Sunday, September 21, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Character Arc

By the time a literary concept becomes entrenched in Hollywood, you know there's something wrong with it. I admire Joseph Campbell; I've even read his books. Hey, even books apart from the ubiquitous Hero With a Thousand Faces. Of course, most people in Tinseltown haven't read even Hero (which doesn't prevent them from talking about it). Instead, the more literate ones have read Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey, while the less literate have taken a weekend workshop in The Hero's Journey from some screenwriter.

But, much as I admire Campbell, if I hear about the "template" of The Hero's Journey one more time, the person speaking is going to find themself joining Eurydice in the most inaccessible corner of Hades, never to return to the world of the living.

But, enough of that particular rant. What is ammoying me at the moment is that the related buzzwords, "character arc", have now become permanently lodged inside Hollywood's thickish skull. It's not a bad concept, character arc, though it's a little vague. But I'm getting pretty damned tired of being told that the important characters in every successful story have one. And, this being Southern California, what writers talk about gets pikced up by Hollywood, and then in turn is recycled out of Hollywood and back into the coffeeshops by the more paint-by-numbers sort of writers. You can't mention anything about a character without someone asking, "Okay--but what's his arc?" Because current gospel is if said character doesn't have an arc, we don't have a story. Well, horse patootie.

My counterexample: James Brooks' Broadcast News. The people at the beginning of the story are exactly the same people at the end of the story. Sure, they're bigger and older and a little sadder, but if that's a 'character arc' then the term is pretty useless. (If you haven't seen Broadcast News, watch it. Brilliantly structured, and pulled off so entertainingly that you don't notice the big pillars of the structure.)

Brooks isn't subtle about his non-arcs, either. There are three protagonists, and they are introduced as children in three short prologues, each of which end with a subtitle announcing who they are destined to become, such as "Future Network News Anchor."

Holly Hunter's character is in many ways the compass of the piece, because she is afflicted with a devastating clarity that lets her see what is happening...and forever destines her to be unhappy. (One character says to her, "It must be nice to always be right." With her voice cracking, she manages to reply, "No...no, it's terrible!")

One of her traits is that she micromanages, and there is qhat appears to be a recurring throwaway character joke: she is constantly instructing taxi drivers, in excruciating detail, of how best to navigate to their destination. ("Don't go by the park, because this time of fay there's always a lot of people try to...")

After the climax of the film, when she is utterly defeated and beaten, she climbs into the back seat of a cab and says, "Don't take the Beltway, because at this time of day there's gonna be a lot..." She pauses, and then says, "Oh, go any way you want."

This looks like an arc of sorts, doesn't it?--a little epiphany, a shift in her character. But as she slumps back in the seat, fighting tears, she gathers herself and mutters under her breath, "But New York Avenue's faster."

The real message of Broadcast News isn't about how people change. It's about the fact that people really don't, and someday need to accept who they are. Character is shown to be surprisingly inflexible, and character is shown to be destiny. The movie plays as a comedy, but it's really more of a Greek drama.

I admit, you can make a great story out of how a character is changed by events. But you can also make a great story out of how someone refuses to be changed by events--or even how someone refusing to change can drive events (ala A Man for All Seasons).

Remember, if Hollywood executives are chanting it, it can't possibly be wisdom.

8 comments:

Janet said...

"Remember, if Hollywood executives are chanting it, it can't possibly be wisdom."

Hilarious! And yet again, I agree with you. And now I am wracking my brains trying to remember which writing book I read that dealt with this precise issue: the characters that refuse to change and why that is a perfectly valid choice. I think it was Donald Maass, actually.

Creative A said...

Timely post. I didn't even know what character arc was until about a year ago. Now, it's all over the place, and I have to agree, the overuse chafes me a little bit.

I understand the importance of growth and change (or lack thereof) in a character. But why does it have to be an arc? Why do you *need* a character arc? Why can't my character just do as they please?

Grr.

-C.A.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Don't remember the Maass saying that, but good for him. It's about time somebody stood up to these arc-villains.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

"Why can't my character just do as they please?"

Damn right. And I hereby give them official permission.

S. Boyd Taylor said...

Hey David -- thank you for, once and for all, putting the nail in that myth for me. I have been plagued for years by the words of one of my High School Lit teachers who said if the main character didn't change, then it wasn't a story. I knew from the moment I heard them that they were wrong, but I could never put my hands on a good counter-example.

David Isaak said...

Hey, SBT--

Actually, any number of Greek myths are good counter-examples, too. Any number of those characters never change. In fact, I think I'll post about that. Thanks for the stimulation!

Janet said...

Somebody should relieve you of your pun gun.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

"Somebody should relieve you of your pun gun."

As Charlton Heston would say, "Only when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers."