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The Hero Must Change!

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

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

Creative Commons License photo credit: bryanwright5@gmail.com
About the Author

Jack Brislee

Comments 12

  1. Interesting. I do think transformation occurs in all engaging fiction but not necessarily of the main character.
    As imperfect beings, we humans strive toward things we want, and our emotional involvement in the world is a reaction to the getting or not getting those needs met. So audiences identify with fictional characters who strive to overcome the things holding them back, both internal and external, and are eager to see the outcome of that striving,lose or win.
    Is this a particularly American obsession? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly in Kerouac’s archetypal meandering beat odyssey, On the Road, the main character ends his journey with new insights into the hearts of America and his erstwhile best friend, Dean Moriarty. But the English also change, be it in a more gloomy manner. Winston Smith, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, learns to love his totalitarian tormentor, Big Brother. And the Irish Beckett has existential questioning bring Didi and Gogo to realise that they are imprisoned by the concept of freedom. Camus, Sartre and the French existentialists are all obsessed with the journey of self discovery, and their main characters gain depressing amounts of cultural realisation. So I think change occurs in all fiction, it is just that American popular culture doesn’t get off much on tragedy.
    And it doesn’t always have to be the effect of striving and the struggle to overcome on the main character that interests us. It can also be the effect of that striving on the world. Patton wins his war, Ghandi rids his country of oppression, old Burt Munro beats his opponents with a land speed record never to be broken. The main character remains the same, but the world of the story has changed forever.

    So perhaps change is indeed imperative in fiction one way or another. Something has to give. Either the main character changes, or s/he changes the world. For no change is no story, and no story is just chat…

  2. Depends on the story, how it’s set up. Some stories beg for character change. Good Will Hunting, for example. Other stories, I could care less what the character realizes and changes about him or herself. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes, for example. I want simply to watch Sherlock Holmes being Sherlock Holmes. So what if he slips into the occasional cocaine or opium binge? However, I desperately wanted Will to overcome his troubles and get the girl. And I really wanted to see Tom Cruise overcoming his fear of the courtroom. And I thought I would die if Paul Newman picked up the telephone in the aftermath of The Verdict.

  3. Yes the type of hero you refer to is the catalyst hero – she/he does not change but instead changes those around him or her. Change is essential in a film, but the hero is just the glue that gels the change together and does not necessarily need to embody the change.

    These ideas are not new so yes I agree with you.

  4. Well if you take Dramatica point of view, protagonist can stay the same, while obstacle character changes. So in fact, Ghandi stuck with his principles, while India changed, Dirty Harry stay the same, while antagonists change (die, or are arrested), etc.

    Change is foundation of any story, but it’s not necessarily a hero’s duty to change. It’s enough that initial situation is resolved/changed due to the action of the main character. IMHO

    1. Change isn’t the foundation of every story. You’re only saying that because that’s what you’ve been told. Quit reading so many books on how to be a writer and JUST FUCKING WRITE ALREADY! That’s like asking a christian why they’re christian and they say, “Because that’s the way i was raised.” They don’t know WHY, they just believe because that’s always what they were told to believe.

      The only ‘change’ Indiana Jones takes is overcoming his fear of snakes. BUT it’s not even a change because a TRUE change would be him not simply overcoming that fear for one moment but him liking being around snakes afterwards. Indiana Jones is NOT change, it’s him momentarily overcoming his fear of snakes, but that fear still remains after that moment. Just because you do something once doesn’t mean you are then changed by it.

      Most horror movies don’t have character change, unless you consider the Pro’s instinct to survive being normal at the beginning compared to it simply being stronger at the end a ‘change.’

      Mostly Comedies use the change gimmick, but that’s because it’s an easy gimmick that helps them near instantly develop characters and plot before they even start writing the story down on paper, and it’s also very predictable. A PERFECT example is Liar, Liar. Initial idea: a guy can’t lie for 1 day. Then expand it: make the guy a LAWYER (who are known for lying) who can’t lie for 1 day. WHY can’t he lie? Let’s give him a reason people can relate to: family ties. TThen throw Jim Carrey into the role, an actor known for making people laugh, and that’ll put the target demographic into those theater seats. But again, very predictable. We know instantly from the very beginning that Jim is a liar and before we even leave the gates we know that by the end the opposite of him will be true. Personally, and i don’t know about you, but i prefer to NOT know the ending to a story until i get there.

      BUT the whole ‘change is necessary’ thing is just a bunch of bullshit that has been overused. Doing something and preaching something simply because you are told that’s how it is is just plain stupid. If character change is essential to every story as you’ve stated, that would make every story predictable and boring. Give the Pro a trait at the beginning and we’ll instantly know that the opposite will be true of them at the end. Therefor we can basically predict the story and what will happen to the Pro. And why? Because the author thinks change is the foundation of every story simply because that’s what they were always told, so every Pro they make in every story they write will be predictable. Look at their Pro at the beginning and we’ll know they’ll be the opposite at the end BEFORE we even read that far. The only other equation to that supposed ‘necessary’ change is Tragedy stories, and thus if your story is a Tragedy we’ll know that the defining trait of the Pro at the beginning will be intensified by the end instead of turning into its opposite.

      Did Russel Crowe in Gladiator change? Nope. He was an efficient soldier and leader of men at the beginning, and he was still one at the end.

      Does Rocky change in Rocky? Nope. Rocky was a fighter at the beginning and he was still one at the end. Yes, you can say, “Oh, Rocky thought he was a loser at the beginning and did not at the end. That’s how he changed.” Yeah, sure, if you consider every training montage of every Rocky movie a character change. But the truth is it’s a character who was a fighter at the beginning, he’s put through training to increase his fighting skills, then he used the those skills at the end. Physical change? Yes. Character change? No. Character change would be Rocky becoming a pacifist by the end of the movie and refusing to fight because he was a fighter at the beginning. Turning a fighter into a stronger fighter isn’t change, it’s GROWTH. There IS a difference.

      And i can’t think of a single Conan story i’ve ever read where Conan has character change (and i should know, Howard is my favorite writer and i own every scrap of his writing i can get my hands on). Conan starts out as he is, deals with his problems as he does, and by the end he’s the same person. Yes he may have learned something new about such and such wizard or supposed ally or land or people, but learning something new doesn’t change WHO you are. It changes your skill set, but not your personality.

      You can preach how much change is necessary all you want, but all that does it end up making VERY PREDICTABLE characters and stories. At the beginning your character doesn’t take life seriously, so we know they’ll take it seriously by the end. Same with a dumb character turning smart. A loner into a social person. A pushed-around geek into a confident and strong leader. You can take ANY trait, apply your supposed essential method of change, and predictably know how the character is going to turn out without even bothering to read the friggin’ story at all.

      How many times have we seen the movie or read the story of the poor, battered housewife who finally kicks her abusive husband to the curb after she ‘grows’ more confidence??? Exactly. it’s been overdone to hell, and it’s cliche and boring as all hell.

      Just because a few good books have used the character change arc well in their story does NOT mean it instantly becomes a rule that change is now the foundation of every story. Most ‘change’ is simply training a character undergoes, nothing more. Luke’s ‘change’ in the original Star Wars was simply that he trained to use the force, a skill he already possessed yet simply made stronger. A PHYSICAL skill. It doesn’t have to be some deep, underlying truth of life meaning so you can feel like the most intelligent, genius writer in the world…because you’re not and i’m not. Get over yourself, drop your ego and accept that being a writer doesn’t elevate you onto some higher plateau above everyone else where you are aware of some higher truth most others are not.

      And i hope this offends you, because that way maybe, just maybe, you’ll get over yourself long enough to write a good story and worry about how much you are impressing everyone with your ‘genius’ writing theories later :-/

      1. Whoa. Val…
        Ante said “IMHO”. He didn’t ask for a rant.

        You’re saying ‘change is predictable’. So ‘no change’ is not? LOL

        “Change is the foundation of any story”
        ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY.
        If the hero doesn’t change, you better make sure the world does.

        I like how Martin put it: “Either the main character changes, or s/he changes the world. For no change is no story, and no story is just chat…”

        (BTW: Nobody in this thread struck me as being ‘full of themselves’.)

  5. I’d read a lot of screenwriting books, but when I read Truby’s book on moral and psychological revelations a light came on. I had a revelation! And I started to see my own life as a story – with my own inner struggles – and my own ‘need’ to have a moral revelation to see how I needed to change my behavior in order not to help myself and those around me.

    I guess we have to ask the question why are any of us doing this anyway? Why are we writing stories? Why not just live life? Are we writing for money? Hoping one day to make that million dollar sale? For me, learning how stories have been crafted over thousands of years is part of the joy of participating in the craft / gift of writing.

    Writing is a gift. We can study it’s history, how others have done it, how teachers teach it, but ultimately, it is an art form. Ever since the humble oral tradition of fairy tales, stories have existed to empower us to overcome life’s obstacles.

    None of us are under any obligation to follow rules. If we want to write a story where no one changes, we can do it. If we want to write a story where the world changes and not the hero, we can do it. We can write whatever we want!

    However, the moment we start to work with producers and script consultants questions will be asked about the story with regards to its universal appeal, that is, how the hero, against all the odds, overcomes the obstacles of life put before her to live happily ever after.

    Hollywood likes to produce films that do the same job as fairy tales: give the viewer tools and empowerment to overcome life’s obstacles. I think this is positive. None of us, however, in the free world, are obliged to write anything.

    I end asking myself this question: why, and for who, am I spending this short life of mine writing?

  6. Truby points out something interesting in Anatomy of Story – how Michael Corleone doesn’t change – but the writers give the revelation to Kay instead. His wife is the one who changes.

  7. Val, that is the most incoherent rant. You are missing the point. Yes Rocky is a fighter at the beginning and a fighter at the end, but he undergoes an INTERNAL change. If he didn’t it would be an extremely shallow and boring film. You say CHANGE and GROWTH are different. How exactly are they different? They are not different. Growth is change. You contradicted yourself completely. At this point I stopped reading your babble.

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