Notes on “character arc”
It’s been more than 10 years since I found “The Hero’s Journey,” by Chris Vogel, as I was looking for writing resources. For many writers, especially screenwriters, it’s one of those books on story structure that are essential references for this craft, the substance of which become ingrained in your mind as part of your writing toolbox.
Chris is a wonderful guy, a frequent speaker at film festivals and a presenter at screenwriting seminars, as well as a former studio ‘reader’ who had to cover two or three hundred scripts a week. Nowadays, he’s a story consultant who’s known for demonstrating how most of the classics of western literature hew to a certain structure that satisfies our need for epic stories. He worked closely with the producers of The Lion King, for example, and he still coaches writers and consults on scripts.
After I read “The Hero’s Journey,” I could see why it was hugely popular, and also why some writers complain that Chris seems to demand that they use his formula if they want to sell their screenplays to Hollywood. I could understand, too, why I had heard people talk about how tiresome and uninteresting movies had become, where such a structure was used yet again. (Chris actually “demands” no such thing, and the people who greenlight studio films these days are not English or comparative lit majors, they’re mainly accountants, which may explain why they keep getting stuck in a rut.) Then other story analysts, such as John Truby and Michael Hauge, came forward with other methods by which writers could improve their screenplays, and these methods had their moments of fame. I studied them all.
By coincidence, my deepening interest in story structure as a writer coincided with a much-needed look at “character” as a concept for actors on a stage. I was directing a play in which a group of men had to show how their characters changed with respect to racial prejudice, each one moving through a character arc that we had to help the audience see and hear and accept as temporarily ‘real’. Understanding and being able to convey to my actors how to start in one place and end up somewhere else wasn’t a theoretical pastime, for the audience members wouldn’t laugh or get a tear in their eye if we didn’t engage their emotions through an authentic conflict that each character faced. The importance of this journey for each one was shown through the relationships known to the audience, each character’s physical movement, and their vocal subtext–knowing what the lines meant in the context of the character’s life, and thus how and when to say them.
We made it through a month-long run of the play with only one revolt (some of the actors ‘got it’ more than others). Soon after that, as I put my writer’s cap back on, I found that Chris Vogel and Michael Hauge were about to begin teaching together, and the topic of their new seminar was “the Hero’s TWO Journeys.” They intended to show how today’s classic stories, as told in movies, consist of characters who change across time from one point of view to another, and what kind of change it is when we speak about “a character arc”. In epic stories, stories that we tell again and again and remember, it occurs by virtue of creating a journey undertaken on the surface, for a clearly visible objective, that is also exactly the best way to show the inner journey needed by the main character, at the same time. That the two stories must intertwine.
I had a huge smile when this seminar ended! It was exactly the answer I had been looking for, just at the time when I needed to put it all together, to get past a formula, or a pattern, or a series of rules. It was a way to understand that there was no limit on the number of stories that people would want to read, even if they dealt with the same issues that we explored via story since the days of the cavemen and the deer they carved in stone, deep inside a dark cave.
Now I see that the hero’s outer objective in a story changes depending on genre, setting, or the original story idea. But his inner objective is almost always going to be “a small step for a man,” a slight shift of perspective, a recognition of past blindness versus a new insight, a more open attitude toward community and a shift to higher-than-selfish values.
This allowed me to see that there are an infinite number of shifts in attitude and perspective that can underlie a character’s interior journey; for each of us makes tiny steps with respect to so many aspects of living in society. Dilemmas arise about where the limits are in almost every aspect of life. I need only pick one that I want to explore, and then come up with the human ‘wrappings’ that illustrate what is blocking or preventing this one shift. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
The events in the hero’s exterior journey bring the inner problem to light again and again; and if I want to use the Rule of Three, then only when he’s already tried to solve it and failed twice will an insight occur that will allow him to change, to take a leap of faith along his inner journey, and thus change his methods or understand his mistakes. It’s a familiar structure, because we’ve heard it in stories told us since infancy.
Since we all know how it feels to face a dilemma, to refuse to see the obvious because of an unrecognized prejudice or assumption, to stick to constricting habits or attitudes, to allow the low expectations of others to shape our fate—the list of internalized conflict and negativity and pain to remark upon can go on and on—as writers we can find many problems to give our characters, to set up a layer of conflict that interests, even compels a reader to ask “What’s going to happen to him next? What will he choose?”
Since it’s often—usually—extremely difficult for individuals to stop believing that their unsuccessful interior models will work, even fictitious characters require some time and several hard lessons before the way forward is clear. Depending on the genre and audience, a hero may find the exterior objective just that much too hard to reach at the end of the story, but he or she can truly be satisfied with having reached a new perspective that’s far more valuable.
Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in “A Death in Texas”, “Dead and Breakfast”, “A Box of Texas Chocolates”, “Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks”, “Underground Texas”, and “Deadly Diversions”. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.