it’s 20 fucking 17 and i can’t believe i still have to explain that tiana is the best disney princess not only because she defies every stereotype imaginable for black women in the twenties in louisiana but also because her storyline is basically ‘yo i wanna raise money in order to own my own small business and don’t need no man oh this prince guy is cute i guess i can get him to wait tables or something’ truly she is the princess i aspire to be
You know that moment as a writer, when you’ve been charging through the story, high on how fantastic it is, and then suddenly…it all STOPS. The next scene doesn’t form in your head. You’ve got nothing.
Behind your characters, a string of bright and captivating scenes mark the trail of that rocket of inspiration; ahead of your characters, a foggy expanse, stretching to who-knows-where, a few shapeless blobs that should be scenes floating in the nothingness.The rocket is dead, and not refueling any time soon.
Well, to everybody who’s suffered this, or is currently suffering it, there’s a way to navigate through that fog. A map. Directions and a destination.
Or, more specifically, events that form the underlying structure of the story.
This post is going to focus on one facet of story structure: character arc. Structure is something people subconsciously recognize and expect, and if the story doesn’t match those expectations, they feel cheated (though usually can’t explain why). Every good story follows a structure. So if you know structure, you’ll always know where to go next, and won’t get lost in the fog.
So here are the 8 steps of a character arc:
1) Hero: Strength, Weakness, and Need
This happens in the setup of the story, when the main character’s ordinary world is being introduced. First, the main character’s strengths must be displayed; we must be given a reason to like them, or if not exactly “like” them, empathize with them, and be fascinated by them. The reader needs to bond with the character, feel concerned about how it all turns out for them. Or in other words, feel that the main character is worth experiencing the story. There are easy traits that do this: courage, love, humor, being in danger, being unfairly treated, being highly skilled at something, having a powerful noble goal. (Courage is the one they all need. If the character doesn’t have the gumption to actively pursue what they want, they are automatically a background character.)
After this, still in the beginning of your story, let the character exhibit what needs to change. Show their weaknesses of character and self awareness. And lastly, hint at what they NEED to learn. Sometimes this is even stated to the character, and they don’t understand it, refuse to believe it, or condemn it. Like “A Christmas Carol”, when Scrooge’s nephew says his speech about Christmas and how wonderful it is, and Scrooge replies “Bah Humbug!"
2) Desire: This is the moment when the character knows what they need to pursue, in order to obtain what they inwardly want. It is not the inciting incident or catalyst, the event in a story that disrupts the ordinary world and calls the hero on an adventure. This is a separate step entirely, occurring after that catalyst has shattered life as the main character knows it. They believe obtaining this goal will calm whatever inner turmoil or conflict they’re battling. And always, they’re not quite right. Think of Mr Fredricksen: His goal is to get the house – a symbolic representation of Ellie and the life he shared with her – to Paradise Falls, which he believes will heal his grief and guilt. It won’t. Once he obtains it, the achievement feels hollow. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So on we go!
3) Plan: Once in Act Two, the character is going to scramble for a plan of action. The inner want has solidified into a tangible goal, but they need a strategy to achieve it. This also spells out for the reader what to expect in that second act.
4) Conflict: What’s going to try stopping them? A hero with a goal is one thing, but to make it a story we need something that stands in the way. An obstacle. A force of opposition. If we didn’t have obstacles, books would be as interesting as "Harry Potter and the Trip to the Grocery Store.” (Although honestly, I’d probably read that.) After the catalyst has changed everything, after the character crosses the threshold into Act Two, everything from here on out will be laden with conflict. This is usually when enemies, or more accurately forces of opposition, begin to appear. Everything is accumulating to complicate the main character’s pathway to achieving what they want. The forces of opposition come from not only the villains, but from the actions that have to be taken to achieve the desire. Whatever this action is, it’s exactly what the main character is not suited to do, an action that pressures their flaws, exposes them to exactly what they need to become but can’t right now.
Like Stitch being forced to be the family dog. He’s not suited to this task.
5) Battle: The forces of opposition are amping up, growing stronger, fighting with greater intensity. The main character is taking the punches and working around them, relentlessly plowing forward. Hero and allies are usually punching back too.
6) Midpoint: This is the event where they first encounter what they need to learn, what they need to become. Something happens that forces them to behave in this new, life-saving way. But once they’ve seen it, they don’t know what to do with this knowledge.
7) Dark Night, Revelation, Choice: This is always the darkest point in the story, where all seems lost, and death – of a literal or spiritual nature – is in the air. And in this moment, something usually happens that makes the main character wake up to what is wrong, and what they need. More often than not, this revelation will arrive from the “love story” or relationship of the plot, and will be the thing that helps them pull themselves out of despair and see the light. And once this is uncovered, once the revelation of the truth about themselves is recognized, they are faced with a choice. Of course, they’ve been faced with choices in every beat of every scene, but this is the big choice that is going to determine if their story has a happy ending or a tragic one. The choice is this: “You are being faced the truth that you need to heal. Are you going to choose what you need, let your old self die, and become someone better?” And always, always, always this is a hard choice. The revelation must be significant to them. And it’s never easy. It can’t be. We don’t write stories about heroes who make easy choices. Villains have it easy. Are you going to adopt this new way of living, adopt this truth, and let your old self die? Or are you going to stay the way you are (which feels safer and is much less challenging) but end up stuck in a sort of living death? Most of the time, of course, they choose the right thing.
This moment is usually always the saddest scene in the thing. Like this scene with Stitch.
8) New Life: This is their changed life. After experiencing the trials of the story, after realizing what they need and choosing to be reborn, they are going to be different people – and are going to live a different life. This is what follows the statement “And every day after …” What has changed? Show the audience how things are different, how things are better, because they want to see that. This is the resolution, the wrapping up of everything we’ve been through with the main character, and having this in the story is often what gives that feeling of satisfaction after seeing a really well-told story.
So! To show off how this works, I’ve chosen the character arc of Carl from Up.
1) Hero: Strengths, Weakness, Need
Strengths: Reasons to like Carl are packed into that heartbreaking opening sequence. By the end of it, we love him, love Ellie, and are crying our eyes out.
Weaknesses: Now Carl is curmudgeonly, grumpy, cold, and won’t pay attention to a living soul. He’s also plagued by grief, regret, guilt, and loneliness. (Which we are all 100% okay with, because we already like him.)
Need: He needs Russel. The statement of what he needs to learn isn’t outright said (as it will be later) but Russel represents it.
Step Two: The catalyst was when a truck knocked down Ellie’s mailbox, Carl hit a construction worker in the head with his cane, and for this a judge declares him a public menace and orders him to go to Shady Oaks Retirement Village. The DESIRE is this moment.
Carl escapes in a flying house, thousands of balloons lifting him skyward. He even says the desire of the whole story out loud, “So long boys! I’ll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls!” The tangible goal is “live out the rest of his days in his and Ellie’s house, on the edge of Paradise Falls, South America.” (“It’s like America … but South.”)
Step Three: The plan and the conflict overlap, as they are wont to do. We have a scene where Carl is unfurling sails, setting a compass, and settling back in his chair for a smooth journey. But later on, after some conflict has arrived, we have Russel figuring out how to actually make it there. And after even more conflict has arrived, we have him telling Russel “We’re going to walk to the falls quickly and quietly, with no rap music or flash-dancing.”
Step Four: The moment he settles back into his armchair, high above the city, and here’s a knock on the front door, nothing is going to be easy for Carl. First, we have opposition in the form of Russel. Then we have a storm. Then the house lands miles away from the Falls, so they’ll have to walk it. Then we have Kevin, the giant bird. Then we have Dug. Which means they’re also being chased by a legion of talking dogs. Which brings us to Muntz, the main villain, and Carl’s shadow – the representation of Carl’s flaws, and the consequences of refusing to let go of the past.
Step Five: This is the trek to the Falls. It’s also the battle with every complication that arises. And it’s also exactly what Carl is not suited to do. He’s a curmudgeonly old guy, bent on living out the rest of his life alone. Well, the story says “Nope, Carl, that’s not how it’s going to be” and promptly gives him a surrogate grandson to take care of, a dog who adores him, and even a giant mythical bird. And he has to lead them all, if he’s going to get to the Falls.
Step Six: The moment when Russel invades Carl’s heart. Which is what he needs, but he doesn’t understand. (I have the scene beated out in the previous post.)
Step Seven: Finally, he gives in to the worst of himself and chooses his goal of living in his broken house on the edge of Paradise Falls. But somehow this doesn’t feel like victory. He’s still alone, next to Ellie’s empty chair, and she is still beyond his reach.
He picks up her adventure book, and leafs through the photographs, missing her; he pauses on the page scrawled with the words “Stuff I’m Going To Do”, lets his hand rest on it, grief and regret overwhelming him. He begins to close the book, and the page shifts … revealing the edge of another picture. Surprised, he turns the page. It’s their wedding picture.
Ellie added picture after picture of their happy marriage, the whole wonderful life they shared, all the things she did. And on the bottom of the last page is her last message to him: “Thanks for the adventure! Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” Exactly what Carl needs. He doesn’t need to be guilty, he doesn’t need to regret the past. The past was beautiful, and she will never truly leave him.
Choice: So, Carl can make the choice to throw everything out of the house to go save Russel.
New Life: Sitting on a curb, eating ice cream with Russel.
In the credits, we see a whole new life – or new adventure – with Carl, Russel, Dug, and even a bunch of new puppies.
So, it’s actually pretty simple. And once again, it’s fun to develop your own stories like this, but it’s surprisingly fun to analyze movies and books with it too. It improves your storytelling ability, I’ve found. Practice makes perfect.
I hope this post helps somebody out. It’ll make the ten times I cried while writing it, while watching scenes from Up, worth it.
We begin with a prologue. A male narrator tells us the story of a secluded kingdom/palace that fell into decay..
The narrator then tells us how his kingdom/palace fell into ruin. The ruler of the kingdom/palace became selfish and heartless, obsessed with one of the “seven deadly sins”: (vanity or greed).
Their selfishness drew a powerful evil magic (an enchantress or a dragon.)
It also drew a curse. The enchantress caused the Prince to turn into a beast. There’s a similar concept in the Hobbit. The gold in Erebor causes the people who obsess over it to get “dragon sickness”– a sort of curse which turns them into gold-obsessed “dragons” (beasts on the inside )….
After this dark prologue, we transition to a beautiful sunny provincial town. It’s a lovely place, but every day is the same as the day before. These hobbits/ townspeople are fussy and simpleminded. They care a lot about tradition and being “respectable.” They deeply mistrust anything new, exciting, or unfamiliar…..
We meet our second hero- a naiive and very bookish person whose name starts with a B. They can have a snarky sense of humor. They “don’t take anyone’s shit” and are far stronger than they look. They can be proud, even a little arrogant at times, but they’re very soft-hearted. They are a “pure cinammon roll.”
This person’s greatest, defining strength is their compassion. They can see the good in everyone, even in creatures who look like monsters (Belle falls in love with the Beast; Bilbo takes pity even on Gollum)
They also have a parent known for being crazy/unconventional– Belle has her father Maurice, Bilbo has his mother Belladonna Took.
Both the protagonists are different from the other simple farmer-villagers because they want more than just a simple life.
They long for adventure….
And they’re eventually dragged into an adventure, against their will.
Our protagonist is forced to meet the The Dwarf-King/the Beast-Prince. This person is brooding, intimidating, and glowering. He rarely smiles. He has a dramatic cloak and an uncontrollable temper. He has a Tragic Past, a bizarre troop of followers, and (secretly) a good heart.
Deep in this King/Prince’s castle is his special glowing Secret Artifact you really shouldn’t touch (Seriously don’t he will FREAK OUT). The reason why the King/Prince needs the protagonist has something to do with this enchanted artifact….
The protagonist makes an agreement to stay with the King/Prince (Belle makes a promise, Bilbo signs a contract.)
They get to know the Prince/King and his more approachable but still very weird group of followers. When the King/Prince isn’t there, these followers sing an upbeat song to the protagonist as they expertly prepare/clean up after dinner (Be our Guest and That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates.) Their song is so upbeat you forget they’re singing it to a captive audience.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the Prince/Dwarf-king and the protagonist gets off to a very rocky start. The Prince/King secretly cares about the protagonist (later risking his life multiple times for them) but refuses to show it. Instead he acts cold, dismissive, and controlling. The protagonist, meanwhile, doesn’t know that beneath his cold facade the Prince/King really does have a heart.
Their relationship reaches a breaking point when the protagonist makes an innocent mistake, and The Prince/King lashes out at them….
The protagonist decides that, even though they promised to stay/signed a contract, they can’t do this any longer. They try to leave….
But a wolf attack changes everything.
The Prince/King defends the protagonist from wolves (or guys riding on wolves).He’s gravely injured by one of these wolves.
The protagonist then saves his life in return.
This near-death experience brings them closer together.
The Prince realizes he was wrong about the protagonist, and about himself…
”Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong!” Versus “I have never been sowrong in all my life.”
There’s a lot of bonding between the Prince/King and the protagonist. The Prince/King becomes kinder, gentler. Their affection for the protagonist, and the protagonist’s kindness to them, makes the Prince/King more openly compassionate. Things are really looking up. It looks like the curse will be overcome (the Beast will become human, and Thorin won’t get the “dragon sickness” that drove his grandfather mad.)
But there’s another force to be reckoned with– a handsome, vain antagonist who loathes the Beast/the Dwarf….
(“I use antlers in all of my decorating!”)
This antagonist convinces everyone the Beast/Dwarf is evil and subhuman. (He’s very against the film’s Beast/human or dwarf/elf relationship). He rallies a massive force to kill the Prince/King.
The protagonist, armed only with one of the Prince//King’s prized sparkly artifacts (the Mirror/the Arkenstone), tries to convince them to stop. But this only makes things worse.
At one point the Prince/King tells the protagonist to leave. Then the Prince/King, feeling betrayed and hopeless, becomes “beast-like” again. The enemy is at his doorstep but he refuses to fight, resigned to his fate. One of his servants/followers tries to convince him to join the battle, but fails. Let them come, the Prince King thinks, let them destroy everything– he’ll remain holed up in his castle. He lets his servants/Dain’s troops fight his battle for him.
His servants/Dain’s army does well without him at first, but eventually he’s forced to join the fray. He fights one-on-one against an army/mob’s leader. There’s a moment where he thinks he’s defeated his foe….but then his enemy launches a surprise attack, stabs him, and mortally wounds him. Yet by killing the Prince/King, the evil guy also ends up killing himself.
The protagonist rushes to the dying Prince/King’s side, blaming themselves for causing his death. The Prince/King, meanwhile, has finally redeemed himself. He apologizes for the way he acted in the past (“maybe it’s better this way”) and speaks lovingly about how wonderful the protagonist is, and how glad they are to see them one last time. The protagonist, meanwhile, desperately insists that he will be all right.
But he isn’t. He dies. The protagonist collapses, weeping.
But then he comes back to life because love!!! In one of the films, anyway. In the other he is 50000 percent dead
Both films have animated and live-action adaptations. In the live-action adaptations, Ian McKellan plays one of the Prince’s allies (Cogsworth/Gandalf) while Luke Evans plays one of his adversaries (Gaston/Bard).
TL;DR: A Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, Bilbo and the Dwarf (or: the Burglar and the Beast?)
The last time I watched Enchanted I had that usual moment of “but what if gay.” So I present to you one of the early scenes and one of the ending scenes in a version where everyone is queer. Most of these are essentially screenshot redraws with characters swapped around. =)