Blake Snyder describes it thus: “The Covenant of the Arc is the screenwriting law that says:
Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story. The only characters who don’t change are the bad guys.
But the hero and his friends change a lot.” (“Save the Cat” 2005 p134).
This is a standard rule found in most screenwriting books.
John Truby reduces the character arc to a geometric formula.
“Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle. At the simplest level, that change could be represented as a three part equation
W x A = C
Where W stands for weakness, both psychological and moral; A represents the struggle to accomplish the basic action in the middle of the story, and C stands for the changed person.”
(“The Anatomy of a Story” 2007 p32).
This is a standard Hollywood formula. A character has an inner flaw. He is presented with a problem. He struggles with the problem and tries to solve it in various ways, but it is only when he overcomes his inner flaw that he is able to overcome the outer problem.
In “Million Dollar Baby” Clint Eastwood’s character Frankie refuses to become involved with people or commit to a relationship. In “Batman Begins” Bruce Wayne cannot save Gotham City until he overcomes the guilt of his parents’ death. In “Rocky” the hero defines himself as a loser. All three characters are presented with a problem, and they must overcome their inner flaw in order to achieve their goals.
There is something very satisfying about characters that grow and change, particularly if they change for the better. It is all part of the optimistic American outlook, promoted by the same people who gave us the “power of positive thinking” and the “log cabin to white house myth”. Blake Snyder takes the rule to quasi religious levels.
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis not only of good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start”.
(“Save the Cat” 2005 p136).
But is character change an iron law? In European films character change is less prevalent. Yves Lavandier writes quite scathingly of this American obsession.
“The philosophy of change has gained the upper hand in the writing of drama in recent years. In the United States it has become an essential criterion in the way the protagonist is handled: he has to have changed at the end of the story, with redemption a desirable option. As a result, everyone now changes, even the psychotherapists. Two or three sessions with a patient who has an interesting problem and suddenly the shrink succeeds in breaking out of his bereavement (see “Good Will Hunting”, “Analyse This”)”.
(“Writing Drama” 2005 p 120).
Many memorable film heroes do not change. It is their stubbornness and their adherence to principles that makes them interesting characters. Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) in “The World’s Fastest Indian” is a stubborn old man with a singular obsession. He does not change at all. When the credits roll at the end of the film we see that Burt continued to chase motorcycle records to the end of his life. Patton doesn’t change. Gandhi doesn’t change. Colonel Nicholson, in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is the same stubborn British officer at the beginning and end of the film.
James Bond doesn’t have a character arc, although perhaps his audience does. Roger Moore’s sexist comments seemed witty in the 1970’s. Now they are politically incorrect.
So unlike Blake Snyder, I do not believe a character arc is an essential rule. While it can be satisfying to watch a hero overcome an inner flaw to surmount an outer obstacle, it can be equally satisfying watching a protagonist who sticks to his principles and undergoes no change.
What do you think?
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.