The Underlying Sameness)
The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.
At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.
But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.
So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.
What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.
We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.
This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.
But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.
There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.
Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.
But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.
Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.
The Sharp Turn)
There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.
There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.
To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.
The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.
At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.
And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.
On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.
And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.
Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.