Learn an organized method for getting your screenplay on the page!Find out more
Outlining workshop starting soon!

blog

A simple way to plan character arc in your screenplay

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

Subscribe
screenwriting blog post

There’s a lot of screenwriting information that focuses on how to plot a plot – as in, the events of the script – but far less information on how to plot a character arc. Yet the main character’s arc is where a lot of the story’s emotional impact is conveyed. Seems like a good reason to pay a little more attention to character arc.

So let’s finally talk about what a character arc is and how you can plot one out in a way that’s pretty painless (for you, that is; your character is in for some growth).

What is a character arc?

A character arc is the inner journey or transformation of a character over the course of a story. Very simply, a character may start out as one sort of person and gradually transform into a different sort of person as they experience the events of the plot. In that way, plot and character arc should go hand-in-hand.

Do all protagonists arc? No.

But I think if you look closely you’ll see that most do. Most main characters change in some way, even if it’s small. Movies are about transformative experiences, and most often we gauge the impact of the story’s events by how the protagonist has been affected. (Sometimes the world and/or other characters are changed instead.)

Creating a character arc

When we’re planning out a character arc it’s easier to start big picture, just like when we’re working out the plot. Start high level and then drill down layer by layer until every scene is in place.

So the simple, 40,000-foot view of your character’s arc is this:

[Character’s starting point]

…but he would be happier if…

[Character’s ending point.]

  • The character’s starting point: an attitude or behavior that is getting in the way of the character’s happiness, even if she doesn’t see it that way, and
  • The character’s ending point: what shift in attitude or behavior the character could experience that would allow her to be happier, even a little bit.

Fill in the blanks and you’ll have the big picture character arc to guide you as you work out the details.

Here’s an example:

Erin Brockovich is brash and abrasive because she feels judged and dismissed by others…

…but she would be happier if…

… she stopped being so defensive and used that fighting spirit to defend the mistreated and downtrodden.

Does it seem too simple? Hang on – this is just the high-level view, remember. In the next section we’ll get more granular.

Character arc next steps

We all know growth doesn’t happen in an instant. Your next step, then, is breaking the simple character arc into stages of change.

To use the Erin Brockovich example we started above, we might expand that character arc to four main phases:

1. When we meet Erin, she is brash and abrasive because she feels judged and dismissed by others.

2. Erin uses those skills to help a group of people almost single-handedly, which gives her a sense of accomplishment.

3. Erin has a hard time working with others, which threatens the success of the case.

4. Erin recognizes her own prejudices, and re-directs her energy to defending the mistreated and downtrodden.

Still keeping it simple, but we want to describe how the character moves from her starting point to her ending point. Erin wants to win the case but the “brash and abrasive” qualities she brings into the story get in the way. She must adjust if she wants to succeed.

We know people don’t change until they have to — until staying the same becomes more painful than doing something different. And that’s what we see in movies, too: mounting pressure bears down on the character until, finally, it hurts too much and the better option is to adjust.

Note: planning out how the plot and the character arc work together isn’t a linear process. You might sketch out a rough character arc and use it to brainstorm events that could occur in the plot. You might have the broad strokes of the plot worked out, and then start creating a character arc that fits within those events. And more likely, you’ll have a bit of each and go back and forth, weaving them together until they’re one fabric.

Taking the Erin Brockovich example, for a next step I might start filling in things that could happen in each of the four phases:

1. When we meet Erin, she is brash and abrasive because she feels judged and dismissed by others.

– Erin gets a new job and has a hard time fitting in.

2. Erin uses those skills to help a group of people almost single-handedly, which gives her a sense of accomplishment.

– Seeing others mistreated makes Erin want to get involved.
– Her brash personality comes in handy, as she doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
– When big corporation PG&E tries to obstruct her investigation, Erin continues to fight for the little guy.

3. Erin has a hard time working with others, which threatens the success of the case.

– Erin becomes so invested in the case and what it represents that she becomes territorial.
– As the case gets bigger, fancier lawyers are brought in to help. Feeling dismissed like before, Erin becomes defensive and abrasive again and won’t help them.

4. Erin recognizes her own prejudices, and re-directs her energy to defending the mistreated and downtrodden.

– Erin realizes she is guilty of her own prejudices and that’s getting in the way of her goal.
– Erin recommits herself to the case and wins in the end.
– We see she’s still the same Erin with a fighting spirit, but she’s more confident in her own worth which allows her to focus on defending others.

You can see the story taking shape – some plot events are emerging, some character moments too.

From there, could you weave in the major plot points? Could you continue to brainstorm more specific ways to poke at your character’s starting point weakness? Could you break the character arc into even more granular steps? Yes, yes, and yes.

And before you know it, you’re on your way to an outline that maps out both plot and character arc.

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

Subscribe