Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Circular Arc - The only character arc?

Howdy writers,
It's that time again and this time we're talking about Character Arcs. Ah yes, the ubiquitous character arc, known for producing such hits as What Women Want, As Good As It Gets, Disney's The Kid, and a distinguished list of others.

Oh you may mean where the character learns valuable lessons and undergoes a transformation. Well, that sucks. You can't reduce cinema to the minimalist view of character change. People rarely change: the virgin who gets raped is still that "virgin" including what makes her a virgin; whether it be a stern family, a devout choice, s spiritual challenge, etc.

The Circular Arc defies these premises, It is truly the scope of the cinematic experience and enables film makers to experiment with the depth and breadth of the human experience under stress. It enables gritty characters who have to respond to the whims of the most depraved antagonist. It enables reality because of the strength of the human spirit; best personified by the archetypal protagonist. The hero who can bend her moral base without breaking. She can withstand even the most withering barrage of loss vs. defeat. This is what's necessary for the true cinematic experience. It enables the film maker to view life from various different eyes.

Rather than try to experiment with some tyoe of growth based on Conflict, writers need to concentrate on the human experience, realizing that the survival instinct can overcome odds and allow a battered, literally destroyed protagonist to return tot their normal life, thus fulfilling the Hero's Journey. Campbell's representations do much for cinema while not forcing a mold. I believe this is because even archetypal figures have human grounding; it's like how even the same type of person reacts differently to heights or barking dogs or dense woods.

When crafting story vs. character it's important to think about the worst situations for the character and the story then becomes a matter of crafting situations(elements) which force the protagonist into action. These actions then of course push the antagonist to greater evil which should force the protag to become even more dangerous and violent. It's a circular motion that continues until someone is defeated.

It is of course possible to show a difference in the character in their reaction to certain situations. In "The Long Kiss Good Night" Geena Davis' character realizes that her abilities aren't the worse thing as her and her husband laugh about her knife trick at the end. Or in the John Ritter film "Real Men" where after his adventure he returns to the garage of the guys who stole his son's bike and gives them what for. That itself is not as much the "dramatic character arc" but more the increase in ability to defend himself.

I'm not even sure how a protagonist can be as strong as possible if they are "wishy washy" enough to "change" which really means "transform." People rarely change their stripes which I guess is why we need a three strikes law. In real life the weak don't survive but the strong of heart and steady will always grow with the situation but not "transform." The most popular characters are always the same after the adventure is over, though they may be bruised and more aware of the "ways of the world." This is really evident in the direction of "Quantum of Solace" which saw Bond become "unhinged," but he was still Bond.

Even a comedy such as "Tootsie" shows the Circular Arc. Michael learned a valuable lesson but in the end returned to his former self as an actor. Fro these reasons and more, the Character Arc only works for making an asshole into a normal person.

Don't transform this.