How to Build a Character Arc From Two Directions


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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

Today’s topic was inspired, as so many are, by a conversation I had with a writer. One of the aspects of his script that we discussed was the character arc and, more broadly, how character arc shows up in a screenplay.

Theory is great, but he wanted to talk about practical application, which is even better!

How does character arc work in a screenplay?

I won’t get too into the theory weeds here since I’ve written about this extensively. But a couple of key points for today’s discussion:

Basically, in Act 2 we need to see the character moving from the old way (the starting point) to the new way (the ending point), as a result of what he’s experiencing in the middle.

But what the writer I spoke with last week wanted to know was, basically:

How do you do that middle part? What does it look like when the plot is forcing (or prompting, if you want to be more gentle about it) the character to change? When the character is gradually transforming before our eyes?

So let’s take a look at how plot affects character in a real world example: Ratatouille!

Character arc starting point and ending point in Ratatouille

I kind of forgot how delightful Ratatouille is. And as you probably already realize, Pixar movies are generally pretty good examples to study. They tend to have a strong, clear structure and do a good job of packing some meaning and emotional punch.

Ultimately Ratatouille is a story about acceptance (both accepting your true self, and the value of finding others who accept you), which gives it lasting resonance. And the character arc is a key part of that meaning coming through.

So in Ratatouille, what do we see at the protagonist’s starting point and ending point?

  • When we meet protagonist Remy we know he’s a rat. But he’s an unusual rat, in that he has a powerful sense of taste and smell and he loves food – the good stuff, not the garbage his rat friends and family are willing to eat.

    He wants more than a typical rat’s life – he wants to create great food. How does he go about it? Secretly, because he knows his family and the world won’t accept it. He believes he can’t be both a rat and a cook.

  • By the end of the movie, Remy is both a rat and a cook! His family accepts it, enough humans accept it, and the world acknowledges that he can do it.

But in order for Remy to achieve this, a couple of things had to change:

First, Remy has to embrace the thematic lesson, summed up in his idol’s catchphrase, “anyone can cook.” Talent can come from anywhere if we’re open to it. To look at it from another angle, no one is unworthy. So be your true self.

We can see that Remy needs this lesson at the start of the story, because if he doesn’t accept it and act accordingly, he will always reject a part of himself. And then he’ll never fulfill his greatest passion and purpose in life. (This can be a tough type of stakes to pull off, but Pixar does it well. We’re rooting for Remy to get his chance to cook because we know what it means to him.)

Second, the world had to change a little bit. And throughout the movie we see that Remy’s talent is able to open the minds of enough people to make a go of it.

The struggle of change

If we look at Remy’s overall transformation we can break it down into two main components, and these are sort of the two main things we see happening across Act 2:

  • Remy and a human named Linguini work together, building trust and bridging the gap between humans and rats.
  • Remy cooks over and over again and his talent is undeniable, both to himself and to those around him. He was born to do this, even if he is a rat.

Both of these components inform the change within Remy as well as the change in the world around him. So those are the broad strokes of the change, and if you look at individual scenes you can track the progression of these two things:

  • We see Remy and Linguini strike a partnership, figure out how to physically work together, come to rely on each other, etc. Their relationship deconstructs the idea that there’s an irreconcilable divide between humans and rats.

    And in smaller moments, too, we see things like Linguini making Remy promise not to steal food anymore. This is a key characteristic of his rat brethren, so giving it up pushes Remy further away from the “old” identity.

    But we also see challenges to this change! It’s not smooth sailing from starting point to ending point. That would be boring, as well as less meaningful. So we see Remy’s family challenge the “new” version of him, and remind him of the danger humans pose to rats and how they really think of rats. And we see this demonstrated in Remy’s interactions with the world outside the restaurant, too.

  • Second, Remy cooks and cooks and impresses everyone around him. We see just how undeniable his talent is, and therefore how deserving of recognition he is, and what a loss it would be if he wasn’t allowed to cook.

    First, a restaurant critic and the chefs in the kitchen all like his soup. This chips away at the belief that he can’t or shouldn’t cook.

    Linguini is impressed with Remy’s omelette. A small moment, but it all adds to that cumulative effect.

    Head chef and main antagonist Skinner admits that Linguini (really Remy, unbeknownst to anyone else) has duplicated his successful soup – it’s not just a fluke.

    Skinner sets Linguini up to fail, but Remy’s talent is too great and he manages to turn a failed recipe into a winning dish.

    And on and on until the final challenge: the restaurant critic who hastened the demise of Remy’s chef idol, Gusteau. Remy must impress him in order to save the restaurant but he’s abandoned by all the other chefs. So what happens? The rat clan jumps in to help – they’re not cooks, but Remy can command them to victory. It’s the ultimate test to prove he is a chef and a rat, and that he accepts both parts of himself. And as a capper to this final battle, Remy will have to expose his true identity and see if Ego – and the world – can accept it.

Think of transformation as two simultaneous actions

When you break down how a character arc happens, what you come up with is movement in two directions at the same time.

What we see as a transformation is both deconstruction and reconstruction.

It’s how the events and experiences are forcing the protagonist to question, re-evaluate, and let go of the “old” way or identity, and then to see, accept, and embrace the “new” way.

Or think of it as deconstructing the “old me” and reconstructing the character’s point of view, life philosophy, or way of being and doing. Constructing a “new me” that we see by the end of the movie.

In Ratatouille, we see Remy’s “old” belief that he can’t be both a rat and a cook deconstructed, as well as the pervasive believe in the rat community that humans are dangerous and could never see rats as anything more.

At the same time, we see Remy’s “new” way take its place: he works with humans, he grows to trust some of them. And he begins to see himself as a real chef, but he also accepts that he’s a rat too — just a different kind of rat.

As you’re planning out the deconstruction and reconstruction within your character, remember to create conflict in both of these directions. It means more when the character has to work for their aha! moment and their ultimate transformation.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.