How to Get Big Impact From Small Character Arcs


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting
screenwriting blog article

Does a character have to change?

When people talk about character arc, it’s often in regard to some pronounced behavioral flaw that a character exhibits, and the way the character overcomes or corrects that flaw by the end of the story.

While stories are about change, that specific kind of character arc isn’t the only kind of transformation available for your story-building needs. The world around the character can change. Another character (often representing the audience’s point of view) can be transformed by what they witness in the story. Or a story could deal with the transformation of the main character’s worldview.

Even seemingly small changes can impact us greatly, maybe more so than huge 180-degree changes in character. Because the smaller shifts feel more realistic, attainable, and relatable. When a character gains a hard-won new understanding that helps them lead a better or more fulfilling life, it can be emotionally engaging – no matter how small the actual change.

Character arc in Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (written by Taylor Sheridan) is an interesting example to look at (and happens to be one of my favorite screenplays and movies of the year). At first glance, it might appear that the main character doesn’t have a real character arc. And it’s true – he doesn’t start out with an identifiable flaw that’s preventing him from attaining self-actualization. He doesn’t miraculously overcome that flaw, redeem himself, and ride into the sunset a changed man.

But just because that larger-than-life change doesn’t happen, doesn’t mean the character is completely unchanged by the story.

In the case of main character Toby Hanson (played by Chris Pine), the change we see is subtle, and it’s perhaps not even one that would be considered healthy or positive.  Still, I think it makes the story effective. Let’s see if you agree.

Note: It can be difficult to isolate one element of a story because often — especially in really good scripts — everything is interrelated. But I’m going to try here to focus only on Toby’s character arc, and leave discussions of theme and story stakes and other characters for another time.

Act one

In Act 1, we receive several clues that paint a picture of the starting point of Toby Hanson’s arc.

In the very first scene, before we even know who he is, we see that he is kinder than his brother, Tanner (played by Ben Foster) while they rob their first bank. Toby stays calm and focused on the goal, where Tanner is temperamental and tends toward violence.

When, in the next scene, we are properly introduced, it’s with this description:

TOBY HANSON, late 30’s, a kind face marked by years of sun and disappointment, rides shotgun. It’s not the face of a thief, it is the face of a farmer.

As they make their getaway, the brothers’ interaction and the contrast between them tells us how each one sees the world, as in this exchange:

TOBY: You need to go a little easier on the tellers.
TANNER: I go as easy on them as they go on me.

They may be united in mission, but their philosophies conflict. Toby wants no one to be harmed by their actions, Tanner is willing to meet force with force.

Where brother Tanner is almost manic with adrenaline, Toby is practically praying not to get caught. He tells Tanner, “Plannin’ this and doin’ it’s two different things,” almost as if he can hardly believe he is doing it.

Later, at their childhood home, we learn that their father was a violent, abusive man. Tanner says his reaction to that violence – fighting back — was the cause of the rift between Tanner and their now-deceased mother:

TANNER: Mama was like a dog that got kicked every time it was fed. After a while she started to think the beatin’ was part of the meal. Hated me fer knowin’ the difference.

And Toby’s response encapsulates his worldview:

TOBY: That’s not it.
TOBY: It’s cuz you never understood that fighting back just makes the beating last longer.

Up to now, it seems Toby’s life strategy has been to take what comes and ride it out. Even in the midst of a bank-robbing spree, it’s pretty clear he’s doing it out of necessity, not out of thrill-seeking or fantasies of living the high life. Comparing the philosophies of his mother and his brother, Toby is clearly more aligned with his mother at this point; he’s beginning the journey with the attitude that this is how one survives.

We also learn here that Tanner killed their father to make the beatings stop, which shows us how following Tanner’s philosophy plays out: a fight to the death.

We get one more hint at Toby’s attitude in an exchange with diner waitress Jenny Ann who, in flirting with him, asks what he does for a living. Toby explains, “Last job was for a natural gas company,” but implies he’s out of work now.

JENNY ANN: Well, they’re sure drilling for oil. Ain’t one drill the same as the next?

TOBY: That’s my take on it. Now I just gotta convince someone else to believe me.

Even if he’s not telling her the whole truth about his situation, his worldview still informs the dialogue. Here it conveys his attitude of being at the mercy of the system, the people who are running things.

Then, at the end of Act 1, the difficulty and the danger involved in their endeavor both ramp up. In Act 2, we’ll see how the struggle to survive becomes more urgent, immediate, and how it changes Toby into someone who is willing to fight to the death for his survival and the survival of his sons.

Act two

The first real arc-related beat we see is when Toby beats up some young punks at a gas station who are threatening Tanner at gunpoint. And while this might seem out of place in his emerging character arc, I think it nicely show us that Toby has it in him to fight back when absolutely necessary. In this case, his brother is staring down the barrel of a gun; the danger is immediate. We see that Toby is capable of reacting to it in defense of his brother’s life (and also that Toby has some fight in him that we were previously unaware of, and which Tanner comments on in this scene).

Then, at approximately the midpoint, Toby meets with lawyer (and childhood friend) Billy, who’s advising Toby in the matter of saving his mother’s farm (which is now his after her death, and soon to be put in trust for his sons) from foreclosure – which is the purpose of the bank-robbing spree. We finally see their entire plan laid out. Billy gives a great speech when asked why he’s taking on the risk of helping, and his answer also subtly informs us of Toby’s arc:

BILLY: It’s the insult of it. That ranch is worth a half million without the oil, but they loaned the least they could get away with, just enough to keep your mama poor, on a guaranteed return. Thought they could swipe that land from you boys and suck on that oil for twenty five thousand dollars. It’s just so arrogant it makes my teeth hurt … To watch you pay those bastards with their own money … (He laughs at the thought) If that ain’t Texan I don’t know what is.

So Billy re-frames for us the change that’s occurring in Toby. He’ll no longer simply accept what’s being done to him and wait for the beating to end. Now he’s tapping into his “Texan” spirit and fighting back. (If you’ve seen it, you know the film is a love letter to West Texas and the people there.)

Notice that Toby isn’t the one making a big deal of it here (or even articulating it). He doesn’t do anything in the scene to confirm Billy’s assessment, which – if you think about it from a story mechanics point of view – makes a lot of sense. If, at this point in the story, Toby was already being gung-ho and shouting about how he was sticking it to the man, it wouldn’t feel like he had any more emotional ground to cover. It would take a lot of the tension out of watching him complete the journey.

A few scenes later, Toby goes to visit his sons (only one of whom turns out to be home). We know from the earlier diner scene that Toby hasn’t seen them for about a year. We also know (from the same early conversation) that this entire bank-robbing spree may very well be a suicide mission.

In this scene, Toby makes amends and prepares to perhaps never see his son again.

TOBY: You and Randy ain’t gonna have to worry about money no more.

He looks at his boy.

TOBY: You’re gonna hear a lot of things about me … And your uncle. Don’t be like us. Be smart. Look out for your brother.

Justin nods.

JUSTIN: Whatever I hear I won’t believe.
TOBY: Believe it. Cuz I did all of it. Now you do it different.

Then, a moment later:

TOBY: If I’m not sitting here with you on Friday, tell her everything I just said, okay?

Whereas earlier he told Tanner, “When we’re done with this, I’ll see ‘em every day.” Here he’s instructing his son on what to do when he’s gone. It’s the first time he’s really outwardly acknowledged that possibility, perhaps indicating he finally understands it. This sets up the coming choice he’ll face.

Afterward, back at the farmhouse, Toby and Tanner share a moment:

TANNER: This is a good thing you’re doing. You know that?
TOBY: We’re doing it.

This shows the subtlest shifts in attitude. Here, Toby aligns himself with Tanner; they’re doing this together. This is different from earlier scenes where they were much more at odds in attitude and philosophy, even though they were partnered in action.

The next day they continue on to the last leg of their spree. Through a series of events, they decide to rob a branch that’s unfamiliar to them, and which is larger and busier than any of their previous banks.

It’s crowded with people, impossible to control. Gunfire breaks out, at least two are killed, and Toby takes a bullet before they escape, chased by an angry mob of armed civilians.

At the start of the movie, Toby was very concerned about getting in and getting out with as little impact as possible on the innocent people they had to cross paths with. He told Tanner to “go easy on them.” So this represents another change, another contrast. To survive, you can’t be everyone’s friend. Survival sometimes means making enemies (just as Tanner did with his mother, a nice echo). And for one to survive, it’s likely another must be hurt or killed.

The moment of truth

Toward the end of the second act, we often see the theme reflected back to the main character. This enables him to make his climactic decision, which is often a choice that shows us the character deciding what type of person he wants to be or otherwise demonstrating what he’s learned from this journey. He can then fight his final battle in Act 3, armed with his new, hard-won knowledge.

So the moment of truth toward the end of Act 2 is where we get maybe my favorite line of this movie. Toby is ready to give in. He’s been shot, they’re being chased by everybody. They’re going to get caught – it’s inevitable. He tells Tanner they’re done. Tanner rallies him (like a good “mentor” character will do), saying:

TANNER: You want to be anything but a black mark on your sons then I need you mountain lion mean.

Which, in my opinion, perfectly sums up the movie. (And, okay, the delivery is fantastic and key.)

So this calls Toby to make a choice: lay down and take his beating (as he would have in the past), letting his sons bear the shame and the effects of his failure, or get “mountain lion mean” and fight to the death, for his and his kids’ survival.

Toby decides he’ll see it through to the end. The brothers soon split up, with Tanner taking on the big action finale. Toby’s role is quieter, but vital to bring about the successful completion of the journey.

Ultimately, has Toby changed?

In the final scene, Toby at last comes face to face with Marcus, the Ranger who’s been pursuing him (played by Jeff Bridges).

In this scene, Toby has to accept the consequences of his efforts to survive – Marcus reminds him that four people died because of what he started; even if he didn’t kill them himself, it was what he put into motion that caused it. Toby’s response reveals his new attitude. He accepts what he’s done, what must be done, to ensure the survival of his kids.

TOBY: I been poor my whole life. So were my parents, and their parents before ‘em … Like a disease, passed from generation to generation. And that’s what it becomes, a sickness … Infecting every person you know … But not my boys. Not anymore. This is theirs now. Ain’t no advice you can give a child these days. No lessons. No love. Nothing that can guarantee they have a chance at life, but money. I hate that the world’s come to this, but it has. And I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me different … I never killed anyone in my life, but if you want me to start with you, let’s get on with it, old man. See if you can get that pistol from your boot before I blast you off this porch.

They hold each other’s gaze, no surrender in either man’s eyes, but no anger either, just the grim acceptance that it had to be this way.

A moment later, the conversation has been interrupted by the arrival of Toby’s ex-wife, Debbie, and their sons. But Toby doesn’t take the out that this provides him, unlike what he probably would have done in the past. He goes on the offensive, offers a final challenge to Marcus:

TOBY: You know, I’m renting a little house in town. If you wanna come by and finish our conversation … You’re welcome anytime.

Transformation can be small or subtle. It can be a character learning a lesson, or discovering a changed worldview. And it doesn’t have to be a value shift that everyone would choose. Here, Toby has embraced his Texan spirit. He’s fought to survive. He’s learned what it means, and he’s accepted how he’ll approach life going forward.

How did they do that?

Without laying down hard-and-fast rules about how you must show a character’s arc, I think it’s useful to examine how this particular character arc (or any one that you feel is effective) has been put together. What information was given to create that intended effect?

Act 1: We get a solid sense of the character: who Toby is, how he interacts with the world, his point of view on life. In this case, we’re shown the contrast between where he is now and an alternative point of view (Tanner’s), another possibility should Toby choose to make a change.

Act 2: We see the potential in Toby, and the beginning of his change as he’s essentially given permission to transform (by Tanner, and then Billy). We see Toby acknowledging the stakes and the potential consequences of completing this journey. And we see Toby aligning himself with the alternative point of view; his change progresses.

Then Toby is tested. The biggest challenge yet, his worst case scenario come to life, and his low point. He’s faced with a choice: give up, or fight back. Which kind of person does he want to be?

Act 3: He’s made his choice, he finishes the journey, accepting the steep costs (losing his brother; the loss of innocent lives, which is the cost of survival). And in a final confrontation, we see proof of who Toby is now: willing to stand his ground, willing to fight for his survival and that of his sons.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Did this movie affect you?

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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.