The Art of Character Arcs

Lauren and I recently saw the newest Jane Austen film-adaptation, Love and Friendship, and I will proudly claim that the desire to watch catty women in Georgian-era dresses was equal between us. Though we both entered the theater with high expectations, we were not disappointed. In fact, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the dramatic-comedy all the way until its end. However, as I sat there with popcorn still in my mouth, watching the end credits roll, I felt uneasy. I could not help but wonder, [minor spoiler ahead] where was the arc?

Starting with the opening credits, the movie established itself as nontypical. However, when it comes to Jane Austen—and really storytelling in general, it feels like—there are some nonnegotiables. And the foremost of those is character arcs. Pride and Prejudice has a character arc, Sense and Sensibility has a character arc, even Emma (the obvious black sheep of the bunch) has a character arc. But there was no arc here. 

And at the risk of being obnoxious, I really must reiterate this point. The character arc is central to storytelling. I mean, look at The Matrix, the quintessential movie for the Information Era; it has an arc.

Rocky, the archetypal underdog script, has an arc.

The cinematic masterpiece 12 Angry Men has an arc.

The Godfather has an arc, and it’s arguably the best movie ever made.

Breaking Bad, everybody’s favorite TV show, has an arc.

The best example of storytelling in recent blockbuster history, Captain America: The First Avenger, has—you guessed it—an arc.

And Star Wars—the Hero’s Journey incarnate—has an arc.


The character arc has often held the sacred position in my mind as the marker of a good movie. Any idiot could look at a movie, and if they could identify a major movement in one of the main characters—whether it be growth, a fall from grace, or a complete circle—they could, with confidence, know that movie was good. And the opposite was true for movies that had no character arc (or tried to shoehorn one in); that movie would clearly be bad. 

And so my dilemma returns. This movie was so entertaining, so good, yet there was no arc. This means the question must be asked: do movies need arcs?

If you’ve ever taken true-false quiz, then you’re instinctual answer is probably No—a movie doesn’t have to do anything. But I want to make sure you’ve considered all the possible forms of this storytelling method, because there’s much more than the character arc. For instance, look at Selma. The civil rights film may have some character shifts within it, but clearly the main transition is in how the city (hence the name) responds to racism. Consider Contagion where the arc is for the virus and another Soderbergh film, Ocean’s Eleven, where the arc is built around the event of the heist and the major shift occurs in how we perceive the situation (as well as Julia Roberts’s perception of Andy Garcia). Probably the example most of us are familiar with is The Dark Knight. In Nolan’s classic, there is an arc for Gotham—like in Selma—but there is also an arc in theme, in how people respond to the Joker’s morality-based schemes.

The point is, the arc doesn’t have to just be for the main character, but for all these movies, the arc is still there and it is central. There is a shift. Something changes. The movies are dynamic. And their momentum is what keeps us interested.

Having said that, I think it is time to bring up those movies that don’t. These are the movies that spoil the rule; the movies that don’t have an arc, yet we still love them. In fact, there movies have anti-arcs. Nothing changes, and they’re proud of it. These movies revel in the status quo.

A couple recent examples are Nightcrawler and Wolf of Wall Street, both of which end up in the exact same place as where they started. They revolve around a villain, he does some stuff, and he’s still a villain at the end. They haven’t lost much, they haven’t learned anything, they haven’t changed and returned to their state of villainy. They’re just villains. And so the anti-arc in the situation is of legitimization. Another sort of anti-arc we find is in The Big Lebowski, and that is the tangent. Lebowski wants a new rug to really tie the room together, but he keeps getting sidetracked on unrelated escapades.

The Coen Brothers, in fact, are masters of the anti-arc. Their Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men ends with a [another spoiler ahead, this one’s a bit bigger] triumphant and resounding anti-arc. There is no resolution for the previous 2 hours and 3 minutes. We watch as the story’s villain marches on, wounded but still operating. And that sort of ending is precisely what the movie needs. It highlights the unrelenting force of moral ambiguity, the very force that displaces old men and pushes them toward self-determination.


In film-making, as in all forms of storytelling or artistic expression, there are rules. These rules help the audience understand the medium as well as aid the artist in their attempt to communicate with the outside world. In this way, the rules are crucial. But, subverting these rules is one of the most powerful tools available to the storyteller—if and when used for the right reasons.

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