Building Believable Character Arcs
Download a copy of the screenplay, “A Girl Named Trouble.”
Characters in a story follow an arc. They start as one thing, and then become another over time. Some characters arc more than others. But since this story takes place in 24 hours, I knew most of the arcs weren’t going to be dramatic. But there is movement. I know – because I charted it before I started writing.
Characters don’t go all the way from good to bad, or bad to good, all at once. There are lots of steps in between to get them there. Diagraming those steps to their ultimate destination keeps your characters authentic and motivated. Taking too many steps is boring. Jumping ahead too fast is literally referred to as jumping the arc.
Let’s go through an example in the screenplay “A Girl Named Trouble,” so you can see what I did.
Kong is a company man.
At the beginning of the story he does not question Mr. Jace
We see that Kong has boundaries when he’s asked to burn down the mortuary and is resistant, but he ultimately concedes
Kong is angry about his men being shot, but takes no action
He insults Cane behind his back
Kong develops his own agenda for getting the money back
Kong plans to kill Cane without discussing it with Mr. Jace
He asks if Mr. Jace was the one who screwed up the doping job
Sometimes You Don’t Need a Whole Scene
Look at what Kong is doing at the end of the story, compared to the beginning. He has an arc. It’s motivated. I spent a single day checking to see that all my main characters had solid arcs. Sometimes it came down to adding scenes or little parts of scenes to move the character. For example, I added a mini-scene on page 55 that sets up a big confrontation between Cane and Calix Jace. But the added value of the scene is Kong telling Etano that he hates Cane.
After I had every character moving at a realistic pace through their arc, I felt safe to being writing the story.
The Trouble with Trouble’s Arc
I believed Roman was getting to her, but every time I tried to push the relationship further, it felt forced. I like where it landed. I was sure Trouble was never going to jump in the sack with Roman. She has too many issues to overcome too quickly. Plus, they’re constantly on the run. So my goal from the start was to have her begrudgingly admit she might be falling for him.
When offered a choice, she kept moving toward Roman. She told the cop Roman was her boyfriend, even though it was probably a lie. The date in exchange for the money was Roman’s idea, but she started warming to the idea. And after her fate was sealed, she took Kong’s offer to save Roman’s life. She was moving along a very short arc.
Armed with the necessary preparation, I advanced to the next step. Next week: It’s time to start writing the story.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.