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Character Arc and Theme

An answer key

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Maybe you’ve heard the old adage that people don’t change until it’s too painful to stay the same? Neither do the characters in our screenplays.

That’s basically how character arc works: a character with some “unhealthy” or “flawed” behavior goes through a particular set of plot experiences, which force him to change by making that behavior too painful to maintain.

And, as we talked about last week, understanding the crux of that transformation points us to the story’s theme. Character arc and theme work in tandem and when we’re analyzing a story, we can look at them together to understand how that story conveys its meaning to the audience.

So this week let’s take a closer look through the case study example of Absolute Power, written by the legendary William Goldman and based on the novel by David Baldacci.

Finding the character arc and theme: a quick recap

There are three basic questions we can use when analyzing a script to identify the character arc and theme:

1. How does the character change?
2. How do the events of the story cause that change?
3. What is the resulting takeaway message?

These questions seem simple, but they get at what makes the story meaningful.

Often, at the beginning of a story, the character has some kind of flawed worldview. You might think of it as a lie they’re telling themselves. Or a character flaw or deficit. That’s their starting point. Over the course of the story they’ll have to confront and alter that behavior.

That’s because the events of this story make staying the same too painful. When we meet the character, that flawed behavior isn’t serving them, but they don’t realize it or aren’t yet ready to admit it.

The specific experience the character goes through in this story is what causes the transformation. That clear cause-and-effect is important for conveying meaning. If we can’t see or understand how this set of experiences is the reason for the change the character undergoes, the character arc won’t feel organic and the story won’t land with the impact you intend.

And then ultimately that change or transformation and the reason it happens sends the audience a message. How and why the change occurs gives a lesson or insight about life – how to be a healthier, happier, or “better” person.

Finding character arc and theme in Absolute Power

SPOILERS, by the way!

In this screenplay the protagonist is Luther, a burglar who witnesses a murder and must go on the run from the high-powered perpetrators of the crime.

1. How does the character change?

Luther starts the movie as a loner. He has one sort-of friend, and his only family is a daughter who barely speaks to him. Luther’s ex-wife has passed away, but even with only one parent left his daughter still won’t forgive him for choosing a life of crime over his family.

When he accidentally witnesses a murder while mid-burgle, Luther does nothing to help or to stop it. To borrow from another (iconic) movie, Luther doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.

But what’s more important to note in terms of his character arc is why he does it, what is important to him.

So what is he serving with this “flawed” behavior?

What’s important to him is how his daughter sees him. Years ago, he stopped working with partners because working alone was the only way he could ensure he wouldn’t get caught. He never did time again and since then he’s been able to “pass” as an upstanding citizen.

When Luther doesn’t help the murder victim, it’s not because he doesn’t care about other people. It’s just more important to him not to get caught and then seen as a criminal.

By the end of the movie he’s willing to risk his daughter knowing the truth, because it’s more important for him to do the right thing. Namely, make a powerful bad guy pay for his actions.

2. How do the events of the story cause that change?

The big bad guy in this movie is the President of the United States. A philandering, violent sociopath (imo) who attempted to murder the victim during a tryst. But the woman turned the tables and was about to kill him, until the Secret Service shot her to protect the President. Luther witnessed all of this. (Act 1)

So Luther prepares to skip town. But over the course of the story, he sees the President exploiting the victim’s grieving widow for his own political gain. And, what’s worse, the President claims the widow as a close friend and even credits his help with getting the President elected in the first place. Everyone thinks the President is a great guy, but Luther knows the truth.

This really makes Luther angry. So angry he realizes he can’t run. He must stay and make this right even if it puts him in danger. Even if his daughter will think poorly of him. It becomes more important not to let the President get away with it than to stay off everyone’s radar.

3. What is the resulting takeaway message?

If we look to the lesson Luther learns from his experience, we see that it’s about doing the right thing even at personal risk or sacrifice. Sure, there’s the idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely embedded there too. (“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.“) But we have to take that in along with the change in Luther’s attitude and behavior in order to interpret the working theme.

Looking at the character arc and the lesson learned, we get something a bit more focused or precise. Something about how actions are the true measure of a man.

Or maybe the pithier version: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Final takeaways

The exercises in this series are intended to help you read to learn. That means reading screenplays analytically, examining and processing what you’re consuming. Always asking yourself, “Does it work? If so, how? If not, why not – what’s missing?

Character arc and theme work together to convey the story’s meaning. But identifying them is just one part of the equation. Maybe the most important question when thinking about character arc and theme is, “Did it resonate?

A particular story will affect different people differently, and you may not connect with Absolute Power even if you can see exactly how the machine is put together. So a question for you this week:

What recent movies have made you truly FEEL something? Whether you know yet how they work, what the theme is, or if it’s all a beautiful mystery. I just want to know which movies (especially recent ones!) have really moved you.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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.

Subscribe