Anyone unfortunate enough to have lived through the Star Wars prequels knows that a bad character arc can ruin the story. We love watching characters grow and change over time, but when that change feels forced, contrived, or otherwise unbelievable, it’s worse than no arc at all. And this isn’t just a problem for Anakin Skywalker, either.* Character development is hard, and authors fumble with it all the time. On the bright side, that means we don’t have to look far to find cautionary examples to learn from.
Spoiler Notice: Nancy Drew, The City in the Middle of the Night, The Ten Thousand Doors of January
1. Chief McGinnis: Nancy Drew
As someone who has never read Nancy Drew and was only vaguely aware of it as a franchise, the CW network’s new Nancy Drew show has seriously impressed me with its quality. The characters are fun and witty, the mysteries are compelling, and the conflict is urgent without feeling overwhelming. Plus it’s got cool ghosts and spooky rituals! For the most part, it’s a great show.
But then there’s Chief McGinnis of the Horseshoe Bay Police Department. At first, he’s a simple antagonist. He doesn’t like Nancy meddling in police affairs, and he jumps at any chance to put her behind bars. He’s also blackmailing one of Nancy’s friends to spy on her – how rude! McGinnis is a fine character who supports the show’s premise. Mysteries would be too easy for Nancy to solve if she had cooperation from the police, so the antagonism makes perfect sense. It’s also cool that McGinnis is a Native American character who isn’t stereotyped as wise or mystical…
…Until episode eight, anyway! Then, out of nowhere, McGinnis does a complete heel-face turn and starts using the mystic knowledge of his people to help Nancy figure out what’s going on with all these ghosts. This was a terrible idea based solely on racism. I don’t know if the rituals McGinnis performs are based on real beliefs or entirely made up, but either way, it’s a terrible look for urban fantasy to use Native American religions as part of a magic system. White people have been exoticizing and appropriating indigenous culture for way too long, and we need to stop.
But putting aside the racism, McGinnis’s turn doesn’t work from a technical perspective either. Suddenly he wasn’t actually blackmailing Nancy’s friend, he was just calling in a favor. And he really cares what happens to our heroes. In fact, he’s super nice now. His entire demeanor changes, to the point that he doesn’t seem like the same character anymore. Even the character’s portrayal is less believable, like actor Adam Beach spent a bunch of time getting into character for this jerkass police chief and then was suddenly told he needed to be a wise Magical Native instead.
It’s not impossible that McGinnis could have turned into a good guy, but such a development needed longer than the approximately zero episodes it was given. He’s such a major asshole that it would probably have taken most of the season for his attitude toward Nancy and her friends to thaw out. The show would have first needed to make them uneasy allies, putting them in situations where they had to work together despite their animosity. From there, actual friendship could have grown.
Apparently that wasn’t in the cards, but we do get a final indicator of how much this turn didn’t work: McGinnis nearly disappears from the show afterward. Remember, Nancy can’t have the police as her allies or her job is too easy, so the show has to bring in not one, but two new characters to be antagonistic cops in McGinnis’s place. I don’t know if they wrote McGinnis out when they realized this nice version of him didn’t work, or if they rushed the change because of actor availability, but it’s a failed arc either way.
2. Mouth: The City In the Middle of the Night
Heel-face turns and redemption arcs aren’t the only type of character arc out there, and that’s what brings us to Charlie Jane Anders’s Hugo-nominated novel The City in the Middle of the Night. In this story, the oddly named Mouth goes through an arc that eventually takes her from total badass to total pacifist. That was already going to be an uphill battle, since readers tend to like badass characters, but the world is also so grimdark that pacifism seems far-fetched. Seriously, this is a setting where everything is trying to kill you, from fellow humans and local wildlife to the environment itself. That makes it incredibly easy for a nonviolent character to come across as naive or in denial.
With all of those obstacles, it would have taken a masterful arc to convincingly take Mouth from badass to pacifist, and that is not what the book gives us. The first problem is that we never actually see Mouth being a badass. The book tells us she’s a badass, but only in the past. In the present, she’s inexplicably frozen with fear or indecision in nearly every fight and action sequence. I can only assume this is meant to provide contrast, but she’s never shown doing anything else. She just feels like an ineffectual character.
The book goes on in this manner for a while, until its next big trick: Mouth completely loses her ability to fight. The way this happens is bizarre, to say the least. Mouth is part of a battle that the book describes almost entirely through summary, which makes it seem unimportant. Then, the next time we see Mouth, she suddenly can’t hold weapons anymore? After a few paragraphs of confusion, the book explains that this apparently happened after the summarized battle, implying that Mouth was so traumatized that she now can’t perform violence of any kind.
So now we have two problems at once. One: a major character change happens offscreen. Two: this fight feels too routine. It wasn’t particularly brutal by the book’s grimdark standards, nor did Mouth have to do anything morally abhorrent. Or at least, she didn’t do anything more abhorrent than what she’s done in the past. This makes the change feel contrived, like the author wanted Mouth to be a pacifist but didn’t know how to get her there, so she just deployed some handwavium and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
Worst of all, I’m not even sure what this contrived arc was for. Mouth does solve a couple of problems without fighting, but they’re problems that couldn’t have been solved by fighting anyway, so it seems pointless. It’s like there was some requirement that she have an arc, any arc, and this one was chosen by throwing darts at a wall.
The only purpose Mouth’s arc seems to serve in the story is to put her in a low place so she can be cajoled into joining the book’s Alien Savior Cult. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Well, the book has some aliens and the only way for humanity to survive is to accept the aliens as our lords and saviors. I know, it surprised me too. Like any good cult, this one recruits Mouth when she’s at her lowest, but I think that’s an accident since all of the book’s language indicates these aliens are supposed to be good. Even if this was actually the goal, there are far easier ways to make Mouth vulnerable to Alien Jesus.
3. Agent Kallus: Rebels
Look, I said we were going to talk about characters other than Anakin, but I never promised no Star Wars. Agent Kallus is our main recurring villain for Rebels’ first two seasons or so, and wow is he bad at it. Not only does he constantly fail, but there are even a couple of episodes where the heroes walk right into one of his ambushes and still fight their way out with ease. On top of that, Kallus is not at all likable. He’s casually cruel and has presided over at least one genocide. He even carries a weapon from the people he wiped out, in case you didn’t hate him enough.
With this unique flavor of evil and incompetence, surely Kallus ends up getting Force choked so someone better can take over, right? NOPE. Instead, the writers thought it would be better to give this bag of war crimes a redemption arc! Can you feel that low rumbling in the Earth? That’s me groaning at what a terrible idea this was.
We start the redemption arc with an episode where Kallus is trapped on an ice world with one of the good guys. They have to work together, or they’ll both die. The good guy in question is Zeb, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s a member of that species that Kallus did a genocide on. WHOOPS. Don’t worry, though, they retcon that a little bit: Kallus reveals he didn’t order the genocide, he just participated in it, and the weapon he carries is something he won in an honorable duel. An honorable duel during a genocide. Sure.
Good, good. Instead of a Jew having to work with Adolf Eichmann, now it’s just a Jew having to work with a concentration camp guard. That’s probably fine, right? If you can get past the gross taste that leaves in your mouth, you might be able to see the next problem: Kallus’s personality completely changes after this episode. Before, he was just a jerk. Now he suddenly cares about civilian casualties for some reason? That certainly wasn’t a priority in previous episodes. But now he cares so much that he’s eager to completely betray the empire and join Team Good.
If this is where you started watching, everything would seem fine. Kallus is clearly an imperial officer with a conscience. He’s conflicted about his loyalty to the empire, but he also knows that imperial atrocities are wrong, so he eventually does the right thing and quits. He’s even competent! But the character of Kallus didn’t just spring into existence as this decent man who can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.
If the writers wanted Kallus to have a redemption arc, then they needed to make him someone worth redeeming from the start. He should have been an honorable opponent and a worthy adversary, not someone who would happily kick a puppy. The whole genocide backstory needed to go as well. Maybe he can still have the weapon from Zeb’s species, and the good guys assume he looted it, but then find out it’s a family heirloom or something. Anything that avoids forcing Zeb to make nice with a man who slaughtered his people.
4. Bellamy: The 100
The 100 is a show all about angsty character arcs. In fact, Bellamy starts the show with one, where he has to redeem himself after causing a lot of trouble for his fellow Skaikru kids. That worked so well that when season three rolled around, the writers figured they’d just do it again. The only problem is that to have a redemption arc, the character needs something to redeem themselves from, and by season three Bellamy had largely overcome his morally questionable ways.
So what are the writers going to do? Step one is to give Bellamy a girlfriend they can fridge. Her name is Gina, but I have to look it up every time because in my head she’s always “Whatsername.” Gina appears between seasons, and her relationship with Bellamy is based on… them both being hot, as far as I can tell. Anyway, she and several other members of Skaikru are soon murdered by the Grounder faction known as Azgeda.
If you’re not familiar with The 100’s setting, the Grounders are humans who live on Earth’s post-apocalyptic surface, while Skaikru (sky-crew) has recently arrived from the Arc, an orbiting space station. So now, since Bellamy and many others in Skaikru are really pissed at Azgeda, they follow a charismatic demagogue to retaliate against… an entirely different group of Grounders called Trikru (tree-crew). Trikru is actually allied with Skaikru against Azgeda, so this is literally the worst thing they could have done.
This is the bad act that Bellamy now needs to redeem himself from for his second redemption arc, but it doesn’t fit with his character. Sure, some of Skaikru might think all Grounders are the same, but Bellamy knows better. For him, this is like getting attacked by France and retaliating against Belgium. That’s basically the same, right?
As if that weren’t bad enough, the retaliation itself is particularly brutal, with Skaikru gunning down three hundred Trikru soldiers who were actually there to protect Skaikru from further Azgeda aggression. Bellamy’s hardly a perfect angel, but it’s still difficult to believe he’d participate in such a slaughter, and even harder to cheer for his redemption once he does. Murdering your friends for no reason is past the moral event horizon for a lot of people, which means the character is too evil for a redemption to be satisfying.
Fortunately, if you can ignore the events of early season three, then Bellamy does eventually recover and become a good character again. He even gets a girlfriend who didn’t appear from the ether and who has real chemistry with him! But that’s a pretty big “if,” and it’s especially irritating that it happens so late in the show, when the writers really should have a handle on their characters.
5. January: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Oh look, another Hugo-nominated novel. I wonder if someone is rushing to finish them all before Worldcon? This time we have a growth arc for the main character, a young lady by the name of January. She starts the story meek and submissive, then grows into her own by the end, becoming assertive and capable of forging her own path. That’s a perfectly serviceable arc, so what’s the problem?
First, January never seems particularly meek. If anything, she’s rather neutral. She acquiesces to those with power over her, but most people would do that, on account of the power they have over her. It never goes far enough to feel like a character flaw. If anything, she seems overly impulsive, like the time she gets drunk and tells a bunch of powerful men that they’re all evil and racist.* This is what we in the business call an unwise move.
So how do I know she’s supposed to be meek and submissive? Because the narrator keeps telling me she is. It’s explained several times that she has to go along with what other people want because that’s how she was conditioned as a child. Oddly, this is usually brought up in situations where being meek and submissive isn’t relevant.
For example, when January’s abusive guardian declares that he’s sending her to a sanatorium, the narrator talks about how she’s too meek to fight back. But fighting back wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Her guardian had several bulky henchmen at his disposal; going along with his orders was just the smart thing to do. This kind of thing happens several times.
That is, except when being meek and submissive would get January what she wants. Then she’s suddenly incapable of it. You see, she has a magic power where she can make anything happen by writing it down. Yes, that’s incredibly overpowered, but we’re talking about her character arc now. All January needs to escape the asylum is a pen and paper, which they would almost certainly give her if she just acted meek and asked if she could send a letter to her family or what have you.
But no, instead she goes berserk and attacks nurses, orderlies, and a doctor in a vain bid to get a pen. Naturally this doesn’t work, and it certainly doesn’t feel like something she’d do if she were indeed raised to be meek and submissive. Later on, she finally has her big moment and is able to escape after suffering some severe injuries. This is supposed to mark a major turning point in her arc, but it’s not particularly satisfying because she never demonstrated a need for that arc in the first place.
So why did this happen? Part of it is definitely the story trying to navigate around the fact that January has godlike powers. There needed to be a reason why she couldn’t just write herself out of the asylum, character consistency be damned. For the rest, it’s a case of telling when showing was needed. If we had actually seen January’s meekness cause problems for her, then it would have demonstrated a need for growth.
6. Kylo Ren: The Rise of Skywalker
Naturally, we end this list in a galaxy far, far away, because Star Wars really loves its redemption arcs. But where Darth Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi was super simple, Kylo Ren’s in The Rise of Skywalker (RoS) is not.
To be fair, redeeming Kylo Ren in the third sequel film was never going to be easy. In The Force Awakens, he tortures people for information, creeps on Rey, and then murders Han Solo in cold blood. This puts him way over the moral event horizon for a lot of viewers, and on top of that, he acts like a spoiled child half the time, making him hard to like. The Last Jedi toys with the possibility of redemption some more, but instead has him double down on being evil, seeming to close that door forever.
But previous films had also done too much work foreshadowing a redemption for RoS to just ignore it,* so what’s the big thing that will turn Kylo back to the light? There isn’t one, it turns out. Instead, we get a handful of little things that the film hopes will do the job together. They don’t.
First, Leia sends Kylo some kind of Force message. This seems to cost her life, which is pretty confusing on its own. It’s also unclear if this message is supposed to somehow break the Dark Side’s hold on Kylo, or if it just distracts him so Rey can stab him. If it’s the former, then that’s hardly redemption; it’s just someone casting Dispel Magic to break Kylo out of being mind controlled. If it’s the latter, then it means nothing and is just a waste of time.
Next, we have Rey healing Kylo. That’s certainly a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t seem like enough to turn him against the Dark Side, especially since she’s the one who stabbed him when his guard was down. She also says she wants to be with him as Ben Solo, his pre-evil identity. That could maybe push him toward the light, since he’s into Rey, but he turned down exactly the same offer at the end of Last Jedi, so it’s not very satisfying when he goes for it half a movie later.
Finally, Kylo talks to what’s either Han’s ghost or his memory of Han. By this point, Kylo seems to already have turned good, and he just needs a little encouragement. And that’s it. Kylo is firmly on the side of good for the rest of the movie. It’s supposed to be a big part of the emotional drama, and yet it feels like nothing. Kylo’s turn is completely empty because we have no idea what motivates him.
Compare this to Kylo’s grandfather. Not only does Vader avoid most of what makes Kylo hard to like, but it’s really obvious what drives our masked badass to turn good: his love for his son wins out over his loyalty to Palpatine. This isn’t at all abstract. Palpatine is torturing Luke to death, and only Vader can stop it.
In order for Kylo Ren to have a similar moment, we’d first need to know what it is that actually makes him tick. What keeps him evil versus what’s drawing him toward the light? Then we’d need a moment where those motivations clash and he chooses his better nature. RoS gives us neither of those things. No one involved with the sequel trilogy seems to know what’s motivating Kylo Ren aside from his infatuation with Rey, and that’s hardly strong enough.
Every one of these failed arcs has something in common: storytellers forcing an arc where one doesn’t fit. There are two ways to avoid this problem. First, you can change the character and story so the arc does fit. Second, you can cut the arc entirely. The first option is usually more work, and if you aren’t willing or able to do it, go with option two. It might be disappointing to lose that arc, but it’s better than the alternative.
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