James Hull has written a great article on Screenplay.com about how to figure out your main character’s arc. In most cases, if your main character doesn’t have an arc, you don’t have a compelling story. Needless to say, this article is an important one to read:
Many a story begins with a great character. That flash of inspiration that says I have to write a story about this person. Yet, so many stories stall out just short of that all-important finish line. Why is that?
The answer can often be traced to misplaced focus. So much attention is placed on fleshing out the character and providing them with greater and greater sources of escalating conflict, that the basic logic of their actual arc breaks down. In fact, sometimes it’s not even there at all.
There is a simple dynamic that exists within all Main Characters, defined by the chasm between a problem and a solution.
Why the Main Character Exists
The purpose of a Main Character within a complete story is to present to the audience a personal perspective on the story’s central inequity. Some stories explore Main Characters who create problems by testing themselves. Will Hunting and Luke Skywalker come to mind as central characters troubled by the fallout of personally imposed trials. Other stories take a look at Main Characters beset by problems of perception. Malcom Crowe from The Sixth Sense and Lester Burnham from American Beauty both suffered because of how they perceived the world around them. These inequities, which are seen as problems by the audience, exist independent of gender, genre or generation. They drive the Main Character forward through a story, coming complete with a corresponding resolution device, or solution.
Problems of test require solutions of trust. Both Will and Luke managed to find peace in trusting something outside of themselves. Problems of perception require a dose of reality. Both Malcom and Lester finally saw things the way they really are. Perceptive problems can’t be solved by trusting something, and problems of trials can’t be resolved by the reality of the situation. Every problem comes complete with one complimentary solution. Understanding what drives a character can help a writer determine what that solution is, thus revealing exactly how to resolve their character’s arc.
Common Problems, Common Solutions
As mentioned previously, a Main Character’s problem is about as far removed from genre as one can get. Take for instance three completely different films: Something About Mary, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Memento — a raucous comedy, a kid’s fantasy adventure, and a psychological thriller. Polar ends of the genre spectrum, yet they all feature Main Characters troubled by the same exact problem. And because they all come from the same dramatic place, one can predict where they will end up. Assuming,
of course, that they ultimately resolve their problems.