The concern with "character growth" in popular fiction

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vividgroovy
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09 Mar 2022, 5:17 am

[Originally posted in the Writing forum, but as the examples I've used are from film and TV, I think it goes better here.]

Lately, I've noticed a great deal of concern in online fiction discussion with character arcs and whether or not the protagonist "shows growth" over the course of the story. While there are plenty of great stories that focus on that sort of arc, it's taken to such a degree that people claim protagonists without one are "flat" and that their stories are not even stories at all. Furthermore, protagonists that do explicitly have arcs are accused of not having one, because "they're still the same person at the end of the story."

Recently, I was in a discussion with someone who claimed that Aang from "Avatar: The Last Airbender" didn't have a proper arc but had "plateaus," or in other words, that he didn't show continuous growth. He also claimed that the show "violated Writing 101" because Aang starts and ends the show "not facing problems directly." "If a character starts out doing X, then generally they should not end doing X," he claimed. This guy was a lot more polite and reasonable than a person from another discussion, the director of the film "Happily N'Ever After 2," who claimed that Disney's "Little Mermaid" violated these rules because Ariel didn't learn an overt lesson. When I questioned the reasoning behind this, he replied, "I'm not your professor. Take a writing class."

I'm just wondering, in this philosophy, is there ever a time to like a character for being themselves? Or only for who they can potentially become after their ceaseless "growth?"

Also, the idea that it's always the protagonist who must have the arc is interesting to me. The protagonist represents the audience perspective. I feel like the idea is that they think the reader/audience member must learn that they have to change into a different person. I also think this is why so many people identify with the antagonist these days, claiming they're "misunderstood" and were right all along, because "the rules" say the protagonist must change, but they don't say anything about the antagonist having to change.



Fnord
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09 Mar 2022, 5:24 am

How many stories have you written? How many have been published? Are you a Creative Writing teacher?



vividgroovy
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09 Mar 2022, 5:31 am

Fnord wrote:
How many stories have you written? How many have been published? Are you a Creative Writing teacher?


I've had a couple stories and poems published, but only in minor journals. I haven't claimed to be a published author. I was a freelance film and theater critic for the local newspapers for many years.

I don't see what my credentials have to do with my observation about this trend in writing discussions on the internet.



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09 Mar 2022, 5:50 am

vividgroovy wrote:
Fnord wrote:
How many stories have you written? How many have been published? Are you a Creative Writing teacher?
I've had a couple stories and poems published, but only in minor journals. I haven't claimed to be a published author. I was a freelance film and theater critic for the local newspapers for many years. I don't see what my credentials have to do with my observation about this trend in writing discussions on the internet.
Well, if you are expressing your views as personal opinions, then they are just your opinions.

But if you are expressing your views as critiques by a literary professional, then I might take them seriously.



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09 Mar 2022, 6:00 am

Fnord wrote:
vividgroovy wrote:
Fnord wrote:
How many stories have you written? How many have been published? Are you a Creative Writing teacher?
I've had a couple stories and poems published, but only in minor journals. I haven't claimed to be a published author. I was a freelance film and theater critic for the local newspapers for many years. I don't see what my credentials have to do with my observation about this trend in writing discussions on the internet.
Well, if you are expressing your views as personal opinions, then they are just your opinions.

But if you are expression your views as critiques by a literary professional, then I might take them seriously.


You are welcome to take them seriously or not as you please. I have been paid for my opinions on fiction in the past, for whatever that's worth. I'm talking about a trend in open writing discussions on the internet, not in a formal setting full of credentialed professionals.

If I may ask, what's your opinion on character growth and arcs in fiction? Do you think that if a character finishes the story as "the same person" as when they started, that the character has had no arc and the story isn't a true story?



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09 Mar 2022, 6:13 am

vividgroovy wrote:
. . . what's your opinion on character growth and arcs in fiction?
[opinion=mine]

For short stories, character growth may not be essential; but for longer stories, if a character does not change, then the story itself bears no more impact on me than a nursery rhyme.

[/opinion]

vividgroovy wrote:
Do you think that if a character finishes the story as "the same person" as when they started, that the character has had no arc and the story isn't a true story?
[opinion=mine]

A story is a story is a story. However, to be a good story — one that captures and holds my attention — Characters simply must experience some personal change and/or growth.

[/opinion]

Disclaimer: I am an electrical engineer by profession, and my professional writing is mostly limited to technical documents.



vividgroovy
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09 Mar 2022, 6:25 am

Fnord wrote:
A story is a story is a story. However, to be a good story — one that captures and holds my attention — Characters simply must experience some personal change and/or growth.

[/opinion]


I agree, to a point. I think there can sometimes be a story about "what if this character is thrown into this scenario? How do they deal with it?" The example I used with Mr. Happily N'Ever After was "101 Dalmatians," which is not about protagonists Pongo and Perdita becoming better parents or anything like that, it's just about how they get their puppies back. And in that case, I think that's fine.

My other issue is that there is a big difference between "some personal change and/or growth" and "becoming an entirely different person." The people in question seem to be expecting the latter. For example, someone was accusing the characters in Harry Potter of being "flat," when they start out as children and end as adults. That alone is a huge change, let alone that they also go through specific character changes throughout the books/films.



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09 Mar 2022, 1:00 pm

I know what you mean. Maybe people think a character that stays the same doesn't have dimension or is boring. But i think in fiction everything is subjective. You can like and dislike characters all you please. I don't understand when people get too serious about fiction and i say this as a person who is obsessed with fiction.



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09 Mar 2022, 3:01 pm

vividgroovy wrote:
I'm just wondering, in this philosophy, is there ever a time to like a character for being themselves? Or only for who they can potentially become after their ceaseless "growth?"


I've been less active on Tumblr since middle last year; for those who don't know, there is a large enough and active enough community of writers on Tumblr to get it nicknamed "Writeblr".
There were quite a few posts and conversations about this thing.

And I've seen posts and conversation about it on Deviantart too.

A number of them seemed to be of the nature of; "That a specific thing, specific aspect, specific way of doing things, is the current trend, even fad, does not make it the only way to do things, or even the only good way to do things."


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10 Mar 2022, 4:58 pm

This scene always springs to mind:


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10 Mar 2022, 8:46 pm

I'm not a writer or a creative writing teacher by trade either. Personally I'm more of a visual artist. I've written the occasional screenplay back when I was a student. Every now and then I write as a hobby. I've attended cinematography lessons before but I'm more of an illustrator. At present I'm trying to find work as a UI or graphic designer.

With regards to the main topic, I think that you can certainly have a good film where the protagonist has neither a positive or negative character arc. However, in order for such a story to work, someone or at the very least something has to change. In a more abstract film, this could be society itself, the only issue there is avoiding pretentiousness. Art films that have no direction and break rules for the sake of it rather annoy me. If you want to break a rule, then you must first understand why it's there and what you want to achieve by breaking the rule. Open-endedness is acceptable, but if you have no intended plot then I have no time for your nonsense.


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10 Mar 2022, 11:47 pm

i. I have made a handfull of short films, most of them animated (but usually still very cinematic in style). I have been teaching storytelling to animation students for a few years, and in this course focussed on introducing a variety of storytelling concepts from different periods and cultures.

the "character development" story has become the hollywood standard since George Lucas told everyone about "the hero's journey" after his initial success with Star wars.
The hero's journey is a model for stories about, well, character development, and is derived from a range of myths and classic stories. A guy named Joseph Campbell developed it, in turn borrowing A LOT from C.G.Jung and his psychoanalytic model of human development.

There's just a few problems: Jung's ideas were highly esoteric with religious flavour, Campbell only picked myths that fit the pattern and just distegarded myths that didn't and most of all: the good James Bond films are all the ones in which James Bond doesn't change one bit.
He did get some character development lately - showing in prequels how he became the James Bond everyone loves and frankly: they suck.

A story does not need a character development at all costs, and the intermittent development in Avatar is fine for what it is.
Measuring a story purely by whether it has character development is silly - however, if the important bit of your story is the character, probably character development is a good idea. Maybe even a "hero's journey".

if the main thing is explosions and attractive women and fighting evil masterminds, possibly character development isn't as necessary. I've seen great films and read great books that follow none of the "writing 101" patterns. However, few of them would be made into a Hollywood movie, a lot were foreign... - character development is a hollywood preoccupation.


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10 Mar 2022, 11:56 pm

^ Interesting points. It seems to all come down to personal tastes.

I am more interested in character-driven “Hero’s Journey” stories than in plot-driven “Boom & Zoom” spectacles — “It’s a Wonderful Life” versus “Star Wars XXVIII: The Search for A New Plot”, for example.



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11 Mar 2022, 6:57 am

AprilR wrote:
I know what you mean. Maybe people think a character that stays the same doesn't have dimension or is boring. But i think in fiction everything is subjective. You can like and dislike characters all you please. I don't understand when people get too serious about fiction and i say this as a person who is obsessed with fiction.


I too am obsessed with fiction and I once thought I took it more seriously than most people. I had a short-lived YouTube review show with the tagline "What do you mean it's just an animated movie?" However, after reading tons of comments like the ones I mentioned in the OP, now I'm more like, "Come on, everyone! Lighten up! It's just a movie!"

And So It Goes wrote:
This scene always springs to mind:



That's a good scene.

Honestly, I usually hate movies where nothing happens unless the characters are really interesting and the dialog is very sharp.

Note, though, the variety of different scenarios that the screenwriting coach suggests. It isn't just "protagonist learns they were wrong about everything and becomes an entirely different person" and that's it.

Also, while the people in question don't usually discuss movies like "Adaptation," I can imagine them saying:

"Charlie starts out wanting to write a screenplay and at the end he writes a screenplay. That's not an arc! That's not 'Want vs. Need!' Screenwriting fail. 0/4 stars."

Lost_dragon wrote:
...With regards to the main topic, I think that you can certainly have a good film where the protagonist has neither a positive or negative character arc. However, in order for such a story to work, someone or at the very least something has to change. In a more abstract film, this could be society itself, the only issue there is avoiding pretentiousness. Art films that have no direction and break rules for the sake of it rather annoy me. If you want to break a rule, then you must first understand why it's there and what you want to achieve by breaking the rule. Open-endedness is acceptable, but if you have no intended plot then I have no time for your nonsense.



I agree with what you wrote. As mentioned above, I usually hate art films where nothing happens.

Regarding the video, I've seen this one before. It's mostly pretty good, but I do think its aim is to sell the idea of "flat arcs" to people who are more politically engaged than I am. Basically "Flat arcs are okay because they can inspire audiences to rise up and get involved in our politics just like positive arcs can." Which is fine. I don't expect everyone to be as "politically apathetic" as I am. I just don't need that sort of thing to recognize these stories as valid.

Regarding Marty McFly, the poster child of arc-less characters -- I think Marty does have an arc. He starts out being afraid of rejection as a musician and by the end he goes onstage and plays "Johnny B. Goode" in front of the entire High School. It's not the main focus, but I think it is there. Furthermore, while George and Lorraine change because Marty changed the timeline, if we take a less literal reading of the material, it could represent that Marty's perception of his parents has changed. Marty starts out believing his father never did anything creative and that his mother was "born a nun." Over the course of the story, he finds out these views were wrong. "The Lie That the Character Believes..."

Then, in "Back to the Future II" and "III," Marty is given a more overt arc about not giving in to bullies' taunting...and people still claim he didn't have an arc!

shlaifu wrote:
i. I have made a handfull of short films, most of them animated (but usually still very cinematic in style). I have been teaching storytelling to animation students for a few years, and in this course focussed on introducing a variety of storytelling concepts from different periods and cultures.


That's cool :).

Quote:
the "character development" story has become the hollywood standard since George Lucas told everyone about "the hero's journey" after his initial success with Star wars.
The hero's journey is a model for stories about, well, character development, and is derived from a range of myths and classic stories. A guy named Joseph Campbell developed it, in turn borrowing A LOT from C.G.Jung and his psychoanalytic model of human development.

There's just a few problems: Jung's ideas were highly esoteric with religious flavour, Campbell only picked myths that fit the pattern and just distegarded myths that didn't and most of all: the good James Bond films are all the ones in which James Bond doesn't change one bit.
He did get some character development lately - showing in prequels how he became the James Bond everyone loves and frankly: they suck.


Sadly, the only Bond film I've ever seen is "Quantum of Solace," which is one of the ones you describe. It had a cool theme song though...

Quote:
A story does not need a character development at all costs, and the intermittent development in Avatar is fine for what it is.


I feel like part of this is that, perhaps due to streaming and binge-watching, a lot of people no longer understand episodic fiction and think that it's "done wrong." "Avatar: TLA" and "Harry Potter" both have overarching stories, but they are somewhat episodic as well. (The YouTube comedy show "Honest Trailers" pointed out that "Avatar" does both.)

Quote:
Measuring a story purely by whether it has character development is silly - however, if the important bit of your story is the character, probably character development is a good idea. Maybe even a "hero's journey"...

...I've seen great films and read great books that follow none of the "writing 101" patterns. However, few of them would be made into a Hollywood movie, a lot were foreign... - character development is a hollywood preoccupation.


That's what it feels like to me -- a trend. It works in "Star Wars." But then, "Star Wars" is a coming-of-age story. The flaws Luke needs to overcome in his hero's journey -- naivete, impatience, etc. -- are flaws that a young person is generally expected to have. Under the philosophy I'm talking about, in order to have a "proper arc," Luke must realize he's been a terrible person all along and change into somebody totally different.

Quote:
if the main thing is explosions and attractive women and fighting evil masterminds, possibly character development isn't as necessary.


This reminds me of when people would defend "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" with "It's giant robots and explosions! Who cares about the characters or the story?" But the movie is trying to have story. There's a Chosen One plotline and a subplot about the Chosen One not being able to tell his girlfriend "I love you" and so on...it all feels obligatory. Who was going to this movie to see that? (I went because that's when I was a local movie critic.) Why couldn't it just be giant robots and explosions if that's all people were there for?

Fnord wrote:
^ Interesting points. It seems to all come down to personal tastes.

I am more interested in character-driven “Hero’s Journey” stories than in plot-driven “Boom & Zoom” spectacles — “It’s a Wonderful Life” versus “Star Wars XXVIII: The Search for A New Plot”, for example.


I'm glad you brought up "It's a Wonderful Life." This could be described as a "Lie the Character Believes" story, as mentioned in the video And So It Goes posted. However, the movie is not about George Bailey realizing he must change into a different person -- it's the exact opposite of that. The lie that George believes is that he's a failure. The movie is about him discovering that it's perfectly fine to be himself.

The people in question are usually discussing recent mainstream material, not older films like "It's a Wonderful Life." However, I can imagine ways that they would accuse George Bailey of not having an arc:

"George yelled at Zuzu's teacher in that one scene. However, the movie is not about him discovering that it's not okay to yell at teachers. Therefore George has no arc!"

"George sent Uncle Billy to deposit the money when he should have handled such an important task himself. George never learns from this irresponsible behavior, therefore he has no arc!"

"The Building and Loan was just a nicer version of the corrupt capitalist Status Quo represented by Potter. Actually, it was worse because the people might have risen up against Potter if George wasn't making their lives more comfortable. George is actually the villain, but he never realizes it, therefore he has no arc!"

I wish these were exaggerations, but this is the sort of thing I read all the time about stuff like Disney movies, "Harry Potter" and "Avatar."

Another Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart movie, "You Can't Take It With You," is example of a story where the character with an arc is the antagonist, the banker, Mr. Kirby. And it works fine for that movie.



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11 Mar 2022, 10:23 am

vividgroovy wrote:

I feel like part of this is that, perhaps due to streaming and binge-watching, a lot of people no longer understand episodic fiction and think that it's "done wrong." "Avatar: TLA" and "Harry Potter" both have overarching stories, but they are somewhat episodic as well. (The YouTube comedy show "Honest Trailers" pointed out that "Avatar" does both.)

[...]

That's what it feels like to me -- a trend. It works in "Star Wars." But then, "Star Wars" is a coming-of-age story. The flaws Luke needs to overcome in his hero's journey -- naivete, impatience, etc. -- are flaws that a young person is generally expected to have. Under the philosophy I'm talking about, in order to have a "proper arc," Luke must realize he's been a terrible person all along and change into somebody totally different.



I'll starr with Star Wars first: Luke starts as a farmer boy who dresses in white and dreams of adventure.
He goes through a phase of being the son of a dictator, considers incest with a princess, and dresses all black.
And ends up a monk.
How much more different do you want him?

The "realization" is merely a storytelling trope that happens when you make your character arc the focus of the story. ... I mean. ... Darth Vader realized he was a terrible person and kills Palpatine, rather than Luke.


But what you are speaking of, this one pivotal moment that changes the character: that's a psychoanalytic thing. The breakthrough in the "therapy"-session. Psychoanalysis was onto something, around 1900, but from today's perspective it's basically a practice of implanting false memories (with benign intentions).
That's not how psychotherapy based on the academic field of psychology is done, though.
Change is hard, esp. change for the better. It is something you do on a daily basis, bit by bit.


yesterday I wrote that pure plot is just as valid.
I'd like to add to that: that is the example people usually understand.
you can also do pure mood, with a minimum of story and plot. Tarkovsky made very moody films.

You said it's a trend - well, maybe there is more emphasis now than there used to be.
I don't actually "teach" the hero's journey. I show my students videos. Because there are thousands of videos of analysis of Hollywood films that qualify as hero's journeys, a lot are well made, a lot are short infographics animation - that's how I introduce it. The rest of the lecture I spend introducing Jung and Campbell and a bit of Freud, to show where the words come from and what they used to mean, and why there are some weird kinks in the concept.
But I don't have the impression many people actually read Freud, Jung and Campbell before teaching it. So the hero's journey / character development becomes a simplified yardstick for youtube video essayists with which to measure quality.

For a show like Avatar, I'd say: I do not care. and if the main character stayed absolutely the same from start to finish. I do not think it Avatar is worth literary criticism. It's a product that's being shown to teenagers between the advertisement for which the tv channel gets paid.
Do if you like it, go for it. btw. have you noticed how Bart Simpson has been ten years old for 35 years now?


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15 Mar 2022, 1:04 pm

shlaifu wrote:
. . . he good James Bond films are all the ones in which James Bond doesn't change one bit. . .

Yes, I think this is a good counter-example to the “character arc” rule (if it’s a rule at all!).

And another counter-example is that people love to binge-watch a TV series.