Our Guy to take a chance when he goes for the job interview and meets the woman on the sofa.
This guy’s – and it nearly always is a guy – plain “ordinariness” is what’s going for him: the audience find it easy to imagine themselves in his place. During the course of the narrative The Everyman must (usually) learn a life lesson (especially in comedy), though in Thrillers he may simply have to vanquish the beast, such as David Mann in DUEL or Alex Cross in KISS THE GIRLS.
The Passive Protagonist
Passive protagonists often turn up in the comedy genre and only become problematic when there is not another character – whether antagonist or secondary – to pick up the reins and drive the action FOR them. Typically, they will wrench the reins back in the resolution and fix everything that needs to be done, though sometimes not, as in HARSH TIMES, which is definitely NOT a comedy. There’s some debate over whether Jim is an antihero or an antagonist, but I believe Mike is the protagonist, whom Jim leaves with a single, devastating choice in the last few minutes of the movie.
The Anti Hero
The Anti Hero may turn up in comedy, such as Marvin in AS GOOD AS IT GETS – and really, it’s up to the other characters to accommodate him, than the other way around; in contrast, Phil must learn to accommodate others if he is going to live the life he wants (and get the girl) in GROUNDHOG DAY. The Anti Hero may also turn up in the Thriller and/or Action-Adventure, such as Bryan in TAKEN or Snow in LOCKOUT. These guys will not change; we go from hating them to loving their unapologetic – and sometimes morally relative – outlooks on life.
Sometimes dual protagonists have the same motivations, for different reasons, such as “save our loved ones … save the world”, like Steve and Dave in INDEPENDENCE DAY. Other times, one half of a duo makes a realisation before the other one, meaning they’re not really dual protagonists at all as he becomes the antagonist, such as John versus Jane in MR AND MRS SMITH.
The Unreliable Narrator is most commonly associated with novels, but a movie that pulls this off with aplomb is Liz in THE HOLE. Liz presents herself as both victim and victor throughout this story, so the audience – signified about The Police Psychologist – can never be sure if the schoolgirl is telling the truth or not … And by the time we are? It’s TOO LATE.
In other words then?
You’ve got a SHEDLOAD of characterisation tricks up your sleeve, so why the hell only use the first one??
There’s all these different ways of presenting a change, or not presenting one AT ALL. This notion that characters MUST change – “or bust” – is simply false.
In answering the question, “is good characterisation about change?” we must conclude “yes” … AND “no”. Change in the protagonist is JUST ONE of the many tools in the writer’s arsenal and frankly, the former is massively overused at present.
What can YOU do, that’s different to the “usual”?
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