Everyone knows what a character arc is. Most of us have never stepped foot in film school or know story structure in-depth. But for the uninitiated, here’s a hash of an explanation. (Disclaimer, I also have never been to film school.)
A character’s arc is the personal, emotional, and sometimes physical journey that a character goes through over the course of a story. Think of it like human development. The person you are now is not the person you were at age 12. Experiences have altered you, and you have made choices as to your life and living, giving yourself a sort of “arc” to your existence. In essence, if you can track the “growth” of a character through a story, you can say that that character has an “arc”. Most people tend to think of character arcs only in terms of going from bad to good; think Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. But a character’s arc doesn’t have to be from bad to good for it to be a valid arc. For example, Walter White is an example of a character going from “not evil” to what could “drug kingpin”. What is important is that the audience can follow this journey to it’s eventual end; and that the end, whether good guy or bad guy, be satisfying.
So, I’ve given my Crash Course™ on character arcs, I’m about to drop something possibly revolutionary. There are no character arcs, only character circles. “What is a character circle?”, I hear you asking. I will answer that question.
If you think of a character arc like any other arc, with a starting point and a definite destination, a character circle is one in which the character ends up exactly where they were at the start of a story. Now this might sound like bad writing, and in some cases it can be, but allow me to give an illustration.
Prince Zuko. Heir to the throne of the Fire Nation. In the first season of the show, he is the primary antagonist because of his desire to “capture the Avatar to regain my honor”. By all accounts, this is the beginning of his arc from bad guy to friend and close member of Team Avatar. But, what if I told you that Zuko was never a bad guy? That his arc wasn’t in becoming a good guy, but letting the good shine through? There are a lot of instances in the show that back up this theory. In the series premiere, he agrees to leave the Water Tribe village if Aang surrenders, something a “bad guy” would never do. We learn through flashbacks, especially the episode “The Storm” that the only reason Zuko was even chasing Aang, and thus cast in the bad guy role, was because he was too good a person to let innocent soldiers be slaughtered. So by the end of the series, Zuko is still Zuko. The same kid who spoke out at a war meeting for the soldiers, the same Zuko fed turtleducks with his mother. He’s Prince Zuko, now Fire Lord and friend of the Avatar.
Where did I get this crazy theory? Two places. First, there’s Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey. It is, essentially a circle. After everything is said and done, the character is right back where they started, only now armed with more knowledge. Sometimes, the knowledge is that they were always who they were meant to be. The second place is a little TV show called “Dawson’s Creek”. In one particular episode, Dawson, a budding filmmaker and a certified cinephile, examines the arc that Rick Blaine goes through in the movie “Casablanca”. He realizes that at the start of the movie, he’s alone. No Ilsa Lund, no friends of any sort, and a shady relationship with local law enforcement. By the end, he’s in exactly the same place. No girl, all alone, essentially flying by the seat of his pants. Now, the movie is brilliant, but Rick essentially did what he always does throughout the movie. Not an arc, but a circle.
There are, of course, bad examples of this as well. The most notorious of which is probably Ser Jamie Lannister in the once great HBO series. Jamie starts out as caring for no one besides his sister. He almost kills a boy in the pilot (he should have, but rant for another article). By the time the finale comes around, there is Jamie, caring for no one and nothing except his sister who he loves. Now this is a more jarring example than some of the others I’ve talked about (fuck Dumb & Dumber), but the end result is the same. After a journey, the character ends up back where he was.
You can agree or not. To be completely honest, even I don’t think this applies to all characters. It is still a theory after all. But with all the movies and TV I’ve watched in my short time on this planet, this is one of those things that just keeps coming out at me.