Character Arcs | TCWL – Siddhant Chandak

To Cinema, With Love

Episode 7: Character Arcs

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Note: This article is heavily surrounded around the Godfather and therefore will contain some major spoilers (here is a link to its summary: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068646/plotsummary)

Writing is one of the most fundamental aspects of filmmaking (It also happens to be one of the many things I suck at). And great writers give us great stories, stories which are layered, nuanced and cinematic.

Some of the most important things that writers bring to the table are the characters. Characters can be protagonists like the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, antagonists like the silent psychopath Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men or even great anti-heroes like the bad-mouthed Deadpool. 

The most fascinating thing about characters is that just like human beings, they too can change over time. They can go from point A to point B both internally and externally. Consider Luke Skywalker, he not only went from living on Tatooine with his uncle and aunt to sitting in the Millenium Falcon blowing up starfighters (God, that scene is so cool) but also from a simple farm boy to a badass lightsaber-swinging hero. 

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope (I think I should stop referencing Star Wars so much in my articles)

 

 

This is called character development: when your character changes and grows through the journey they undertake. The best way to understand a character’s journey both as a writer and as a viewer, is through character arcs. Now, my dear non-film school friend, you might ask what is a character arc? As per K.M. Weiland, it is pretty simple:

1. The protagonist starts one way.

2. The protagonist learns some lessons throughout the story.

3. The protagonist ends in a (probably) better place.

If we go a little further, they can be defined as: the Goal (what the character wants), the Lie (how the character thinks as the way they will get it) and the Truth (how they will actually get it) and it is between going from the lie to the truth, while trying to achieve the goal that the characters grow and develop, in simpler words, they complete their arc. Here is this super amazing chart I found to help understand the truth and lie better:

Source: helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

Sounds super simple and straightforward, right? Well, not exactly, because writing is so subjective there is often no singular way that character arcs are defined, heck there might even be some cases where there is no character arc at all (also known as a flat arc). But for now, let us examine one of the most beautiful examples of character arcs, Michael Corleone from The Godfather (only considering part one for this article):

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Michael Corleone, in The Godfather (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

So, what do you want?

Aaron Sorkin (Academy Award-winning screenwriter of films such as The Social Network) defines a character in a very simple way:

“Rather than show a character what is, I like to show what a character wants. It all boils down to intention and obstacle. Someone wants something and there is something in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia, it doesn’t matter and they have to want it bad.”

So there you have it, a goal for your character they want to achieve and the various obstacles around it. Goals are one of the most fundamental things to your characters. Think of them in contrast to real lives. People’s goals in real life, define them. If someone has money as their only goal it defines them as greedy. Same is the case in movies, In Wolf of the Wall Street Jordan Belfort’s goal in life to get rich defined him as greedy, or the Joker’s goal in the Dark Knight to bring chaos to Gotham defined him as the psychopath that he is. 

In the case of The Godfather, Michael’s goal is simple. He is not interested in the business, the killings, the mafia or anything, he just wants the safety of his family. He even says it himself as seen in this scene:

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Then there are the various obstacles in the way of achieving the goal. These obstacles are the ones that your character will learn from and go from the lie they believe to the truth they see. Our young Michael Corleone here has no shortage of obstacles, well there are so many of them. From Sollozzo to the 5 New York Families to the Cops, Michael Corleone had no chill. On top of that there was his hot-headed brother, and his overall internal struggle as well. And all of these obstacles helped him go from the lie to the truth. But what were these lies and truths, and how do you show them?

Lies, Lies, Lies 

Most characters believe some kind of lies, that they realise later are actually false, thus changing from within. The lie that Michael Corleone believes is that: 

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Ah Michael, you poor and innocent child. 

Wait until you put a bullet through a guy’s throat.

So, there we have it Michael’s simple lie. He just thinks that he is above the ways of his family. He thinks that he is nonviolent and against all the ways in which his family operates (Basically Michael won’t put a dead horse’s head in a guy’s bed) But this lie is challenged when the various obstacles come up. 

You can’t handle the truth!

After he visits his father in the hospital and gets punched by a cop in the face (that cop really sucked) Michael starts realising the truth, and begins to move away from his old self. But changing oneself from within has to come with some form of internal struggle, and that struggle is amazingly captured during the restaurant scene, when michael commits his first murder. The struggle is defined in the screenplay itself:

CLOSE ON MICHAEL; the feel of it reassures him. Then he breaks it loose from the tape holding it; he takes a deep breath and shoves it under his waistband. For some unexplainable reason, he hesitates once again, deliberately washes his hands and dries them. Then he goes out. 

Finally, after the character has given up their lie and taken up their new truth, they have completed their journey, thus finishing their arc. By the end of the film, Michael has become exactly like his father:

  Poor Michael, he thought he could be any different

 

Conclusion

As Robert Mckee said, in his amazing book Story :

Story is about principles, not rules

A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says “This works… and has through all remembered time.”

That’s the entire thing, writing is not about doing things a certain way, it is about telling stories and using the tools you have at your disposal to create and deliver those stories the way you want to. From the dialogue, to character arcs, to the 3 act structure all of these are only tools at your disposal, not the way things are supposed to be. And there will always be times that you will think that the tools of writing have failed you, or that your story doesn’t fit the way conventional stories fit. It doesn’t mean that your story is bad or wrong. As a writer that is your arc, your goal is to deliver the story, and while there will be several obstacles, all of them will bring their learning and will help you let go of the lie…

…and tell the truth.


 

About The Series

Films may not just be art, and they’re not simply entertainment either. What they are, for sure, is an experience.

When you want to watch a film, you make a plan with your friends or family or sometimes with just yourself. You buy the tickets, get some popcorn, get in the seat and enjoy the show–even if you merely open up your laptop and watch the film, it still is an experience for you, whether good or bad.

That experience can make you laugh, cry or maybe even think. This series is a homage to that very experience.

This is a homage to cinema.

|| Note :- Now, I have not seen every movie ever made (I wish I had, I really do) so my information primarily comes from the films I see, which is why whatever I write might be totally meaningless in context of other films  These articles are not going to be teaching anyone about films, these are just going to be about me talking about my passion for films, and the people who make them (which reminds me, Why are you reading this?)

TL;DR: Whatever I say doesn’t matter.

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