Talking about the quality of writing, especially writing that we perceive as bad, is one of the most challenging parts of film criticism or discussion. Most of the items that go into an evaluation of writing are poorly defined or rooted in subjective reactions, which makes it hard to find anything approaching a levelheaded argument. You could talk about how predictable or surprising the plot was, but this is often heavily swayed by how familiar a viewer is with a certain subgenre, or by how many similar stories they’ve encountered before. You could talk about the quality of the dialogue, but that’s even murkier territory. For my part, I’ve never understood the recurring complaints about David Goyer’s dialogue being “tin eared” or Joss Whedon’s being “precious,” while Quentin Tarantino’s near-universally praised palaver always strikes me as so flamboyant that it ends up being distracting. It takes a very trained eye to be able to actually break down a film’s writing into its component parts and truly analyze them instead of simply react to them.
I think this may be one of the reasons why we have become so fixated on the idea that characters arcs are a huge factor in the success of a film’s script. You know the concept: the main characters in a film, and certainly the protagonist, will undergo some sort of growth or change or evolution and they’ll be a different person by the time the film ends. It’s an insidiously pervasive idea, and certainly not one that is confined to film. We’ve been conditioned to think of unchanging, or static, characters as “bad writing,” while “good writing” is buoyed by dynamic protagonists who undergo some serious transformation. And, unlike most of the other things that go into our discussions of film writing, the presence or absence of a character arc is pretty easy to spot and defend.
But I have to ask: Are character arcs really something that every film needs? Yes, a lot of good writing arises from complicated and nuanced character arcs, but does an absence of the same immediately preclude a script’s claim to quality? Think back on this year’s top grossing film (so far) and critical darling, Guardians of the Galaxy. Besides finally working up the nerve to open that present from his mother by the end of the film, how much of a transformation does Peter Quill really undergo? Sure, he learns some stuff, makes some new friends, but is he really that much of a different person from who he was at the start of the film? Or consider something like last year’s underseen but crowd pleasing Pacific Rim. How much does protagonist Raleigh Becket change after his brother’s death in the film’s opening ten minutes? What major character growth does he undergo? If anything, the film seems delighted to abandon his development to focus its energy on Mako and Stacker Pentecost’s once both of them have been properly introduced. If there is a character arc for the protagonists of both of these films it’s a slight one at best, yet neither movie really had a problem connecting with their audience.
In fact, consider this idea: some films that don’t have a character arc would be made worse by having one thrown into their mix. Imagine what, say, Duck Soup would look like if the Marx Brothers’ anarchic stream of insane gags had to periodically screech to a halt for Groucho’s character to learn some kind of a lesson. Or picture Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday if time had to be set aside for Hulot to grow and change into something other than his bumbling blank slate of a man. Both of those films’ scripts are faultless precisely because they understand what each director is trying to do and give them exactly what they need to accomplish that. How many times have you sat down to watch a comedy, laughed your way through 75% of it, but then had to slog through the other 25% while the protagonist learns some ham-fisted lesson or has some contrived epiphany about a personal flaw? Are those character arcs really making those films better?
Now, let’s back up for a moment here. I’m not saying that we should move on and abandon the character arc as a part of screenwriting and storytelling. A good character arc, full of subtle emotional construction and carefully thought out turns, is a thing of beauty. Some of the best scripts of all time, like Wilder and Diamond’s The Apartment or Charles Lederer’s His Girl Friday, are awesome because they do such a great job of interweaving the advancement of their plots with the evolution of their main characters’ psychology, emotional state, and ideals. So by all means, let’s keep writing character arcs… when it’s appropriate. What I am saying needs to go away is the engrained attitude that unless a film has a fleshed out character arc it is automatically failing on some level. All that does is police our filmmaking to a reductive level and eliminate possibilities of what stories we can tell on film.
Think about all the great films that have been made where the emotional through line is watching a character not change. Braveheart is built around the question of how long William Wallace will be able to hold out in his defiance against the mounting opposition from the British forces. Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful works because the question of, “Is there anything that can make our awful, ruthless, despicable monster of a protagonist any less of a S.O.B.?” is pounding throughout every moment of the film. 12 Angry Men is about its one single, obstinate, rigid protagonist changing eleven other minds without budging an inch from his own viewpoint. These are all classic films in their own rights, and none of them suffer for the lack of change in their protagonist. They are able to build their emotional resonance, their thematic structures, and their story suspense around someone resisting the pressure to change, and that can be just as satisfactory.
Or consider a different kind of story, one where it feels like there is a character arc until you stop and think about it. How much of an arc does Clarice Starling, the main character in 1991’s unstoppable juggernaut The Silence of the Lambs, really have? Sure, she is more experienced by the end of the film, more wise in the ways of the FBI, more grounded, but these all feel like extensions of the natural path she was on at the start of the film. Has she learned a major lesson? Changed her worldview in a major way? Overcome some pervasive character flaw?
How about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Who has any sort of a major character arc in that film? It seems like Marion Crane might – she’s caught in a problematic romantic situation, her boss is doing some shady deals, and she recklessly steals some money to buy her way to happiness. But any sort of long-term character development is cut short when she’s, you know, cut short a third of the way into the film. From there on, the film is almost completely focused on plot development, showing us Norman Bates’s attempts to hide the evidence while Marion’s sister and boyfriend help a private detective (all three of whom we get to know close to nothing about) unravel the mystery of what happened to our first protagonist.
How come both of those films work? Why do they feel like rich experiences in character psychology even if the main characters don’t grow or change significantly? Well, it’s probably because both of those films do a great job of managing how much we know about their protagonists. We don’t learn everything there is to find out about Clarice Starling during her introductory scene. Instead, the film holds back on a lot, revealing her back-story, her motivations, and her vulnerabilities at a slow drip throughout the entire film. Same with Norman Bates – he largely stays the same, but the film shows us only one side of him at first, keeping the rest cunningly hidden, and unveiling them gradually. At the end of the film the characters haven’t grown an awful lot, but our understanding of them sure has. The fact that both characters are relatively unchanging (which, by the way, is not the same thing as being inactive or uncomplicated) allows the film to send the audience on a different kind of journey. There is a rich viewing experience to be had in the slow unveiling of information about a foreign kind of character, and there’s something undeniably powerful about those moments when you think you’ve understood all there is to know about a character only to have the film prove you wrong by unpacking a new layer of information. In those cases our experience of the characters has undergone an arc, even if the characters themselves haven’t.
There are plenty other alternatives and fringe cases to explore, but I think that by now you’re starting to see that the case for character arcs is not as ironclad as we have all been programmed to believe. Character arcs are not strictly necessary for a satisfactory film viewing experience. Heck, they aren’t even essential for a film to create a compelling character drama.
Which brings us back to Guardians of the Galaxy, our first example of successful, arc-light filmmaking. This film was able to find a positive, enthusiastic audience, but it doesn’t mean that it has been completely beyond any kind of critical reproach. In this piece written for Vox, film and television critic Todd VanDerWerff writes about how much he did enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy, but couldn’t help but feel that the film was bogged down by some major shortcomings. The film’s very affecting opening scene, he writes, is so far apart from its reemergence late in the story that the latter rings emotionally hollow. Large sections of the plot are motivated by haphazard MacGuffin chases and irreverent antics rather than clearly defined character goals. The entire film feels like it’s keeping its plot and its emotional developments in separate spheres, taking turns at each of them rather than making them work in tandem. All of which are absolutely valid, measured criticisms and excellent things to consider.
And then we get to his final summation of the problems with the film:
Let’s put it another way: most traditional narrative storytelling is about characters changing, or at least revealing more of who they really are. How do we see Quill change over the course of Guardians? What more do we learn about him that we don’t already know? And why does he become a man worthy of the title “Guardian of the Galaxy,” beyond simple plot logistics?
Which sounds great, but is any of that really the problem at hand here? Can that hollowness that VanDerWerff felt really be reduced to one big central thing that was missing from the film? Or does it have more to do with the mismanagement (or perhaps “less than completely perfect handling,” depending on where your views on the film fall) of the characters, situations, and themes that are up on the screen? Both approaches are represented in the article, but it’s the latter that offers the truly insightful ideas about Guardians of the Galaxy’s construction.
It’s rare to find a good film that needs help from the rhetoric of conventional wisdom, or one that falls to its pitfalls. Look back on all of the great films that we’ve already touched upon in this article – none of them have any problem asserting their own awesomeness, no matter how little or how much character arcing is in them. It’s when we discuss films’ perceived failings, and try to devise hypothetical solutions, that things get a bit murkier and our tendency to rely on formulas and established templates tends to rear its ugly head. Yes, it’s a fantastic crutch to lean on when we’re trying to hammer down why we reacted a certain way to a film, but we can do better. We can engage directly with what the film is giving us, and see why it works or doesn’t on its own terms. There will definitely be cases where the thing that’s missing from or misfiring in a film is a traditional character arc, but if we just assume that’s something that every movie needs to have we’ll just be stuck having the same conversations about the same stories over and over again.