Character arc seems to be a particularly confusing area for many screenwriters. In this post we’re going to complete demystify how to build a strong character arc, through expressing the theme and their wants and needs.
As you probably know, the typical character arc definition just means the journey the protagonist takes through the script from damaged, flawed individual to more-rounded, wise individual by the end.
The protagonist may go through several character arcs, but in this post we’ll be focusing on the one main big one that characterizes their true growth throughout the film.
Basic Character Arc Terms Demystified
This journey through the character arc is varyingly referred to as:
Conscious Desire and Unconscious Desire
Outer Goal and Inner Goal
Want and Need
Basically they all mean the same thing. In the examples above, the protagonist’s character arc can be expressed as either going from them focusing on an outer goal to an inner goal, a conscious desire to an unconscious desire, or from a want to a need.
At the beginning of the film, we see what the hero’s outer goal / conscious desire / want is: to win the race, catch the bad guys, steal the diamond etc.
But by the end of the film we (and they) see what their inner goal / unconscious desire, need is: to reconnect with their son, fall in love, find themselves, etc.
This transformation is the basis of their character arc.
In this post we’re going to stick to the term conscious and unconscious desire as we think this best describes the protagonist’s states of mind.
Character Arc And Main Plot vs Sub Plot
The character arc can also be broken down into the main plot and sub plot goals.
At the beginning of the movie they are consumed by the main plot — the goal they think they want, and battle fiercely throughout the film to achieve.
By the end of the movie they are consumed by the subplot — the goal they really wanted all along but just don’t know it. By the end, the unconscious desire trumps the conscious desire and the protagonist ends up with what they need, not what they want.
When they start out on their journey at the beginning of the film, they are completely unaware of the sub plot that will eventually change them.
Usually because they’re yet to meet the sub plot character who kicks this change into action and awakens their unconscious desire, but we’ll go into more detail about this later when we look at examples from a couple of movies.
Character Arc And Screenplay Structure
In a well written screenplay, the protagonist’s character arc should turn at the same moments the overall structure turns, on key plot points.
Let’s take a look at each of these key turning points and how they relate to the hero’s character arc, conscious desire and unconscious desire. (There are more plot points than this in a screenplay but we’re just going to stick to the biggest, most well known ones for simplicity.)
Inciting Incident: The protagonist is usually a flawed individual, completely consumed by their conscious desires. They think they know what they want and they’re sticking to it. In other words, they’re holding on to old, flawed behaviors for protection so they won’t get hurt again like they were in the past.
Call to Action: At around twelve minutes into the film, something happens that rocks the protagonist’s world out of all recognition. They’re still completely consumed by their conscious desire, however, and cling on to it for dear life just to survive.
Act 1 Turning Point: At this point, the hero has to make a decision on what to do about the Call to Action and other calamitous plot points that have occurred during Act 1. But, because they’re still ruled by their conscious desire at this point. the decision they make here is invariably, the wrong one.
Midpoint: As the protagonist staggers into Act 2, they set about trying to solve the problem established in Act 1. Their conscious desire is to take the path of least resistance — the easiest route possible. But when they arrive at the Midpoint, they’re hit by another major blow. A blow so big their unconscious desire is finally awakened. They will never be the same person again.
Act 2 Turning Point: The protagonist battles their way through the second half of Act 2 with their unconscious desire growing louder and louder with every passing scene. But just when we think they’ve actually woken up and shaken off their old conscious desire, it rears its ugly head to mess things up for them at the Act 2 Turning Point. They revert to their old way of thinking — their old flaw — and all seems lost.
Climax: At the beginning of Act 3, the hero has a revelation — a lightbulb goes off in their head — as finally they realize they can’t ignore their unconscious desire any longer. Now the race is on to the Climax so they can finally prove to the stakes character that they’ve finally learnt their lesson. Their character arc from a flawed individual driven by their conscious desire to wiser individual driven by their unconscious desire, is complete.
Comedies And Dramas Are Easiest Way Of Explaining Character Arc
Action Adventures, Thrillers and Horrors often have protagonists whose main goal is simply to survive or save the world. They’re often plot based rather than character based stories. Hence the best way to get to grips with character arc and character development is by studying Comedies and Dramas.
That’s not to say that this information is only relevant to Comedy and Drama writers. Far from it. The best Action Adventures, Thrillers and Horrors are those that have injected a strong character arc into their protagonists.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones starts the film as greedy and self-centered, but by the end has renounced these attributes for a quieter life with Marion.
In Taken, Bryan starts off as a disconnected, aloof dad, but ends the movie as a proper father again to his daughter Kim.
Character development is not the paramount pulling power in these movies, however. Compare their Indy and Bryan’s character arcs to John’s in Wedding Crashers.
At the start of Wedding Crashers, John goes along with Jeremy’s plan to crash weddings and get laid. This is his conscious desire.
They crash the Cleary wedding and by the midpoint it’s clear John is falling for Claire. His experiences with her make his unconscious desire come to the fore — he realizes he doesn’t want to mess around anymore but actually needs to settle down and fall in love.
But after the Midpoint, John hasn’t completely shed his old way of life and conscious desire. He still lies to Claire, and to himself about what he really wants. This, of course, comes back to haunt him when Claire finds out the truth.
This loss causes John to realize the errors of his ways and to finally change. His unconscious desire trumps his conscious desire and by Act 3 he will do anything to win Claire back.
Miles’s Character Development And Arc In Sideways
Let’s use Sideways as another example. We’ve chosen this film as it’s a great character study, with elements of both comedy and drama and seriously strong character arc.
Firstly, just what are Miles’s conscious and unconscious desires?
Miles’s Conscious Desire: To just relax on the road trip and get back with Victoria
Miles’s Unconscious Desire: To move on and get together with Maya
Okay, so now let’s take a look at how these two desires clash at each of the screenplay’s major turning points so you can see how the protagonist’s character arc changes within the elements of 3 act structure.
The Inciting Incident and set-up of a movie needs to quickly get across to the reader your hero’s flawed condition.
In the opening scenes of Sideways, we briefly see Miles and the state his life is in as ruled by his conscious desire. He’s middle aged, living alone and hung-over (again.) Basically, he’s stuck in the hole his conscious desire has dug for him.
Moving his car for the workmen is a major hassle. He’s overslept and late to pick up Jack for their wine tasting trip, but still takes his time getting there — flossing, stopping for coffee. When he finally arrives, he lies about there being too much traffic.
He makes them stop at his mother’s house to wish her happy birthday, but then steals money from her secret stash. At his mother’s we also learn he’s still living in the past regarding his ex, Victoria, who he split up with two years ago.
Call to Action
At this point, Miles’s conscious desire clashes with Jack’s conscious desire. Jack is the antagonist — the physical representation of Miles’s unconscious desire. He’s gregarious, out-going, confident, and a womanizer. His conscious desire is to have fun and get laid one more time before getting married. i.e. the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of Miles’s conscious desire.
This is what drives the film’s conflict.
The Call to Action turning point arrives when Jack tells Miles he’s going to get him laid. It’s Miles’s conscious desire talking when he replies, “Jack. This week is not about me. It’s about you. I’m going to show you a good time.”
Miles, stuck in his old mode of behavior and mourning the loss of Victoria, has no intention of chasing women. This is where Jack’s conscious desire and Miles’s conscious desire clash to form the first major conflict of the film — how will Miles react to Jack’s challenge?
Miles’s initial reaction is fuelled by his conscious desire — he just wants to relax, play golf and drink wine. If he had his way this is exactly how the week would go down, but Jack’s conscious desire directly challenges this.
Act 1 Turning Point
After the Call to Action in which Jack directly challenges Miles conscious desire, by stating he wants to get Miles laid, they soon arrive at the Hitching Post restaurant for dinner. Here, Miles’s conscious desire is challenged once again, this time by Maya — a waitress he knows in passing.
Jack eggs on Miles to get to know her better, saying, even though she’s wearing a ring, it doesn’t mean anything. He also points out that she likes Miles but he just can’t see it. And the fact she’s into wine just gets Jack even more excited. But Miles’s conscious desire makes him reluctant to accept the challenge.
So, now at the end of Act 1, the protagonist and antagonist want the exact opposite outcome — the foundation of all conflict.
Later, Maya arrives at the same bar as Miles and Jack at the bar. For a moment, Miles’s unconscious desire breaks through — he invites her over to join them. This is how you create believable characters — by making their unconscious desire momentarily break through to show us a glimpse of their torn state of mind.
At the bar, Jack is his usual charming self with Maya, while Miles is slightly reticent — his conscious desire clearly back in charge. The key turning point (and reversal) in this scene is when Maya asks what they’re up to tonight. But before Jack has a chance to speak, Miles replies that they’re just going to go back to the hotel and crash — his conscious desire again sabotaging proceedings, much to the annoyance of Jack.
Later, as they stumble back to the hotel, Jack points out that when Maya came to the bar, she wasn’t wearing a ring. He was right—Maya is available, but Miles’s conscious desire made sure nothing was going to happen that night.
Miles’s rejection of Maya signals the Act 1 Turning point. And note how this is the wrong decision, but his conscious desire has such a hold on him that this is the only decision he can make at this point.
Right through the first half of the second act, Miles’s conscious desire has full hold of his senses, causing the “promise of the premise” of the whole movie.
He flips out when Jack tells him Victoria’s remarrying; he’s supremely unconfident before dinner with Maya and Stephanie; at dinner, he drinks way too much and then drunk dials Victoria. It’s not until (at the ladies suggestion) they all go back to Stephanie’s house that Miles’s unconscious desire finally rises again to the surface.
At Stephanie’s house, Miles and Maya chat alone outside on the balcony. He begins to relax and talk about his book and his favorite subject — wine. This shared love of theirs brings them closer together. His unconscious desire is telling him “I want her,” but his conscious desire keeps him from making a move.
It’s Maya who has to do it for him by lightly resting her hand on top of his. Of course, this is where his conscious desire takes over again, and he abruptly gets up to leave for the bathroom. Once in the bathroom, he berates himself in the mirror for being an idiot — his unconscious desire on the ascendancy once again, forcing him to pull himself together.
He goes back out to Maya and, under the will of his unconscious desire, kisses her. This is great but, unfortunately, the moment’s passed and Maya makes her excuses and leaves. Miles’s conscious desire has already done enough to sabotage things once again.
After the midpoint, the story centres on Jack and his relationship with Stephanie, but Miles’s unconscious desire has been re-awakened by the previous night’s events.
He takes action by going back to the restaurant where Maya works for a drink, in the hope of running into her. She’s not there and he returns to the hotel disappointed, but the fact is, his unconscious desire has been stirred out of its slumber and will not be buried anymore.
The next day, Miles and Maya finally get together after spending the day with Jack and Stephanie. Miles’s unconscious desire has seemingly won out. But not for long…
Act 2 Turning Point
Miles’s old self, bound up in his conscious desire of deceit, comes back to bite him when he lets it slip that Jack’s getting married. Maya can’t believe he kept a secret like that — letting her friend Stephanie be taken for a fool.
This is a classic Act Two turning point — the hero’s joy at finally getting what he / she wants is up-ended by a secret they’ve clung on to from their old conscious desire / self. It’s not until the third act that the hero’s unconscious desire fully takes over and they come to a realization about who they are and what they want.
In the third act, Miles’s unconscious desire has forced a change in him and we see this in a series of scenes throughout the act.
The first is when the pourer refuses to serve him a full glass of wine and he drinks from the spit bucket. The old Miles — the wine connoisseur — would never have done this in a million years. Next up, he calls Maya and tells her the truth about his novel — it’s not getting published and never was.
Then, he finally does something right — he steals back Jack’s wallet from the waitress’s apartment. At Jack’s wedding, Miles is able to meet Victoria and her new man and take the news that she’s pregnant without causing a scene. The old Miles would never have been able to do this either.
Back home, he grabs the bottle of his finest wine that he was saving for a special occasion and, in a cheap diner, uses it to wash down his fast food. What a GREAT scene. With no dialogue we understand just how much Miles has changed.
Maya’s message on his answering machine telling him to come up and see her sometime is all that he needs… His unconscious desire has won and his character’s performed a complete u-turn from when we first met him.
How To Plot Your Hero’s Character Arc Like A Pro
What’s great about fully understanding your hero’s conscious and unconscious desires, is that you can then create specific scenes like the ones above that spell out these changes for the viewer.
It’s also important to have their conscious and unconscious desires in mind when plotting your screenplay, their decisions and actions. Broadly speaking, here’s how to plot your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires through the screenplay:
In Act 1 and Act 2A, the Protagonist is fully consumed by their conscious desire. Up until the Midpoint, the hero’s conscious desire has full control. It is only once you get past the midpoint, that the unconscious desire begins to slowly awaken.
In the second half of the second act, the hero’s behavior swings one way and then the next as the unconscious desire starts to fight back against the conscious desire. Finally, in the third act, the unconscious desire takes over, forcing the protagonist to change and get what they need not what they wanted.
Make sure you know what your protagonist’s opposing desires are, and then use them to show the emotional character arc they undertake throughout the script. It’s tough, but once this technique is mastered your writing will always be one step ahead of the pack.
Some people have it all mapped out before they start writing, while others knock out a draft or two before it all starts to come together. We recommend getting to grips with the internal forces pulling your hero in opposite directions as soon as possible, as it’s pretty hard to plot anything without knowing exactly what’s driving them.
That way you can do a screenplay analysis of your own like the one above to make sure you’re on the right track BEFORE you start writing.