What is a Character Arc? Definition and Examples from Film

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A character arc is a character’s transformation or inner journey throughout a story. It often involves significant changes in the character’s beliefs, personality, or behavior, reflecting their growth, maturation, or decline. However, some character arcs are flat, meaning the character is constant, and the environment and surrounding characters change. Character arcs add emotional depth to characters and help drive conflict. They work best when they reflect real human experiences so that we can mirror ourselves with the characters on screen.

There are three primary character arcs: positive, negative, and flat. They cover every character in any story ever written. Besides these, there are secondary arcs you use when you want to become more specific. I’ll get back to these.

Character arcs are useful when analyzing movies and writing screenplays.

Positive Character Arc

Positive Character Arc

A Positive Change Arc involves a character starting with flaws or limitations and growing to overcome them by the end of the story. They often gain new strengths or insights that help them achieve their goals.

Examples of positive character arcs from movies

Below are a few examples of movies where the protagonist goes through a positive change.

  • Rocky (1976) – Rocky Balboa evolves from a small-time boxer to a self-confident athlete who proves his worth.
  • The Lion King (1994) – Simba overcomes his past and accepts his destiny as king, bringing peace to the Pride Lands.
  • A Beautiful Mind (2001) – John Nash battles schizophrenia and eventually triumphs, making significant contributions to mathematics.
  • The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Chris Gardner rises from homelessness to achieve success and provide a better life for his son.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – Pat Solitano works through his mental health struggles and finds love and stability.

Negative Character Arc

Negative Character Arc

In a Negative Change Arc, a character begins with potential or positive traits but deteriorates throughout the story, often due to poor decisions or external pressures.

Examples of negative character arcs from movies

Below are a few examples of movies where the protagonist goes through a negative change.

  • Scarface (1983) – Tony Montana starts with ambitions of power and wealth but spirals into violence and paranoia, leading to his downfall.
  • Taxi Driver (1976) – Travis Bickle becomes increasingly unstable and violent, culminating in a tragic end.
  • The Godfather (1972) – Michael Corleone transforms from a reluctant family outsider to a ruthless mafia boss, losing his soul in the process.
  • Black Swan (2010) – Nina Sayers’ obsessive pursuit of perfection in ballet leads her into paranoia and self-destruction.
  • Nightcrawler (2014) – Lou Bloom becomes a successful yet morally corrupt videographer, showing the dark side of ambition and ethics in journalism.

Flat Character Arc

Flat Character Arc

A Flat Arc features a character who remains largely unchanged throughout the story, but their steadfastness influences the world and other characters around them.

Examples of flat character arcs from movies

Below are a few examples of movies where the protagonist doesn’t change from beginning to end.

  • Forrest Gump (1994) – Forrest’s consistent innocence and integrity impact those around him, even though he remains the same.
  • Dr. No (1962) – James Bond remains confident and unyielding in his mission.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Indiana Jones stays courageous and determined.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Max Rockatansky maintains his survivalist mentality.
  • The Terminator (1984) – The Terminator stays relentless and focused on its mission.
  • Wonder Woman (2017) – Diana Prince remains steadfast in her beliefs and commitment.
  • John Wick (2014) – John Wick consistently seeks vengeance without changing his core values.

Secondary Character Arcs

Of course, you can become more specific when describing a character’s arc in a story. Secondary arcs include…

  • transformational (fx Seth Brundle in The Fly. Also, superhero origin stories)
  • corruption (fx Michael Corleone in Godfather)
  • coming-of-age (fx William Miller in Almost Famous)
  • redemption (fx Derek Vinyard in American History X)
  • disillusionment (fx Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane)

…to name but a few. As you can see, these all fit within the three primary categories. Fx, a redemption arc is positive, a corruption arc is negative, and a coming-of-age arc can be both (while Almost Famous ends on a positive beat, Stephen King’s Carrie is a negative arc).

How different character arcs can drive conflict

Most good stories blend different character arcs and archetypes, making the plot more interesting.

In the simplest form, the protagonist might follow a positive arch, the antagonist a negative arch, and the supporting characters a flat arch, creating conflict. However, to make the narrative more interesting and create subplots, supporting characters often follow positive and negative arcs or arcs that follow both positive and negative trajectories.

Take Star Wars as an example. Luke Skywalker (the Hero archetype) follows the traditional positive arc from farm boy to Jedi Knight and savior.

Luke must battle Darth Vader, who follows a negative character arc as the dark side corrupts the young, innocent boy Anakin Skywalker. Anakin redeems himself at the end, creating a positive twist to his arc. This drives the main conflict and plot in the series.

On a deeper level is the conflict between good and evil embodied by Yoda and Darth Sidious, two constants with flat arcs. Palpatine’s arc only follows a negative one on the surface as he goes from coveted senator to emperor. But underneath, he has been pure evil Darth Sidious all the time.

Summing Up

A character arc is a character’s transformation or inner journey throughout a story. This progression often involves growth, change, or self-discovery, and it is driven by the plot’s events and challenges. On the other hand, character arcs also help drive the plot and narrative forward. So it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Character arcs help create depth to characters, let us see ourselves in the characters on screen, and help drive conflict in the narrative.

Up Next: Case Study: How character arcs drive conflict in Harry Potter.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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