Learn How to Set Up the Potential for Change in Character Arcs

How to Set Up the Potential for Change in Characters

Note from K.M. Weiland: Welcome to a special follow-up post to my (temporarily) completed series The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. Wordplayer and frequent blog commenter Usvaldo de Leon, Jr. (who will no doubt remind me “commenter” is not a word!) sent me the following thoughts on the use of excellent character arcs in Ant-Man. His comments were so good I had to share, and he was gracious enough to oblige. Please enjoy one last look at my favorite superhero film series before we take a break until Dr. Strange releases in November…

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I used to be a psychic in the circus; indulge me: you have read a book or watched a film or TV show… perhaps even many? Maybe you have even watched a play (a “play” is a TV show with live actors, no commercial breaks, and you have to pay for your snacks)?

You may have noticed these all are stories, communicating themes both noble and base. The agent who communicates this theme is the protagonist, who changes throughout the story to elucidate the theme. This is referred to as a character arc: the character begins at Point A, flies through the air like Morpheus and lands at Point B, far away. When they land at Point B they are utterly changed and this change has two factors: it is both a result of the events of the story and emblematic of the theme of the story.

It is theme that separates; story is extremely common. It is dreary, even: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Wins Girl Back is the story for an entire genre. Similarly, Top Gun and Flight: same story (both feature inverted planes, in fact). Ben Hur and Gladiator: same story. Lord Foul’s Bane and Dreamlander: same story. Like siblings, they have a familial resemblance, but their themes ensure they are different. There is more than one path through the forest; a warren of routes from Points A to B.

top-gun-flight-ben-hur-gladiator-lords-foul-bane-dreamlander

How Theme Demonstrates Character Arcs

When we say the protagonist changes, what is actually changing? It is their inner state that is changing. They believe a Lie and over the course of the story they discover the Truth. This happens in three phases: Point A, the jumpoff point; the Midpoint, or flying through the air like Morpheus; and Point B, the ending state. (Note that when Neo, who is not prepared to change as a character, makes this jump he fails spectacularly. The metaphor is a metaphor.)

In Ben Hur, Ben Hur has a lightness of soul (jump-off point); after being sold into slavery, his only goal becomes revenge (flying); but through Jesus, he learns forgiveness and the power of grace (the landing spot).

ben-hur-charlton-heston-chariot-race

Maximus, in Gladiator on the other hand, lives at the right hand of the Devil, his troops unleashing hell upon his command; after being sold into slavery, his only goal becomes revenge; he gets his revenge and with it the release of death.

Russell Crowe Richard Harris Joaquin Phoenix Gladiator

Top Gun is the story of a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, prettier than he is smart, who does things his way until he gets it through his thick skull that he has to play nice with others.

top-gun-tom-cruise

Flight is the story of a hotshot commercial jet pilot, prettier than he is smart, who does things his way until he finds himself in a situation he cannot fly out of.

flight-denzel-washington

The theme of Top Gun is: One must know their place, be selfless and give their all to help the team win.

In Flight, it is that a pilot—and a man—must care more for others than himself.

For the theme to work with the story, the protagonist needs to progress in line with the story beats.

At Point A, Maverick is so concerned with demonstrating his awesomitude he forgets to have his buddy’s back, which nearly kills the buddy. Maverick is so dense that he does not even understand why this is a problem. However, by Point B: Maverick is aware he has great ability but is willing—even eager—to sublimate that ability for the Top Gun, Iceman, if it accomplishes the team’s goal. (The goal in this case being starting World War III by shooting down Soviet jets, but hey, I never said Top Gun was thoughtful, only instructive.)

In Flight, Point A finds Whip Whitaker hopelessly addicted, deeply irresponsible, and leading a selfish life. Point B finds him at peace, despite jail, and serving others. He has lost everything except the things he needed: his self-respect and the love of family and friends.

Which brings us to the Marvel film Ant-Man. Protagonist Scott Lang also begins in jail and comes close to winding up right back there for most of the film. How he avoids that fate is the arc he undergoes. How does this happen?

Begin Your Story 180 Degrees Away From the Theme

The only way to prove the importance of your theme is to put your main character in diametric opposition to the theme at the start. Point B is the character aligned with the theme. Push point A as far from the theme as possible. The plot is designed to get the protagonist from Point A to Point B.

The theme of Ant-Man is: A hero is a person who makes a tremendous sacrifice for the greater good, usually at great cost to himself.

As the film begins, Point A for Scott is, “I can’t do anything that will jeopardize my access to my daughter.” His mindset is selfish. It has nothing to do with what his daughter wants—only what Scott wants. In fact, Scott’s ex-wife tells him what his daughter wants: “Be the hero she already imagines you to be.” If Scott had just done that from the beginning, it would have saved us all a lot of trouble.

ant-man-judy-greer

In Top Gun, Maverick leaves Cougar’s wing to attempt the impossible and invert his jet. Maverick then goes to retrieve Cougar, who is rattled by the hostile encounter and nearly crashes. With bravery equal to his foolhardiness, Maverick saves the day after initially ruining it. Point A is selfish and reckless.

Whip Whitaker saves the day in Flight, inverting his commercial jet (another impossible move) to crash land in a field and save almost everyone. No one but Whip could have done that. However, Whip is totally lost: doing cocaine the night before a flight and drinking while flying. Point A finds Whip so lost in pride and pain he can’t see how his selfish actions hurt others.

Provide Signposts Along Your Character’s Journey

When you are traveling the interstate, it is easy to wonder: are we there yet? Then a flash on the roadside says: [Place you want to go] 106 miles.

Stories use the same signposts to show how far the main character has traveled. Very often, there are two character types the protagonist can be measured against (h/t Chris Soth): the character who represents the past and no change and the character who represents the future and positive change.

In Ant-Man, the characters who represent the past are Scott’s criminal buddies. Eventually, however, even they change, reflecting the theme, as does every major character in the film (save one), but in the beginning they want to hold Scott back.

michael-pena-ant-man-dance

The character who represents the positive change future is Antony, Scott’s carpenter ant steed. Like all the ants, Antony stands ready to sacrifice for the greater good. Throughout the film, the ants work together selflessly to accomplish the team goals.

ant-man-ants

(It is one of the great weaknesses of the film that, when Antony is killed, the moment means nothing because the ants are all CGI and have zero personality. I refer you to the first and still best film in this series, Iron Man, which anthropomorphized not one but two robots, for an example of how it can be done).

Top Gun’s character who represents not-changing is Goose, Maverick’s RIO. Goose enables Maverick in his reckless antics, which ultimately costs him his life. The character who represents positive change—what Maverick could be—is Iceman. Maverick has no truer friend (at least to his flying career) than Iceman, who gives him a steady drumbeat of the actions he should be taking. Because Iceman is written and played repellently, he is usually seen as the antagonist, but the antagonist—the person who is most determined to stop Maverick from reaching his goals—is Maverick himself.

In Flight, the character who represents the past for Whip is his drug dealer Harling, who has a vested interest in keeping Whip out of his mind on drugs. The character who represents the future is the recovering drug addict Nicole, who breaks off their fledgling romance rather than let Whip pull them both down.

Include a Huge Decision at Your Story’s Midpoint

One can never know for sure where a protagonist is headed until the Midpoint. Negative themes are just as valid as positive ones, and it is here the determination is made.

In Ant-Man, the Midpoint comes when Scott is unwittingly sent to infiltrate an Avengers facility. Scott is ordered to abort—but if he had, he would have remained selfish. However, he is confident in his ability to accomplish the mission. The Midpoint is where Scott begins to become selfless (if we don’t have this device, we can’t stop Cross).

ant-man-iron-man-was-taken

After his cancer diagnosis, what does Walter White do in Breaking Bad? He decides to sell drugs. Way to take your arc negative at the Midpoint, Walt!

In Flight, at the Midpoint when Nicole leaves Whip, Whip could have decided there was no longer any point in changing. The negative arc would have ended “happily” with Whip cleared by the National Transportation Safety Board, but at the cost of all his family and friends.

What About the Bad Guy?

In the summer of 1492, it was unbearably hot in Spain and Christopher Columbus could not even. He convinced the queen to give him three ships, and he set sail to party with Rihanna in Barbados. He started in Point A: Spain. He ended in Point B: Hispaniola. What was it that brought him there, across the ocean? It was the wind, an unseen force driving Columbus to make small adjustments every day to stay on course.

For protagonists, the antagonist is like the wind for ships in the age of sail. It is the driving force, constantly pushing characters to arrive at their destination. Unfortunately, none of our previous examples are any good here. Top Gun and Flight both feature internal antagonists; Ant-Man has an antagonist that is kind of foisted onto Scott; it’s one of the major weaknesses of the film. So we will press into service one of the great antagonists of all time: Vader. Darth Vader.

darth-vader

Let us look at Star Wars with fresh eyes. Darth Vader is forced home to Tatooine, where he sees his son Luke has grown up into a hot, whiny mess. Clearly, Darth’s brother and his wife were not up to the job of raising Luke, so Darth has them summarily whacked. This forces Luke’s hand. Instead of staying home like a whiny ne’er-do-well, he must go on an adventure with Obi-Wan.

When Luke arrives at the Death Star, he is pretty much just as whiny as ever. Darth forces him to use his resourcefulness to avoid being crushed (although if the whiny boy is crushed, that would also work; Darth is a tough dad). But the boy does not seem to be getting it. Darth therefore has no choice but to kill the boy’s mentor before the boy’s horrified eyes.

And what do you know? Luke volunteers to attack the Death Star; but he keeps futzing around, so Darth has to get himself winged by Han Solo so the kid will finally take the shot—and who gets the credit for helping this boy grow by learning some tough lessons? Darth? No: Obi-Wan. Nobody ever thanks Daddy. The things fathers do for their children…

star-wars-new-hope-death-star-luke-skywalker

It is through the well-timed obstacles the antagonist places in the path of the protagonist that the protagonist, through both reacting and acting, grows and reaches Point B. The reason this is possible is that these two characters are yoked together. They diametrically oppose each other. Luke stands for goodness, light, and artisan lollipops, while Darth stands for evil, darkness, and lollipops mass-produced by starving children. Anything Darth does will negatively affect Luke and vice versa.

In Ant-Man, Darren Cross was Hank Pym’s antagonist and Cross’s actions do not directly affect Scott until the climax.

ant-man-yellow-jacket

Carefully Plan Your Climactic Encounter

We’re midway through the Third Act. The main character knows what they need to do. However, it is not understanding but action that defines character. And so the main character will be faced with a crisis where they will be forced to choose: the past or the future? Point A or Point B?

In Ant-Man, that moment comes when Yellow Jacket has Scott’s daughter and is too powerful for Scott to defeat. The only way to stop Yellow Jacket is to go sub-atomic, which is a suicide mission. The crisis: Does Scott continue to be selfish or does he sacrifice himself to save his daughter? Only pausing long enough for the audience to understand the stakes, Scott shrinks himself—fully aligning himself with the film’s theme. He chooses to be the hero his daughter always imagined him to be.

ant-man-subatomic

In Top Gun, Maverick is faced with a double crisis: Does he let his fear get in the way of rescuing his teammates? And will Maverick fly as the wingman or will he does he own thing? Maverick conquers his fear and sublimates his ego to accomplish the mission. He chooses to be a teammate.

In Flight, Whip is before the NTSB when he is asked about two missing vodka bottles. The crisis: Does Whip continue lying and smear his sometime girlfriend Trina, who died in the crash? Or does he stand up, take responsibility for his actions, which will send him to prison? Whip decides it is time to tell the truth, landing him in prison. He chooses to accept responsibility.

The crisis moment is the theme question. Is the main character going to align to the theme? Are they going to choose to become what the theme dictates they become? (Spoiler Alert: Yes)

Prove Your Character’s Change in the Resolution

Have you ever noticed people smile all the time in films? The positive arc is by far the most popular arc, which means the ending is usually a new beginning: Maverick and Iceman smiling and… hugging? (I might be misremembering that.) Whip and his son bonding on a prison visit. And perhaps most improbably, Scott having dinner with his ex-wife and her fiancé, with good feelings all around, interrupted by a possible call for Scott to join the Avengers.

ant-man-family-dinner

There needs to be a moment at the end of a story where everyone catches their breath and reflects on how far the protagonist has come (in a positive or negative arc; a flat arc character does not change). This coda reinforces the change and sends the audience off in the right emotional state.

The character arc concept is a key element in developing a satisfying story. The character arc is one of the primary reasons mankind has stories. Aristotle laid down the rules millennia ago; even today, reading Poetics is pretty much all you need. Why are you still reading this?  

Stay tuned: In November, we’ll be learning some more marvelous things from Dr. Strange.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! In your character arcs, what are your characters’ starting and ending mindsets? Tell me in the comments!

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About Usvaldo de Leon, Jr.

Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., is a screenwriter who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for his screenplay Let Us Hold Hands and Sing Folk Songs. Most of these statements are true (Usvaldo is so obviously a fake name).

Comments

  1. At some risk of being flanned for letting Jane take up too much space in these comments, I’d like to tell this with a few quotes:

    Where Jane starts:

    She found clothes and shoes for him (Alan) among the stalls, and in a mixture of galactic standard English, horribly fractured Cantonese, and helpless giggles, she charmed the traders into dropping their prices. Not because she needed to save the money, but because it was part of the great game that was life, and that was how she played it.

    What triggers the change:

    (Alan has come to ask Jane to marry him, bringing an emerald and gold ring, green and gold being the traditional wedding colours in the Confederation.)

    There was a dull crack. Alan twitched slightly and then his face creased with pain.
    ‘The bloody thing’s gone off!’ said Morris, ‘Not your fault, that was the timer running out, seen it before. I’m sorry, that’s it, there’s absolutely nothing more we can do. I’ll let you say goodbye.’ He disconnected from starline.
    Alan looked at her, his lips moving as he tried to form words. Then for a moment he seemed to be at peace. ‘Green and gold,’ he whispered.
    Jane laid her cheek to his. ‘I know. I found the ring. I’m sorry.’ No, sorry wasn’t enough. ‘I’m utterly ashamed of what I said to you. What I did was wicked.’
    There must be something she could do, some way she could stop this, drag him back to life so that she could put everything right, unsay what she’d said, give him all the things he’d dreamed about.
    But there was nothing, and at twenty-five minutes past midnight, on a cold, wet morning, while Jane knelt beside him on the bloodstained deck plates of her ship, Alan slipped from her and died.

    How Jane comes to terms with it:

    She’d been running, running from herself. She’d lost her temper with Alan, Alan was dead, and there was nobody else to blame. Life wasn’t a game any more.
    That—and nothing else—was what she’d to learn to live with, the knowledge she’d take to bed every night, the truth that she’d wake up with each morning.
    She could run if she chose, she could try to hide—but the stars would always be there to remind her. Or she could turn back and, one day at a time, learn to live again.

    What it means:

    Jane put aside her uniform and stood alone, by his grave, in simple loose black trousers and smock. When the earth had fallen on his coffin, she knelt and with her own hands planted roses to his memory.
    As she shook the soil from her fingers something about the glade became different, as though an immense presence hung there. A presence that offered no promises and uttered no threats, but merely said, ‘Follow.’
    That last warm afternoon on Topanga had been the same. She’d known then that joining Space Fleet meant grief and danger—and sheer hard work. But it was right—and rightness mattered to her. She could have turned away and gone home, or anywhere else she chose. But she’d have had to live with knowing that she wasn’t doing what she knew was the right thing.
    And this was the same. After what had happened nobody would blame her—or even be surprised—if she turned away now, resigned her commission and found a quiet place to live. But she’d know that it wasn’t right—and still the silent voice said, ‘Follow.’
    She stood up. The breeze was stronger now and she turned towards its healing coolness. For a moment fear welled up within her—going on offered no certainties, no promises. But a part of her had died and now she could hold her own life lightly.
    She nodded faintly, accepting the call.
    And death no longer had any power over her.

    And how it brings her to a final victory:

    (Jane and the antagonist are in space, the salamanders are the antagonists cache of nuclear weapons.)

    ‘Then I trigger a starcrash. The hull might or might not survive the implosion, but since Alan’s death I’ve not been too worried about that sort of thing. What matters is that you don’t get the drive. So are we agreed? Destroy the salamanders and you get what you want.’

    I hope I won’t upset anyone with a rather long post, but I don’t think anything shorter would tell the story properly.

    • Hi R! Jane definitely sounds like she shifts through your story, to what seems like a very dramatic climax. Destroy those salamanders, Jane!

  2. Great post guys!

    I love character arc studies. MORE, MORE, MORE, MORE.

    There’s lot of great info here. The use of the antagonist as a negative impact character is dead on (You can’t go wrong with Darth). I like how we can use him to affect out heroes journey to arrive at the moment of truth. This echoes what I’ve read about how the outer journey is a reflection of, and catalyst for the inner journey.

    The whole idea about plotting change is amazing. Starting at point A –> point B. Initially positioning him diametrically opposed to his end goal at 180 degrees. Then using the antagonist, signposts, story beats and all manner of antagonisms to “twist the cap” off our protagonists inner journey. Forcing him to deal with the lie, face the music. But it’s interesting how he doesn’t really show change until makes key decisions in the story. My past or my future? Having to face a climactic choice like that in crisis mode is critical. If we do this right our theme will shine brightly.

    Loved all the examples. Great job guys! We get a dose of Kate and a double dose of Usvaldo today.
    His interview is up on my site.

    • Thanks, Benjamin. I am glad you got something from this. Kaya’s upcoming book on this subject (out next month) is illuminating and fantastic. It makes this look like an 8 year old’s magic store illusion vs. David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty.

  3. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Good points taken, and I like your illustrations.

    The parenthetical notes about upside-down flight being impossible, however, caught my eye (not that this has anything to do with the points of instruction that you offer here). (Also, I don’t know if the impossibility was fabricated by Hollywood to add to the drama – I saw Top Gun once a long time ago and haven’t seen Flight.)

    Anyway, related to this: I once worked with a man, back in the late 1970s, who looked like Caspar Milktoast – mild and quiet with a slight physique. He didn’t look like he’d say “manure” even if he had a mouth full of it. I learned after some time that he was a WWII veteran, having flown planes in Asia with the Army Air Corps. On one of his missions, he was flying surveillance, taking pictures of the jungle below. He got a call from a platoon of US soldiers trapped below him in a valley. They asked him to rake the jungle with his firepower to drive away the enemy troops surrounding them. He radioed back that he couldn’t – his plane wasn’t equipped with guns. They couldn’t hold out much longer, and it was a two-hour flight back to base. He flew on for a few minutes, trying to figure out what he could do to help. Then he turned around and went back. When he got back to where he had received the call for help, he flipped the plane over and flew upside-down over the valley, firing all of his flares (mounted on top of the plane to illuminate an area from high above the ground) into the jungle below. Back at the base, he reported the soldiers’ position, and they sent out help. He didn’t think anything of his action, until the rescued squad got back and reported that if that surveillance pilot hadn’t done what he did, they’d all be dead or prisoners. He received a major reward for his innovative action.

  4. Great article! I mostly agree with everything said. With that, the only part I don’t quite buy is this last bit: “The character arc concept is a key element in developing a satisfying story.”

    My issue with this statement is that the concept of a character arc is only one part of many in a story that helps develop a satisfying feeling. Technically, the main character can end the story without emotional angst but fail his/her goal, without emotional angst and succeed in his/her goal, or end the story *with* emotional angst and either fail or achieve their goal.
    With all of these options, it really depends on what you’re trying to say with your story that determines how one feels about a character staying the same by the end of the story, or changing.
    “The character arc is one of the primary reasons mankind has stories.”
    I think I know what you mean, but I’m not quite sure. Do you mean that a character having a (positive) arc is the primary reason, or just simply watching a character on a journey (whether they wholly change or not)?

    • I am conflating points in the piece to save space. There are flat arc characters, like a superhero, who effect change but do not change themselves. Beverly Hills Cop or Chocolat or Down and Out in Beverly Hills are all examples. The satisfaction here comes from seeing this character change everyone around them.

      The major reason sequels are so unsatisfying is that, having seen the character make a major change, they usually have nowhere else to change to. A major exception seems to be superhero stories: the hero doesn’t change, the world doesn’t really change (it will need saving again in 2 years) but we don’t seem to mind too much. I readily admit that is a flaw in my thesis. I would refer you to Kaya’s excellent book on character arcs, coming out next month.

      Positive and negative arc stories are most of our literature. A character undertakes a journey and changes. These are symbolic that all of us are capable of change. Ant Man undergoes a tremendous change to let us know that it is capable for us to change middle schools and survive. 🙂

  5. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    That’s why the quote says, “a” key element, not “the” key element. “A” signifies that more than one key element exists.

  6. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Usvaldo!

  7. Good study. I would say, though, I question the analysis of Star Wars. Darth Vader was looking for the droids, not Luke. He wanted the plans for the Death Star. It was Obi-Wan’s idea to sacrifice himself, so that Luke would see that sacrifice can be noble. Remember, Darth Vader did not reveal himself to be Luke’s father until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In Return of the Jedi, Luke had the chance to kill his father, but backed off. Then, when the Emperor tried to kill Luke, Darth Vader threw the Emperor into the chasm. It was Luke who saved his father, not the other way around. That’s what made the original trilogy so powerful. (I ignore episodes 1-3, but that’s another post. I haven’t decided about episode 7 yet.)

    • Joseph, when you are right, you are right! You are absolutely correct in your analysis of Star Wars. I will say that what I was attempting to do is, ahem, ‘invert the X wing’, and show SW in a different light to emphasize Luke’s journey, blown as if by the wind, to becoming a hero.

  8. Erik Bressler says:

    This article was a fantastic read!

    I’m currently on the path of transitioning from legal writing to becoming a more creative writer. Articles similar to this one have been a great starting point for me as I take these words of advice into consideration as I develop my own writing skills.

    I’m already looking forward to the next Marvel themed post!

    • Erik, you should totally check out Kaya’s forthcoming book on character arcs, due out next month. It should really help you make that transition. Good luck!

  9. Hey, U, can’t say what I enjoyed most — the lessons or the humor. Well-done!

  10. Great post about character development. It makes you wonder if building that character arc is actually more important to the overall story than the plot itself.

    • I think the one is a reflection of the other. Consider a Breaking Bad. At the midpoint, Walt could have accepted his fate and prepared for death. But that would be a vastly different man. Walt never got his due, and he was not going to die without making his mark. The first character, “let me die peacefully surrounded by family and friends ” Walt, he gets a four episode mini focused on dying from cancer. “Heisenberg ” Walt, that was the show we watched for five, dark seasons. The character has to arc with the plot and the plot has to arc with the character.

  11. I haven’t seen the movie so asking/commenting kind of in the blind here… if
    ‘being the hero she imagines him to be’ ends up costing him the right to ever see her again, from his perspective, what’s the point? ‘Just keep a low profile, sure there’ll be a little disappointment but so’s learning Santa isn’t real, too.’ He could try to be the hero and lose her or not be the hero and only lose a little, unrealistic, bit of her.

    Kind of speaks to more character complexity… but again, haven’t seen it so if I’m off the mark, please set me on the right track.

    Appreciate the article. It, like several of K.M.’s recent, have been really, positively disruptive…

    • Groped my way to the wall and found the light switch… power’s out. Then the door… locked. Then the window, open and, surprisingly, the fall didn’t hurt that bad… should be able to walk off the limp in a week or so.

      Though a lot of the references were lost to me, found the article helpful and insightful into areas of character complexity I previously hadn’t considered. For Scott the stakes were raised so high, he didn’t have much choice… well, he really had only one choice. And the heroics of such a choice eclipses anything a child’s imagination can conjure as what it means to be one.

      (of course based solely on the bits gleaned from article. so if I just walked into a tree… well, the welt should ease)

      • Hi Greg! It sounds like your arc involves buying a flashlight. 🙂 Yeah, Scott very quickly gets swept into way bigger than him. “Be the hero your daughter already thinks you are “; as a screenwriter, this made me cringe. Let’s just dispense with all subtlety, shall we? But it does effectively show how far Scott needs to go, if bluntly.
        If you learned something from this, I was glad to be of service, but Kaya’s book, Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development, which will be released next month, will make your decade. Thanks for reading!

        • lol… 🙂 yeah, that might be a good investment, well a couple (flashlight and upcoming book on character arc… both serving similar function, bringing light to dark places).

          Like the point you make of it serving to show how far Scott needs to go, offering a striking contrast between a child’s optimism/idealistic view with that of a jaded adult’s pessimism/cynical view. But does it show him or the audience? Both?

    • Okay Greg, I get your confusion. Let me elucidate the first act: Scott gets out of jail. He refuses any jobs with his crew because he will never see his daughter. He goes to see his daughter at her party despite a restraining order. Wife says, if you get caught up on child support, you can see her. This is where the hero line comes in. It is only after he realizes it will be a year before he can see her being honest that Scott takes the job that is the Inciting Incident: breaking into Hank Pym’s place and stealing the Ant Man suit. He tries to return, is caught by the police and is essentially forced to work for Hank and help defeat the bad guy or he will be turned over to the police.
      Now, he didn’t have to do that job. He could have made, say, 6 months in payments and convinced his wife to let the daughter see him in some capacity. But that would be a different story and a different man. He chose to try for the easy way instead- and stumbled into heroism…

      • Thank you for filling in the picture for me, that really helps! Like the comment you made at the end ‘and stumbled into heroism’; had he tried to be the hero his daughter imagined… sounds like that would’ve been a different person/story as well.

  12. Does that mean that I should’ve had a character arc for my character StarGirl? If so, should I work on that?

    • Hi Carly! Having not read Star Girl (sorry), I can’t speak directly about it, but with a name like that she sounds like a superhero. Superheroes, like most of the Marvel troupe, already are living in their truth; they therefore don’t need to arc. Star Girl might be a flat arc character like those other heroes; defending her truth from attack by a ruthless villain. If so, make sure her truth stands in stark contrast to the lie the villain would impose and make sure the stakes are clear what would happen if the bad guys win. Thanks for reading!

  13. Thanks Usvaldo. I might try that.

  14. This is my first effort and I have tried hard to develop the character growths. Unlike a mess like “Men, Women and Children” I have one main couple and then a supporting cast who illustrate various relationships.

    In the beginning my MC is a painfully shy and anxious college student who just wants a normal life, including a love life that he’s failed to have so far. Many of his issues are a reaction to his overbearing father who’s expectations he can never live up to.

    He then meets and immediately falls for a girl – but she’s his younger cousin who’s moved back from years away. He scares and disgusts himself when he nearly succumbs to his own selfish desires to take advantage of her.

    Spending time together, they grow close and it does develop into a romantic and physical relationship. It’s what he’s wanted, and they go through the growing pains of a teen romance, but one that is also a secret from both of their parents.

    Then she tells him it’s over, reeling of a list of reasons. Then others don’t allow him access. He tries to move on, never knowing about her pregnancy and subsequent abortion. She sees him with the his girlfriend and it helps push her into self destructive acts.

    He sees her at the hospital and they confess their love and clear up the misunderstandings. At this point, in most romances, they’d get back together – but instead both realize that it can never work and agree to move on.

    Along the way he learns that he is attractive and lovable, but had been blind to it. That love is not about satisfying yourself, but being willing to put others needs and happiness ahead of your own. Her brother was a player who learned to have a relationship and then start a family (be responsible to others.) And maybe his father was right, but was just bad at expressing it.

    • Hi Joe! Boy, that is really exciting to hear, that you are starting writing. Congratulations! Kaya mentions this all the time: 95% of everything you need to know, you already know, from watching movies and reading books. Your plot sounds like it works already.

      This is how I set up a project: 1) Plot (What happens?); 2) Theme (Why does it happen?); 3) Character (Who does it happen to?) All 3 of these are intertwined on a cellular level and you can do them in any order, really. I’m just a plot freak. Somebody like Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker, is much more concerned with theme first, for instance, and Quentin Tarantino has always struck me as someone who creates great characters and then figures something for them to get up to.

      I lay out my plot, then try and figure out what I’m trying to say. In your case, it sounds like the Theme is: All of Us Are Deserving of Love. But it doesn’t have to be profound: every Bond movie has the same theme: Bond must save the world.

      Having my plot and theme, I figure out who this story would be happening to. If you write a Bond character who, rather than flying to Mozambique and keeping SPECTRE from getting the dilithium crystals, flies to Switzerland to ski and ponder the meaning of life, that is a Bond who is OFF THEME. Bad Bond Movie!

      In your case though, your guy seems to be right where he needs to be: diametrically opposed to the theme. His Dad it sounds like tells him some hard truths, much like Iceman in Top Gun, and your guy can’t accept them yet. When he meets the cousin, she is ON THEME: everyone deserves love. But your character is diametrically opposed to the theme: he doesn’t deserve love, and this dalliance proves it. Along the way, you mention other couples who demonstrate aspects of the theme – that’s great stuff! How is our boy going to learn if he doesn’t see people making good and bad decisions around him?

      He grows throughout the story and at the end, the pair have shifted: he is ON THEME and she is diametrically opposed. That’s why she gets self-destructive: she no longer thinks she is deserving of love.

      If I were writing this, the Third Act Plot Point be: the girlfriend learns of the relationship with the cousin and breaks it off. Your guy has to find a way to be a friend and support to the cousin so she will heal AND convince the girlfriend he is no longer that man and come back.

      That sounds like a cool story! And listen, just WRITE – crank this sucker out! You can edit and finetune your arcs and theme later, when you rewrite. That’s what they are for.

      Good luck!

      • So you didn’t care for, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”? I do recall that as very young man Dianna Rigg was just about my favorite actress to see.

        Thank you very much for the comments, they are very encouraging! I hadn’t fully realized some of the opposition that you point out, and I will allow that to ground me as I write the second half.

        Another example that I hadn’t mentioned is that soon after the cousin, at 15, is forced by her parents to have an abortion, her brother gets his girlfriend pregnant when they’re both 18 year old HS seniors – and her cousin and former lover is instrumental in convincing them to keep the baby and get married. Enough to make one break into their parent’s liquor cabinet!

        I am currently in a rewrite. I never finished the first draft, but realized that as I approached the end of the second scene that the antagonist father had no voice. He was described in the beginning and the forgotten until a big argument months later. From the beginning I worked on weaving the father into various scenes.

        Much of the MC, his father and their relationship is based on my own life, but all of his backstory is fictional and I’m currently writing chapters showing interaction with his siblings and parents.

        I will seriously consider your third act suggestion, as your are the professional. I have a prologue in the present day and the rest is then a flashback. As it is now the subsequent girlfriend and future wife never found out about her husband’s true relationship with his cousin. However, it will only require changing or eliminating the last line of the prologue. My mind is already churning on the possibilities of him trying to balance two women.

  15. A.P. Lambert says:

    “Luke stands for goodness, light, and artisan lollipops, while Darth stands for evil, darkness, and lollipops mass-produced by starving children.”

    Best line in the whole article (out of many great lines), I dig your style man!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights. I feel I understand Top Gun, and thus my own upbringing, so much better now.

  16. Hannah Killian says:

    Question: Can you have a character undergo a negative arc in a first installment of a duology/trilogy/series, then a positive one in the sequel(s)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, as long as you’re planting the seeds for the eventual redemption right from the start, so it doesn’t seem as if it’s coming out of left field.

      • Hannah Killian says:

        So, what would the seeds be? Remorse? Guilt? Trying to end what they started?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes. Basically, you’re just wanting to show that there is at least a flicker of a desire and a potential for change in the character.

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