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Transformational Character Arcs: Part 1

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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I keep trying to make my Protagonist's transformational character arc in my rewrite a little less obvious yet more APPARENT. I don’t want anyone to read and say, "Cool, there’s the arc." I just want people to walk away after having absorbed the fact that the Protagonist completed it. In other words, I want to slide it in there under the radar so that you FEEL it... You know it but you don’t know it.

Got it?


The transformational character arc is the emotional change your Protagonist goes through by the end of your story.

The transformational character arc is one of the most daunting story elements we have today. Many, many screenwriters attempting to break into the business know that they need it but once again, those that are out there attempting to teach us this stuff haven’t done their homework...

What I mean by that is they (the screenwriting gurus) almost always tell YOU; the girl or guy that just plopped down $300, $350, $500, (and an equal amount or more on screenwriting books) that you need to make sure that your Protagonist has a character arc.

Uh, thanks.

Let me also say that I don’t really mean this toward anyone in particular but suffice to say, I’ve been to every guru’s workshop, pretty much buy every screenwriting book that comes out (even bad ones), read articles like they are going out of style and still... No meat and potatoes when it comes to the character arc.

I wonder why that is? Could it be that nobody’s ever actually broken it down?

No way... Somebody’s done it somewhere... Hell, I know I have. MaryAn, of Fencing With The Fog fame made an outstanding comment in a previous post... i.e., “My take: motivation is what propels characters towards goals.” A simple little sentence but OH SO MUCH POWER.

I bring this up because of the importance of motivation in your Protagonist’s transformational character arc... i.e., it is in fact this motivation that you’ve so deftly fleshed into your story that also drives your character to be better than he or she was before they started out on their journey but remember, however your Protagonist acts; whatever your Protagonist says or thinks that he or she wants (GOAL), could very well be different from what they truly want i.e., their MOTIVATION.

Often, the Protagonist simply goes after what they THINK they want and, through their own decision making, emotional action and reaction, they end up discovering what they really want and when they discover what they really want, BAM! They WAKE UP because until now, they’ve been fooling themselves just trying to get along. Now that they’ve SEEN the new end of the rainbow, they can’t do without it hence, the new GOAL and hence, MOTIVATION.

I guess that's why I go crazy when it comes to my characters. Without characters... Scratch that. Without GREAT CHARACTERS, the audience is going to have a really hard time climbing on board the sympathy/empathy train.

I read a lot of screenplays where the screenwriter tries to develop all the main characters before the first act is complete. To me, that's exactly one of the problems in pulling off an outstanding transformational character arc. Give us the character as a lump of clay in the beginning. BE THE ARTIST and let us watch you mold that clay throughout the entire story.

In other words, bring in your characters and quickly give them dimension. Go ahead and develop them just enough to hook us so we can get on board the sympathy/empathy train for the rest of the story. Get rid of all their clichés, kick them in the ass, and get them going on their journeys. Then, as time goes on, continue to develop them. Continue to give them more dimensionality through their actions and dialogue.

Another problem I see a lot are characters that are simply NOT CAPABLE of undergoing a transformational arc. Remember, your main character i.e., your Protagonist needs to be a character CAPABLE of undergoing transformation.

If you give us the PERFECT CHARACTER right up front, FUGHEDABOUDIT.

We're gonna be bored and bored people FORGET to jump on the sympathy/empathy train.

Along this line of thought, if we're bored by your characters, then it is very likely that your characters are also BORING. Nobody wants to read and watch boring characters. We already have way too much boredom in our lives. Please do not inundate us with even MORE! I can't tell you how many people NOT in the business make the comment (or something similar), "Well that's another two hours of my life that I'll never get back."

As a screenwriter, please be HYPER-AWARE that before you ever give your script to someone to read, you're asking that person or persons to give you about two hours of their life to read your screenplay. To me, that's one of the most ultimate gifts anyone could ever give to me and so many screenwriters NEVER EVER stop to consider what a wonderful gift that is to begin with.

Assuming that this is a wonderful gift, don't you at least OWE your reader two hours of excitement instead of boredom? And, if that is true, don't you also owe it to your prospective MILLIONS of AUDIENCE MEMBERS out there waiting to see your eventual movie, two hours of excitement?

Don't ever forget WHY we go to the movies... To ESCAPE!

Boredom is not escape.

Give us main characters as big as life! Quintessential characters. Characters capable of being transformed by the end of your story. As audience members of your prospective movie, we want to see different sides of your characters.

We want to see their EMOTIONAL make-up. We want to see their EMOTIONAL attitudes. We want to see how they EMOTIONALLY react to the other characters in your story. We want to see them make EMOTIONAL decisions. We want to see them make EMOTIONAL decisions based on the obstacles you throw at them. We want to see them screw up. We want to see them climb up CRAP MOUNTAIN.

The EMOTIONAL responses of your characters (the ones YOU WRITE of course) serve to develop them, create dimensionality within them, and if done correctly, make them BELIEVABLE. Just remember that believable characters do not have to be boring.

Dimensionality serves to delineate your character(s) to your audience. The transformational character arc that your character achieves by the end of your story, DEFINES your character. In other words, we really don't know what to expect but hopefully, we'll enjoy the ride. Your character(s) however, will keep revealing bits and pieces of his or her emotional make-up and if done correctly i.e., with tension, conflict, rising action, etc., KEEP US ON THE TRAIN.


Which is why it's so important to KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. I'm not going to say this is a rule but knowing your characters well can certainly make giving him or her a believable and exciting transformational character arc a lot easier than not knowing your character well.


One of the easiest ways to give your Protagonist a believable transformational character arc is to start them out with fairly defined attitudes and philosophies and then, as you take them through your story, TEST those attitudes and philosophies, causing them to discover new attitudes and philosophies that are different from the ones they started out with.

As your character(s) tackle the obstacles you've placed before them, their attitudes and philosophies begin to SHIFT, DEVELOP, and CHANGE into new attitudes and philosophies. Going to the extreme OPPOSITE of the beginning attitudes and philosophies makes us feel or sense the transformational character arc of your Protagonist.

Another way to make this a little easier for you is in KNOWING YOUR CHARACTERS. Did I say that already? Yeah, I did! If you know your characters well enough... i.e., their attitudes and philosophies about life, people, etc., then it can be easier to plot out an extreme opposite change in attitudes and philosophies ahead of time, add that to your structure so you know where your Protagonist is headed. He or she doesn't necessarily have to follow your road map either. The better you know your characters, the easier it is for them to surprise you on the way.

The following is rather old information and very basic when it comes to MEN and WOMEN but very valuable to know before you begin to create your characters... Everyone knows that men and women are different and I'm not talking about being different physiologically. We COMMUNICATE differently from each other and knowing the basics of that communication before you even start to create a character will really help you with your Protagonist's ultimate transformational character arc.

Let's get into the BASIC difference between FEMALE and MALE communication:
  • Females like to discuss their problems because generally, doing so, provides them with a little relief about those problems
  • Males on the other hand, don't really like to discuss their problems. Brooding about problems doesn't SOLVE the problem so we tend not to discuss our problems with others
  • Females generally like to complain. Complaining and sharing those complaints with others is a female's way of showing support and intimacy
  • Again, Males like to solve problems rather than complain about them. Complaining about their problems doesn't solve the problems
  • Females like to discuss their relationship with the person whom they share that relationship with. They feel that discussing the relationship, serves to bring the two of them closer and more intimate i.e., improving the relationship overall
  • Males on the other hand, generally feel that discussing a relationship with the person they share that relationship with is a waste of time unless either or both resolve to make changes that hopefully, will improve said relationship
  • Females tend to speak much faster than Males
  • Females tend to apologize a lot more during discussions than Males
  • Females tend to disclose more about themselves than Males
  • Females tend to be more indirect during discussions
  • Males tend to get to the point rather quickly
  • Females tend to enjoy discussions about emotion
  • Males tend to feel weak and or powerless when discussing emotions
  • Females tend to ask a lot of questions to show the person they're speaking to that they are in fact interested in both subject and the person
  • Males tend to ask a lot of questions to obtain more information about the subject and person they're talking to
  • Females tend to provide lots of background information and even minute details because they really want to be understood
  • Males on the other hand, simply want to make their point
Just knowing these basic facts about communication between Males and Females will serve to make your own characters more believable to us.

Please note that I didn't make these up and I certainly know (personally) both males and females that DO NOT fall into these communication character traits but then again, overall, I'd have to say that generally speaking, I do agree with the above. In fact, keeping the above in mind while you're writing couldn't hurt but that doesn't mean it's okay to create cliché characters. Just use the above as a general guideline to keep you on the path of believability.

In Part 2, we'll get into Personality Types. Research says that a person's personality develops at a very early age and continues to stay fairly consistent throughout the rest of their life.

Good to know.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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