The Charles Darwin School of Screenwriting

One of the tenets of screenwriting is that you should give your main characters "arcs." 

An arc represents character change -- literary evolution in action. By the end of the movie, your hero or heroine should not be the same person he/she was when the story began. The journey the character goes through has had such an impact that they are forever altered…for better or worse.

Does every character need to change?  No. Minor characters and bit roles provide comic relief, serve a necessary function (cab driver, doorman, etc.), or represent obstacles (someone who stands in the way of whatever the hero wants). Villains can also change but sometimes the best villains are just pure evil from beginning to end…and pure evil must be destroyed at all costs!

But the hero must evolve and change!  Can you write a story without the hero being transformed by the experience? Sure. You can also bake bread without yeast -- but don't expect a fluffy loaf...expect a matzoh.

We get involved with a character because we want to know if his dilemma will change him. Will it force him to overcome a deep flaw (Liar, Liar), realize his potential (Rocky), or heal an emotional wound (Silence Of The Lambs)? We want to see the hero grow and change, because it gives us hope for ourselves.

Character change doesn't have to be a complete 180. Some movies can be very effective by just giving the hero very subtle changes. But in general, the bigger the change the better.

So how do you create character change?

Begin by giving the hero a clear-cut goal. The goal should very often be a selfish one. Something upsets the balance in the hero's world (first act break). The hero then defines a goal and a plan to bring his world back into balance or at least find a way to manage in this new world. The second act shows the hero inching his way closer and closer to it by overcoming every obstacle in his path. The second act ends with the goal seeming to be completely out of reach...he is ready to give up, but somehow he finds the courage to continue and fight for what he wants...he either gets it, or fails, but either way learns an important lesson.

Classic three act structure, right?  BUT, the twist is, the character really has TWO goals. The outer goal (the treasure, the victory, the job, the girl, etc.) and an inner goal (to reconnect with his family, to become a caring person, to find inner peace, to become humble, to find courage, etc.). In most cases the hero may not even be consciously aware of his inner goal. The outer goal is what he wants...the inner goal is what he really NEEDS.

To have true character change that resonates, a hero needs to have an inner goal and achieve it.

A classic example is the movie Rainman. Charlie Babbitt goes on a quest to receive what he believes is a fair share of the $3,000,000 estate left in trust to his newfound autistic brother. Charlie kidnaps Raymond to take him to his own attorney's across the country. This is Charlie's outer goal: to get money. Charlie is a selfish hustler who is only concerned with himself. What Charlie NEEDS is to become unselfish and learn to care about someone other than himself. Charlie is a flawed character at the beginning of the story. His cross-country journey will change him forever and transform him into a complete and caring person. His transformation not only wins him his brother's love but he also wins the girl!  His inner life was out of balance and through the course of the story, he obtains balance -- he evolves. So the hero achieved his just wasn't the one he expected.

This is the type of character change which resonates with audiences. Look at any movie where the character has an outer goal, struggles to achieve it, and wins his/her outer goal...and that's all. There is no inner goal and no real character change. These movies might be entertaining, on the surface, but ultimately leave you flat. It's a case of summer-movie-blockbuster-itis. This is the reason many movies like Tomb Raider fail. They might make money because they're flashy, but they have no depth and fail to really affect an audience. There's a reason why a movie like Ironman makes four times as much money as a Tomb Raider. Tony Stark goes through real character change from selfishness to unselfishness -- it's this quest, this series of challenges, which gives him way more depth and makes the movie way more interesting.

The lack of character change is also the reason most sequels aren't considered as "good" as the original. The original movie had the hero achieve his inner goal and change. The sequel then has nowhere to go emotionally for the character. (Though Spiderman 2 did a fair job of overcoming this obstacle by having Peter Parker struggle with his double life. He is still out of balance, just in a new way.)

So character change is a necessary component of any screenplay to add depth to a movie. Make sure to give your character both an inner and an outer goal. Let him/her succeed or fail at obtaining the outer goal -- but let that character achieve their inner goal, whether they knew they had one or not.

Give your hero a gift this Christmas -- the gift of evolution. You'll make Charles Darwin so proud!

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