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Screenplay Character Arc Demystified

Creating Character Arcs That Demonstrate the Theme and Evoke Emotion In the Audience

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
November 13, 2018 2 comments
character arc examples

Character Arc Demystified

Creating a strong character arc—how the protagonist changes during the course of a movie—can be a difficult and confusing enterprise for many writers. If you want to break into the industry, though, it’s vital.

Well, almost always vital… James Bond doesn’t have much of a character arc. Neither does Mavis, the protagonist in Diablo’s Cody’s Young Adult. So it looks like the confusion’s started already…

Does your protagonist always need a character arc? How do you create one? What’s all this talk about a character’s “want,” “inner goal” “unconscious desire” and so on? And most importantly, how do you successfully show it in a script?

We’ll answer all these questions and more in the post. Here’s what’s coming up:

  • A character arc definition
  • Character arc and genre
  • Character arc and theme
  • Character arc and 3 act structure
  • Creating character arcs using key plot points
  • A character arc example from the movie Sideways
  • How to make a character arc as strong as possible

We’ll also include character arc examples from well-known movies throughout, so let’s dive on in.

Character Arc Definition: What Is a Character Arc Exactly?

character arc examples

Here’s a character arc definition:

A character arc is the transformation the protagonist undergoes during the movie. This is usually from a damaged, flawed individual, to a more rounded, wise person by the end, but can also go in the opposite direction.”

In simple terms, this means as a result of undergoing a character arc, the protagonist has learned some kind of life lesson and dramatically changed as a result.

A protagonist may go through several arcs during a movie, but for the purposes of simplicity we’ll be focusing on the one main character arc that defines their growth (or regression) in the film.

The way this character arc evolves is known by several different labels, including:

  • Conscious Desire/Unconscious Desire. The protagonist has a conscious desire at the start of the movie, but evolves over three acts to realize their unconscious desire
  • Outer Goal/Inner Goal. The protagonist has an outer goal at the start of the movie, but evolves over three acts to follow their inner goal
  • Want/Need. The protagonist has a want at the start of the movie, but evolves over three acts to focus on their need

Essentially, all of these terminologies mean the same thing: the protagonist undergoes a journey through the course of the film being in the dark about who they are, to becoming enlightened (or sometimes the other way around.)

At the beginning of the film, we see the protagonist’s conscious desire/outer goal/want to sleep around, gain revenge, be a loner, etc. But by the end of the film they realize how this is the wrong path and that they need to focus on their unconscious desire/inner goal/need to reconnect with their son, fall in love, complete a marathon, etc.

This transformation is the basis of their character arc. We’ll be sticking with the terms conscious desire and unconscious desire as we think this best describes the protagonist’s state of mind.

We will also tackle inverse character arcs, from good to bad like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, in another post. For now, we’ll focus on the “standard” character arc definition, from conscious desire to unconscious desire—from bad to good—for the purposes of ease and clarity.

Character Arc and Genre

character arc examples

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 and often have smaller character arcs as a result.

The protagonist in most Horror movies, for example, is merely a vehicle to impart a theme about how humanity has messed up in some way. By the end of the movie, the protagonist learns what their “sin” is (which is also humanity’s flaw) and either gets killed, or survives to live with their guilt.

The best way to get to grips with how to write a character arc, therefore, is by studying Comedies and Dramas, which is what we’ll focus on in this post. Protagonists in these genres tend to have much cleaner character arcs, making them perfect to break down and study.

That’s not to say that this information is only relevant to Comedy and Drama writers. Often, the best Action Adventures, Thrillers and Horrors are those that give their protagonists a stronger character arc to go through on their journey.

For example, 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. And in Taken, Bryan starts off as a disconnected, aloof dad but ends the movie as a proper father to his daughter, Kim.

These kind of solid character arcs in Action/Adventure, Thriller and Horror movies are what can elevate them above the ordinary.

Character Arc and Theme

character arc examples

A protagonist’s character arc is also an expression of the movie’s theme. The actions they take—and the experiences they have as a result of those actions—often determine what the story is really trying to say: its underlying theme.

Let’s say the theme is the writer’s proposed argument they want to subtly impart to the audience, i.e. “There’s no place like home,” or “It is better to love and lose than never to have loved at all.” In this sense, the movie’s theme can actually be referred to as “the answer.”

At the beginning of a movie, the protagonist is unaware of their unconscious desire and act purely according to their conscious desire. Therefore, they’re completely unaware of the answer. Being unaware makes them feel safe and it’s how they’ve always lived.

Gradually, as the story progresses, they become more and more aware of their unconscious desire and the answer. They try to act according this newfound desire but invariably mess up and revert to their conscious desire.

It’s only near the end of the film that they’re able to fully commit to their unconscious desire and fully complete their character arc at the Climax by realizing the answer.

This is how the protagonist’s journey reflects the movie’s theme.

  • Conscious desire equals a lack of awareness of the theme and the answer.
  • Unconscious desire equals eventual awareness of the theme and embracing the answer.

Theme and 3 act structure

Let’s take a quick look at how 3 act structure is defined by the protagonist’s relationship with the theme.

Act 1

The protagonist operates according to their conscious desire, which means they’re unaware of the theme/the answer. Even though they don’t know it, it’s their ignorance of the answer that’s the reason their world is either unhappy, unstable, unfulfilled, chaotic or all of the above.

It’s not circumstances that upset a character, it’s the manner in which they react to them. Just like in real life.

Act 2

The protagonist gradually changes from conscious desire to unconscious desire. Through confronting obstacles due to the force of antagonism, they begin to gather experiences that hint at an awareness of the theme and the existence of the answer.

Circumstances force the protagonist to behave as if they understand the answer. The resulting success compels them to begin listening to their unconscious desire more than their conscious desire and start changing their behavior.

Act 3

The protagonist trusts their unconscious desire and completes their character arc. After a rocky start in which they fail a final test, they realize the error of continuing to listen to their conscious desire. Armed with faith in the answer, they commit to a final course of action, no matter what.

This matter of faith is essential: they must believe first in order to receive the reward. Once they’re willing to risk it all to live the answer, order is restored and their character arc is complete.

This perspective can provide a useful sense of limitation when crafting sequences for a story. After all, you could write practically anything on say page 48, but you’re trying to write the right thing.

When readers say “this scene/character/moment feels inorganic to the story,” what they really mean is “this scene/character/moment is disconnected from the development of the theme.”

When this happens, no matter how clever or original the material is, it’s ceased to be about something. And when this happens, you need to return to your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires and make sure they’re in sync with the theme.

Character arc examples using 3 act structure

Let’s take a look at a couple of character arc examples of a protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires as it fits within a 3 act structure.

American Beauty

Theme: Material possessions and “success” are not what’s important in life; true beauty is to be found in the simple things.

Act 1 (Unawareness of the answer). Lester’s conscious desire has led him into a major midlife crisis. His family life, job and material possessions all leave him feeling unfulfilled. Carolyn and Jane think he’s a loser and his life has lost all meaning.

Act 2 (Experiences that hint at the answer). During Act 2, each story beat reveals something more about Lester’s transformation from unawareness of the theme to awareness of the theme. Standing up to Carolyn, quitting his job, flirting with Jane’s friend, Angela, working out and smoking weed with Ricky, are signs his unconscious desire is becoming stronger as he reconnects with life and finds meaning in it.

Act 3 (Faith in the answer). Lester finds and affirms his self-worth by choosing not to sleep with Angela. The irony is that now after he’s gone from listening to his conscious desire to his unconscious desire and discovered meaning in life, he’s killed. It’s only after death that he’s able to discover the true beauty of life.

Wedding Crashers

Act 1 (Unawareness of the answer). At the start of Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy want to crash weddings and get laid. This is their conscious desire (although even at the beginning John’s unconscious desire to give it all up, peeps through) and so they crash the Cleary wedding and hook up with Gloria and Claire.

Act 2 (Experiences that hint at the answer). By the midpoint it’s clear John is falling for Claire. His experiences with her make him realize he doesn’t want to mess around anymore but actually needs to settle down and fall in love. But neither he nor Jeremy have completely shed their old way of life and conscious desire. They are still lying to Gloria and Claire, and to themselves, about what they really want. This, of course, comes back to haunt them when the girls find out the truth.

Act 3 (Faith in the answer). This loss causes them (John specifically) to realize the errors of their ways and to change. John’s unconscious desire trumps his conscious desire and he will do anything to win Claire back and does so by the end of the film.

Creating Character Arcs Using Key Plot Points

character arc examples

Let’s look at how the protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desire fits into 3 act structure in a bit more detail using six main plot points.

In a well-written screenplay, the protagonist’s character arc should turn on the same moments the overall structure turns, on several key plot points. Each of which relates to their conscious and unconscious desire.

(There are more plot points than in the following example in a screenplay, but we’re sticking to the biggest, most well-known ones for simplicity.)

The 6 key character arc plot points

Here’s a quick breakdown of each of the plot points. Check out our post What is a Screenplay Inciting Incident? for more information on the difference between an Inciting Incident and a Call to Action.

Inciting Incident

The protagonist is usually a flawed individual, completely consumed by their conscious desire. 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 ten minutes in, something often 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 as that’s the only way they know how to cope with the new direction their life’s taken.

Act 1 Turning Point

The protagonist has to make a decision on what to do about the Call to Action and some probable setbacks that have occurred during Act 1. But because they’re still ruled by their conscious desire, the decision they make at this point is invariably the wrong one.

Midpoint

As the protagonist enters Act 2, they set about trying to solve whatever problem’s been established in Act 1. Their conscious desire up to this point has been to take the path of least resistance—the easiest route possible. But 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, but they don’t fully realize this. Yet.

Act 2 Turning Point

The protagonist battles their way through the second half of Act 2 with their unconscious desire growing stronger 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 conscious desire and old way of thinking and all seems lost.

Climax

At the beginning of Act 3, the protagonist has a revelation—a lightbulb goes off in their head as they finally realize they can no longer ignore their unconscious desire. Now the race is on to the Climax so they can finally prove to the stakes character that they’ve finally learned their lesson. Their character arc, from flawed individual driven by their conscious desire to wiser individual driven by their unconscious desire, is complete.

A Character Arc Example From the Movie Sideways

We’ve chosen this film as our main character arc example, as Miles is a protagonist with a really strong one. (We recommend you watch or rewatch the movie if you haven’t seen it recently to familiarize yourself with it before reading this character arc example.)

Firstly, just what are Miles’s conscious and unconscious desires?

  • Miles’s conscious desire. To relax on the road trip, play some golf, drink some wine and get back with Victoria
  • Miles’s unconscious desire. To move on from Victoria and start dating again, specifically with Maya

Here’s how these two desires clash at each of the screenplay’s 6 major turning points so you can see how Miles’s character arc changes within the elements of 3 act structure.

character arc examples

Miles’s 6 key character arc plot points

Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident and set-up of a movie needs to quickly get across to the reader the protagonist’s flaw.

In the opening scenes of Sideways, this is achieved as we’re introduced to Miles and how his life is ruled by his conscious desire. He’s middle-aged, living alone and hung-over (again.) In short, 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, etc. When he finally arrives, he lies about there being too much traffic.

Once on the road, he’s self-deprecating about his novel and stops at his mom’s house to wish her happy birthday, but then steals money from her for the trip. 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.

Jack’s conscious desire is to have fun and be with another woman one more time before getting married. i.e. it’s 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 too. 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 fueled 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 play out, but Jack’s conscious desire makes sure it won’t.

Act 1 Turning Point

Miles and Jack arrive at the Hitching Post restaurant and it’s here that Miles’s conscious desire is challenged once again, this time by Maya—a waitress he’s friendly with whenever he’s in town.

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.

Here at the end of Act 1, therefore, the protagonist and antagonist’s overall goals in the movie are set up in clear and direct opposition to one another.

Later in a bar, Miles and Jack see Maya arrive. 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 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.

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 the first major step on his long character arc. Note also how this is the wrong decision, as his conscious desire has such a hold on him that this is the only decision he can make at this point.

Act 2a

Right through the first half of the second act, Miles’s conscious desire has full hold of his senses, resulting in what Blake Snyder dubbed 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, then he drinks way too much and drunk-dials Victoria. It’s not until they all go back to Stephanie’s house that Miles’s unconscious desire rises again to the surface.

character arc examples

Midpoint

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 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 a huge step forward in his character arc but, unfortunately, the moment’s already passed and Maya makes her excuses and leaves. Miles’s conscious desire has done enough to sabotage things once again.

Act 2b

Miles’s unconscious desire has been re-awakened by the previous night’s events and his character arc is fully underway. He takes action by going back to Maya’s restaurant for a drink, in the hope of running into her. She’s not there and he returns to the hotel disappointed. However, his unconscious desire has been stirred out of its slumber.

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 it a secret and let Stephanie be taken for a fool like that.

This is a classic Act 2 turning point—the protagonist’s joy at finally getting what they want is up-ended by a secret they’ve clung on to from when they were ruled by their old conscious desire. It’s not until Act 3 that their unconscious desire fully takes over and they realize who they are and what they really need—the opposite of what they thought they wanted.

Act 3

Miles’s character arc is now almost complete as his unconscious desire has forced a change in him which we now see played out throughout the act.

The first moment is when the pourer refuses to serve Miles a full glass of wine and he drinks from the spit bucket—something the old wine connoisseur Miles would never have done 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 by stealing 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.

Back home, he grabs the bottle of wine he was saving for a special occasion and uses it to wash down fast food in a cheap diner. This is a great scene. With no dialogue, it shows us exactly how far Miles has come on his character arc.

Climax

Maya’s message on Miles’s answering machine telling him to come up and see her sometime is all that he needs… His unconscious desire has won the day against his conscious desire and his character arc is finally complete.

Using character arc examples in your own script

It’s important to have your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires in mind when plotting your screenplay. Broadly speaking, here’s how to plot your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires through the screenplay:

In Act 1, the protagonist is fully consumed by their conscious desire. Up until the Midpoint, their conscious desire is in full control.

In Act 2a, it is only once they get past the Midpoint that their unconscious desire begins to slowly awaken.

In Act 2b, the protagonist’s behavior swings one way and then the next as the unconscious desire starts to fight back against the conscious desire.

Finally, in Act 3, their unconscious desire takes over, forcing them to change and get what they need, not what they wanted.

What’s great about fully understanding your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires, is that you can then create specific scenes that visually spell out their journey along their character arc.

For example, the scene of Miles drinking his special wine in a diner shows us how much he’s changed in a much more powerful way than if we’d heard him tell Jack “You know, I feel like I’m not so much of a snob anymore.” (Check out this post for more info on how to write visually: Show Don’t Tell: How To Stop Relying On Dialogue In a Screenplay.

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 you’ve mastered this technique your writing will always be one step ahead of the pack.

How To Make a Character Arc as Strong as Possible

character arc examples

A character arc in which your protagonist changes just a little usually isn’t enough. Their character should, in effect, do a complete 180 flip. Whoever your protagonist thinks they are at the beginning of the script, they need to think the exact opposite at the end.

Without a character arc that performs a complete “turned on its head” transformation, the audience will feel let down. If the protagonist has barely been emotionally affected their ordeal, it’s unlikely the audience will be either.

Here are the two main ways you can strengthen a protagonist’s character arc in order to really heighten its emotional impact. [Beware: spoilers ahead!]

Creating character arcs verbally

At the beginning of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, the first line the movie’s protagonist, David, says is, “I’m an artist!” Then, through the course of the film, he learns the truth about the limitations of his own talent, and his last line is, “I’m not an artist.”

Of course, the first and last lines your protagonist says don’t have to be exact opposites, as in this example, but it nicely illustrates the point—your protagonist can directly tell another character (and us) what they’ve discovered about themselves. Just be sure not to rely on this method as it may lapse into on-the-nose dialogue, which is the opposite of what you want to happen.

Creating character arcs visually

In Reservation Road, the protagonist, Ethan, spends the entire movie obsessed with discovering the identity of the driver who killed his son in a hit and run and then killing him. When he discovers it’s his neighbor, he kidnaps him, but then can’t pull the trigger. In other words, he demonstrates not just through words, but through action the full extent of his character arc.

In Along Came Polly, Ruben starts the film as an uptight obsessive, petrified of the slightest risk but, through his relationship with the free-spirited Polly, his character arc has undergone a complete180 flip. At the Climax, not only does he tell her how he’s changed, he eats a nut off the street. Something that would’ve been unthinkable for him at the beginning of the film.

These kind of verbal and visual clues are vital. They demonstrate your screenplay theme  and clearly indicate how your protagonist has changed emotionally, giving the audience a chance to react emotionally also.

Character Arc Demystified: Conclusion

character arc examples

Some writers like to map out their protagonist’s character arc before they start writing. Others prefer to knock out a draft or two before it all starts to come together. We recommend getting to grips with their character arc sooner rather than later.

Start plotting out your protagonist’s conscious and unconscious desires and external forces pulling them 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 protagonist vs. antagonist breakdown of your own, like in the character arc examples in this post, and make sure your plot’s on the right track before you start writing.

If you need help strengthening your protagonist’s character arc, we have a team of pro screenwriters who can help with a range of script coverage services.

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How do you plot character arcs for your main characters in a screenplay? Do you start out knowing what your protagonist’s character arc is before you start writing? And let us know what you think about our character arc example and character arc definition in the comments section below.

character arc examples

2 Comments
  1. Ramon Lopez says:

    Great article. You’ve laid it out Character Arc in an almost formulaic manner which will be really helpful when I’m writing my screenplay.

    Thanks!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Ramon, glad it helped!

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