Analysis

Five Failed Character Arcs

Character arcs form the heart of the story. They give audiences a reason to cheer a character on and add emotional depth to the plot. But not all characters arcs are equal. A good arc doesn’t just take a pauper and make her queen; it forces her to become stronger and wiser in the process. These characters didn’t get the arc they deserved.

1. Katniss Everdeen

katniss2

In the beginning, Katniss is a bitter, stubborn character. Her only thought is to protect others, particularly her loved ones. For that, she’ll sacrifice anything. She volunteers for the hunger games, a fate of almost certain death, to keep her sister from it.

In the end, Katniss is a bitter, stubborn character. Her only thought is to protect others, particularly her loved ones. For that, she’ll sacrifice anything. She makes a dramatic decision at the end that puts her life at risk, to keep others from experiencing the same violent oppression she did.

But she changes a little, right? She does develop PTSD. That’s certainly realistic, but it isn’t interesting to watch a disillusioned character become more disillusioned yet. It’s true that emphasizing weak points can create an opportunity for growth. Starting from a new bottom, Katniss could struggle to recover her lost health and faith in the world – it worked great for Legend of Korra, Season 4. But this opportunity isn’t given to Katniss. The closest she gets to proactively rebounding is choosing the right man.

In the series, she often lacks the control she needs to develop. In Catching Fire, Katniss isn’t even informed about what’s happening; other people make plans for her without her help or input. This improves in Mockingjay, where she is given choices – but none of these choices require her to change or grow as a person in any way. She just becomes less confused, figures out what she always wanted to do, and lucky for her it’s what everyone else wants, too. While the end is a break from what others want from her, it’s not a break from the behavior she exhibits in book one. We’re left with a Katniss just like the one we started with.

2. Reinvented Kirk

kirk

In the 2009 Star Trek, Kirk has a reckless, arrogant disregard for the rules. Spock has a rigorous devotion to them. Initially at odd with one another, they slowly learn from each other, recognizing their mutual strengths and resolving their differences.

Except they don’t.

At every turn, Kirk is rewarded for his bad behavior. He provokes a handful of cadets at a bar and ends up with a glowing recruitment speech from a captain. He cheats on a test and is suspended, but then he sneaks onto the enterprise and is promoted to first officer. He is marooned on a moon for disobeying the captain and attacking the security officers, only to meet future Spock, who gives him the secret to taking over as captain. At no point does Kirk admit to making a mistake of any kind.

So instead, Spock just adapts to him. He goes along with all of Kirk’s plans because he has no other choice. Kirk is never forced to compromise with him. Sure, Kirk becomes nicer to Spock, but it’s easy to be nice to someone you can order around. Luckily for Kirk, none of the crew flagrantly disobey him like he disobeyed Spock, even though they don’t believe in his leadership.

For a character to evolve, the story has to acknowledge they have flaws that need fixing. The character has to realize they made the wrong choice so that they have a reason to become a better person. Dismissing all of Kirk’s stupid and reckless behavior as crazy brilliance dooms him to being stale and shallow as a character.

The movie tries to tell a story about how Kirk left his life of misdirection behind and fulfilled his true destiny. Really, it’s about a self-satisfied troublemaker who goes to space and steals the command of an entire ship.

3. Romione

romione

Okay, I’m cheating; these are technically two characters with two different arcs. I’m pairing them because they complete each other. No, not romantically. They each have arcs that are half formed – but where one is weak, the other is strong.

Hermione is a model for slow character growth. In book one she is socially inept and completely inflexible. As she matures she retains her fun and positive traits, while becoming more socially adept and empowered.

But unfortunately, Hermione doesn’t have much emotional depth. We don’t know what drives her to work so hard in the first place. We don’t understand why she insisted on following rules or why she was so bossy. We’re left with the impression her eccentricities slowly wilted away, rather than that she underwent a learning process that changed her.

Ron, on the other hand, does have a compelling emotional issue. He feels inadequate next to his handful of older brothers; when famous Harry becomes his best friend, it makes the problem worse. His insecurity boils over occasionally during the series, until it reaches an epic climax in the seventh book.

That’s all great, but unlike Hermione’s arc, there’s no indication that his feeling of inadequacy changes. While he confronts his fears during the climax, he wasn’t in denial about them before. It’s like he and his problems say hi to each other, then continue exactly what they were doing before the encounter.

Compare this to Xander’s arc in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Xander feels inadequate because he can’t fight evil like the others can. However, in later seasons he learns carpentry and takes a great deal of pride in it. It’s not the ass-kicking ability some argue he should have, but it resolves the emotional problem he was dealing with. Ron, on the other hand, isn’t given anything special to boost his confidence. According to the epilogue,* he remains in Harry’s shadow for their entire career.

4. Princess Leia

princess-leia

Leia was an unforgettable character when she entered in Episode IV. A mock damsel in distress, she shames her rescuers by showing them how much better with a gun she is. She’s a kick-ass diplomat and high ranking officer of the rebel alliance.

But as with many female characters, she gets watered down thereafter. Unlike the other central characters,* she doesn’t get a character arc of her own. Luke learns to be a Jedi and struggles against the dark side of the Force. Han deals with his debt to Jabba the Hutt and starts fighting for a cause. Even Lando has a redemption arc. Leia… you know, she does stuff?

Fans could argue she has two arcs – her romance with Han Solo and the beginnings of her own Jedi powers. The problem is that both of these arcs are as much or more about the male characters. Setting aside how creepy her “no means yes” romance with Han was in Episode V, Han got his own arcs in addition to their romance. The romance arc wasn’t enough for his character, and it wasn’t enough for hers either.

While making her a potential Jedi was a great move, she only uses her Force sensitivity to empathize with Luke. Not even with Han; her powers are strictly Luke-related. The two of them have a critical conversation in which he tells her that she’s his sister and Darth Vader’s daughter, but the conversation focuses on him and his choice to confront Vader. Her role is becoming upset and then pleading with him not to go. She doesn’t get to confront Vader herself or take any meaningful action based on her new knowledge.

And that’s the heart of it. Despite her iconic style and fun personality, Leia is a character without agency in the plot. She merely tags along with whatever other characters are doing. Without plot-driving choices, character arcs are meaningless.

5. Jake Sully

jake-sully

In Avatar, Jake Sully has two arcs that were carefully planned and implemented. First, Jake desperately wants to regain movement in his legs. Second, he undergoes training from Neytiri, which takes him from being “like a baby” to understanding and respecting the nature of Pandora and the Na’vi tribe. But both of these arcs fall apart when context is added. They’re a privileged mess.

Let’s start with the mobility arc. If you ever feel like insulting people with disabilities, use your story to tell them how inadequate they are. Show how someone with a disability should be desperate to not have that disability. Depict how sad and sorry they are that they can’t see, walk, etc. That’s exactly what Avatar does.

The problems with the training arc require more explanation. First, the low point of this arc comes when the Na’vi discover Jake didn’t tell them what he knew about plans to attack their home, and they cast him out. They are mad for a good reason – he pretended to be part of their tribe while not being faithful to them. Does he ever apologize for this mistake or learn a lesson? Not that we can tell.

Instead he takes a wild jump onto an animal they consider sacred in order to bond with it – something very few Na’vi have ever achieved. If you don’t know what’s wrong with this, imagine an old mentor who has spent her entire life trying to craft a magical ring. Then when she isn’t around, her new student decides he can make this ring, no problem. By doing so, he is dismissing all the skill that goes into the art he is learning. Sure, the story can make him succeed, but that doesn’t make his attempt any less stupid or disrespectful considering what he knew about it.

Then Jake uses the sacred animal to become their war leader. This is salt in the wound of indigenous people everywhere. It suggests other cultures need a white person to save them. Sure, Jake knows about the enemy, so he should advise the Na’vi. But what qualifies him to take charge in place of their experienced battle leaders?

He doesn’t take any of the lessons about nature to heart either. In the beginning, Jake recklessly stumbles about the woods at night, fighting animals that attack him. Neytiri finds him and admonishes him for ignorantly stumbling around. She tells him the death of the animals he was fighting is sad, because they didn’t need to die. In the end, Jake recklessly jumps onto a sacred animal and tells everyone to go to war. That’s learning for you.


A great arc requires a character that has flaws, makes mistakes, faces consequences, and adapts. That’s why a character with great potential is infinitely better than a character that’s perfect. The audience will follow a character with potential just to see their magnificent transformation. Don’t cheat them out of it.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about , , , , ,

 

Comments

  1. Jennifer

    Hmmmm. Interesting post. While I agree that I would probably enjoy the above stories better if the mentioned characters had better arcs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the author “failed” in their job. The stories mentioned are clearly plot driven stories and not character driven. In fact, every one of these could fall into the adventure genre, and that genre tends to rely less on character arc than others. I remember discussing character arcs at a writer’s conference and Indiana Jones was brought up. Yep, you guessed it. Indiana has no character arc, so to speak. And he’s not meant to. He’s intended to be the same guy coming out of the story as he was going in, as so many do in plot driven adventures. That said, I love a good arc. I find that I connect better with stories where the characters change and grow. But that’s my preference. I just wouldn’t take something successful and say ‘they did this and this wrong.’ I’d like to see some examples of what people did right. See what works.

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Jennifer,

      I actually have a post with positive examples of character arcs here: Ten Movies With Strong Character Arcs – though I don’t describe them in as much depth because they are meant for people to watch and analyze them themselves.

      I think all of the writers of the stories I listed in this post were aiming for characters arcs of some kind, but it’s true that not every story sets out to have a character arc. However, I don’t know of any story that is worse off because of them, and almost all are better off with them. A plot driven adventure can still be a plot driven adventure with a character arc.

      I like to use successful examples because people are familiar with them, and because I don’t like to pick on the little guy. I also think learning and growing as a storyteller is a process that never ends, even for bestselling storytellers.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Interesting side note, I think Indie could be said to have an arc in Raiders of the Lost Arc (heh) as he becomes a believer in the Arc’s power at the end of the movie. He starts by telling one of his colleagues (as a friend of mine pointed out)…

      “Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogieman.”

  2. Veronica Sicoe

    I seriously love your blog, guys. LOVE IT.
    Just wanted to say that.

    I’ve nothing to add to your points, Chris. Straight hit. Even if a story is plot driven, if that plot is entirely driven by the protagonist’s decisions, and that protagonist doesn’t evolve as his decisions (and their consequences) evolve, then… yeah, failed character arc. No excuses.
    Sure, those stories are still enjoyable, but they’re enjoyable despite the lacking arc, not regardless of it. They have other strengths to cover up that lack, but that doesn’t mean the lack isn’t there.

  3. Abigail Clark

    I have just found out that you wrote the majority of my favorite articles on this website, and I adore you half to death, but I have to disagree with you–just a little–on a your assessments of Leia and Hermione.
    Leia doesn’t have much development as a character, true, and maybe some development would have made her a little deeper, but as she’s not the main character, it’s not entirely necessary. She’s very much a static character. I would say that it’s mostly because she’s already gone through most of her development by the time the story starts–she’s a princess of alderaan, in that kind of environment you have to grow quickly. So she’s already a bamf warrior princess by the time the story starts.
    About Hermione, you said “We don’t know what drives her to work so hard in the first place.” I would have to disagree with that. She has a fairly subtle backstory, but it’s certainly there. Due to her social ineptness, and the bookish attitude she inherited from her parents, Hermione didn’t have many friends until Harry and Ron. Coming to Hogwarts, she feels like she can finally belong somewhere–Until she realizes that she’s looked down upon, for being muggleborn. From there, she seeks to prove herself, partially with her intelligence. This adds a lot more depth to the character. From then on, it’s primarily slow growth, with her learning how to work with other people without telling them what’s best for them, though that will always be a part of her personality.
    Besides these two things, though, I will say that your articles on character are incredible, and have helped me understand my own stories and casts so much better. They’ve helped me think through a lot of things, so thank you, for all of your advice.

    • Chris Winkle

      Wow Abigail, you sure know how to disagree nicely I’m glad you like my work!

      Yes, it’s true that side characters don’t always need an arc. In this case, however, Leia is surrounded by male characters that have substantially more growth and agency than she does. She’s the only human of importance that doesn’t drive the plot. Even discounting the social justice issues involved in this, it makes her feel like a weak link. And while we could stay it glorifies her that she’s already perfect and doesn’t have room to grow, I’m not sure that’s a good trade off for a compelling emotional struggle that brings the audience closer to her. What if she had to make a hard choice or face a challenge to grow into her jedi powers? Wouldn’t have that been cool?

      As for Hermione, I completely agree that’s the arc she should have – but I don’t think Rowling actually develops that in the story. If you love Hermione you might read between the lines for it, but it isn’t fleshed out the way Ron’s issue is. She does have an important moment in book 1 where she feels rejected, but she’s extremely bookish even before that. It’s clear she wants to impress, by we aren’t shown the emotions behind it. Of course, you could always prove me wrong with a quote

  4. Rosie

    I disagree with you on two counts – Katniss Everdeen and the Ron/Hermione relationship. I can only assume that you put Ron and Hermione on this list, due to some “SHIPPER’S WAR” in the Harry Potter fandom. As for Katniss, she does develop over time. Just not in the way that you wanted her to develop. She’ll never be an “ideal female character” and you don’t seem capable of either accepting this or understanding what Suzanne Collins was trying to say in her story.

    • Skylark

      Uh, the Rin and Hermione one has nothing to do with their romantic relationship. She just notes how they each have a successful arc in some ways, but lacking in others.

      As for Katniss, she grows in terms of agency and scope of her actions, but not personally. She remained so closed off throughout the entire series, it was hard for me to empathize with her.

      Now maybe I’m missing something with Katniss because I’m not a huge fan of her and don’t try to read between the lines with her like with Hermione. But I think both characters could have used a little more overt development in-story.

  5. Rosie

    You know what? I disagree with the addition of Jake Sully on this list, as well.

    [“According to the epilogue,* he remains in Harry’s shadow for their entire career.”]

    Oh brother.

  6. Bess Marvin

    I see a lot of analyzing over Hermione and Ron with traits and arcs, but how does Harry Potter (the main character) ever change in seven books? He’s a good kid who has always been picked on or neglected, then finds out he’s special but rejects the attention and glory, is always involved in the annual bad guy at Hogwarts plot and selflessly puts himself in danger, then earns himself more glory and attention that he rejects. In every book.

    I would have found it much more interesting if he reveled in the attention once he found out the wizarding world thinks he’s a hero. This is a kid who has been treated like garbage his whole childhood. Why wouldn’t he want special treatment? This flaw could’ve paralleled what we hear of his father’s teenage arrogance and sense of entitlement, but it’s ultimately worn away with each battle against evil until he’s finally the self-sacrificing hero who willingly faces Voldemort to protect the people he loves.

    • Chris Winkle

      I agree, that would have been great. Harry does go through and overcome various emotional issues, but I think the reason he doesn’t have a more solid arc is that Rowling didn’t want to give him any important flaws.

    • Lia

      It’s been a while since I read the books, so correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that somewhat happen in book 5 when he goes to the Ministry of Magic? He gets too confident, and ends up losing Sirius.

  7. Kimberley

    Have a read of K.M. Weiland’s ‘How to Write a Flat Character Arc.’ http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/flat-character-arc-1/ I found her when I was looking to improve my own character-building. While the positive change arc is the most popular, as Weiland says there are plenty of great stories written about characters who already possess their ‘Truth’ and don’t need to change at the end of the story, and Katniss is one of these. Weiland gives some other examples, like Mattie Ross in True Grit, Maximus in Gladiator, and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. Once you know about it you begin to see them everywhere!

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks for the interesting read.

      It looks like Weiland’s flat character arc boils down to a character whose resolve is tested. I can see what she’s saying about the arc, but I personally wouldn’t apply it to Katniss. First, because Katniss is a very troubled person at the start. It doesn’t feel like she’s found a personal truth or balance, just that she’s in hell and is being put through more hell. Perhaps Collins meant her to have a flat character atc, but when a character shows unhappiness and flaws like that at the beginning of the story, it sets an expectation that it will be addressed by the end.

      While Weiland’s flat structure involves the protagonist confronting the big Lie, Katniss has no interest in doing that, and is dragged through the whole thing by other characters. Weiland considers her actions to save Peta as taking on the Lie, I wouldn’t. Her behavior at the end of Book I is rebellious, but still reactive, and she doesn’t do it for society so much as to get herself and Peta out of there alive. If she was motivated by principle, I could see it, but I don’t think she was.

      Stories can be interpreted in many ways. I respect Weiland’s opinion, though I disagree in this case.

      Thanks for the interesting discussion.

      • Kimberley Ash

        I see your point but I still think Katniss’ basic strength is there at the end as at the beginning. The world ended up conforming to her. Yes, PTSD, she tried compromising her beliefs several times during her journey, etc., but in the end her fundamental truth is what it was at the start: The Capitol is bad, a simple life without external pressure good. Too simplistic? Maybe. I was just fascinated by how many of these ‘flat’ arcs there are, or at least that Weiland can identify.

  8. David MacDowell Blue

    I am genuinely baffled at anyone who thinks the Katniss Everdeen we meet at the beginning of those books is the same character we know at the end. Her sense of self has been almost destroyed then rebuilt. She has a fundamental awareness of herself she lacked before, suffers and works through a severe case of PTSD, etc. Honestly it seems to me you expect a successful character arc should fundamentally re-work said character’s personality instead of showing change. More, you miss how Katniss finds a way to embrace hope even after losing so much and in such horrible ways.

    Likewise I feel you’ve fallen a little bit into the trap of saying a character isn’t real unless their personality traits are explained. Well, if the reasons are important to the story, sure. But for example Hermione’s personality seemed instantly recognizable and real from the time she appeared through to the end. Enough so it didn’t surprise me one bit to find she was the only child of two professionals, any more than I was shocked to learn just how many (and how vivid) siblings he had nor that his mother was a bit of a good hearted nag while his father was cheerfully hen-pecked while enjoying his little enthusiasms so much. They both seem to “fit” into what we know of their backgrounds, and it told me from book one they were a couple waiting to happen. Of course I also figured all sorts of things happened between Voldemort’s end and the epilogue–that marriage endured some rocky times, I’m sure.

    On the other hand, totally agree about Kirk. I can see what they were trying to do–making him invested in certain things so that (for example) the good opinion of Pike meant so much–but the world reacts to him in a way that makes no sense at all.

    Even moreso with Princess Leia. So very much. Spot on.

  9. mike

    I disagree about the first arc complaint in Avatar. If I lost my legs in a war, I have no doubt I would desire to have mobility back. It seems overly PC to pretend everyone with disabilities is fully content, or that someone with disabilities but wanting more is somehow insulting the disabled. If that were true, nobody hard of hearing would want hearing aids, nobody with poor sight would want glasses, and nobody with lost limbs would want prosthetics.

    Everyone deals with their circumstances and learns to be happy (hopefully), but that doesn’t mean we don’t all want more.

    I like the rest of the post, all good points.

    • Skylark

      Maybe I’m remembering wrong (it’s been a while since I’ve seen Avatar), but I think the main problem with the disability-related arc was the lack of personal investment and emotional reaction. Jake doesn’t really pursue the chance to regain his mobility, it just falls into his lap.* Rather than have character-centric moments where he really appreciates and revels in his newfound mobility, we cut immediately to plot (or if these moments are there, they get shunted aside in favor of action).

      *Via the demise of his brother, if I’m remembering right. But again, it’s a plot device, where it could have been an emotional arc about loss and seeking a new kinship amongst the Na’vi.

  10. Devlin Blake

    I don’t think Hermonie was meant to have an ‘arc’. She wasn’t the hero. Everyone doesn’t get an arc. If she got one, she might have upstaged Harry.

    As to why she worked so hard, it was because she was muggle born with wizard powers. She felt like an outsider and tried to prove she belonged by overachieving. The fact that she ‘fit in’ with Harry and Ron is a type of arc. She finally feels she can be herself; smart, but not always on and worried about judgement.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.