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Specs & The City: Character Arcs (or the lack thereof) and 'The Fugitive'

Zach Braff in GARDEN STATE.

Zach Braff in GARDEN STATE.

Recently I was looking over a list of upcoming studio releases and something occurred to me: absolutes in any art form are the beginning of the death throes of creativity. Nowhere is this more obvious than your local movie theater - preparing for the coming summer months filled to the brim with sequels, reboots, remakes, and adaptations, there’s an overwhelming sense of formula at work. That’s not to say that there aren’t films coming out over the next few months that I’ll enjoy. There’s room for films of all shapes and sizes in this world (yes, even yours, Zack Braff) but I still find myself wishing there was a little more variety in terms of structure and execution within the movies themselves.

As I thought about it, it also occurred to me that a lot of this sameness seems to come from the fact that screenwriters are, from the day they first sit down to stare at that blank page, beaten over the head with certain unassailable “rules” that cannot and should not be broken. For example: your Inciting Incident needs to happen on page “X,” voice-over is just lazy storytelling and should be avoided at all costs (you only need to look at the recent ThePerks of Being a Wallflower to know that’s not true), and your Protagonist MUST have an arc and experience internal change over the course of your script.

I can almost hear the screeching of metal on metal as you slam on your mental brakes at that last one. Did I really just imply that giving your Protagonist a character arc is a rule that can be ignored? I absolutely did. With a relatively strong caveat; these rules (any screenwriting rules, really) should only be adhered to when they’re needed to tell your story. If your story works better by ignoring them, ignore them. Ignore the hell out of them.

So when would your story best be served by NOT giving your Protagonist a character arc? Let’s delve a little deeper and take a look at…

Character Arcs (or the lack thereof) and ‘The Fugitive’

The Fugitve

The Fugitve

Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run. He’s being hunted by U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard, while at the same time hunting for the mysterious one-armed man who killed his wife and framed him for murder. It’s one of the defining action films of the 90s and keeps a breakneck pace for the majority of its 130-minute running time. It also happens to have a Protagonist in Richard Kimble who doesn’t have a character arc.

The character of Richard Kimble is deliberately static. He’s not interested in growth. He’s interested in finding the man who murdered his wife, bringing him to justice, and clearing his own name. This laser-like determination allows him to accomplish some amazing feats over the course of the film, yet it also keeps him from growing as a character. And really, that’s the point, because for this particular story it works better to have a character at its center who is so focused on his goals that he’s incapable of change.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no need for any change to occur in your script - merely that it doesn’t necessarily need to be associated with the Protagonist. So who changes in The Fugitive? It’s the Antagonist; a man with one of the most concise and yet revealing lines of dialogue of all time. Here’s a hint:

It's Kimble. Face dark and desperate. Dangerous. Hand flexing on the pistol. They lock eyes for a beat.
 I didn't kill my wife.
 I don’t care.
Seriously. Does he EVER smile?

Seriously. Does he EVER smile?

That’s right. While Kimble doesn’t change, Gerard’s character changes significantly over the course of the film. He goes from a man just doing his job, completely devoid of any emotional attachment to the case he’s working (or the people he’s working with, for that matter), and evolves over the course of the film into a man who is concerned with what is right rather than just the letter of the law.

And that’s what it boils down to for me. Sure, every script should contain growth and arc of some sort. If EVERYTHING is exactly the same in the end as the beginning, then why bother writing/filming/watching it? But that doesn’t mean that the change always has to come from the same place. The destination you’re aiming for can be reached through a variety of paths, and finding out which one works best for your script is part of the fun of breaking a new story. Trying to push your story into one of the preconceived “rules” when it’s just not right is the quickest way to achieve a technically sound, but uninspiring screenplay.

Now, finish your hard-target search of every residence, gas station, farmhouse, henhouse, doghouse, and outhouse in the area, and keep writing!

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