A well-constructed character arc enriches the story with depth and emotion by showing that the characters are real people who grow and change. That’s not the kind of arc we’re talking about today. Instead, it’s time to analyze the arcs that are bland, confusing, or just plain sloppy. Character arcs are hard, so we have plenty of examples to choose from, and each offers an important lesson to learn – and funny mistakes to laugh at.
Spoiler Notice: The Batman, A Discovery of Witches, Vox Machina, and Star Trek: Picard
1. Bruce Learns Nothing: The Batman
To my great surprise, I actually liked the Dark Knight’s latest film adaptation. It manages to have its own distinct aesthetic despite being yet another dark and gritty Batman movie. At least, it has a unique aesthetic when there’s enough light for you to see what’s happening, which is never a guarantee. There’s also a strange charm in the way Batman and Riddler coordinate to bring down the most corrupt figures of Gotham’s elite.
Unfortunately, this unlikely partnership leads into the movie’s underwhelming character arc, when the Riddler reveals a terrible secret: Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, used to be one of those corrupt elites before he died. Through some bat-investigating, we learn that Thomas once hired a mobster to kill a muckraking journalist because the guy was threatening to expose Martha Wayne’s* past struggles with mental illness.
This is a little confusing, as the Riddler’s previous targets have all done serious damage to Gotham, far worse than killing one unethical reporter. Still, murder is murder, and Bruce has always idolized his father,* so this is a major shock. No doubt Bruce will have to do some serious soul-searching, maybe realize that he shouldn’t take the moral high ground for granted…
Or not, as another character soon reveals how most of that was a lie. Thomas only wanted the reporter intimidated into not publishing the story. When the mobster upgraded from intimidation to murder, Thomas planned to confess the whole thing, and the mobster killed him to keep the affair quiet. That’s a lot less dramatic, and it requires no growth or contemplation on Bruce’s part. Sure, asking a mobster to intimidate someone is still wrong, but it’s a rounding error in the crime zone that is Gotham.
So Bruce’s first arc is a dud, but then it looks like he might get a second one. Early in the film, Bruce ignores his responsibilities as leader of the Wayne financial empire so he can devote all of his time to punching criminals as Batman. Later, it’s revealed that Gotham’s most insidious corruption comes in the form of powerful people embezzling money from a massive Wayne family charity, which has gone without oversight since Thomas and Martha died.
This really seems like a moment for Bruce to realize that he needs to balance his responsibilities. Batman is great for stopping supervillains, but the city also needs leaders who will address the social and economic conditions that cause crime in the first place. As you may have guessed, this arc doesn’t go anywhere either. Instead, Bruce ends the movie realizing that he needs to spend even more time as Batman so he can be sure to punch every criminal at least once.
2. A Vampire Can Have Sex After All: A Discovery of Witches
In the first season of A Discovery of Witches, Matthew the vampire and Diana the witch fall deeply in love. This love story features all the tropes you’d expect from a vampiric romance, including Matthew’s passion being so strong that he might accidentally murder Diana if he loses control. Also, vampires apparently “mate for life,” though it’s unclear how this magical monogamy manifests. Is Matthew incapable of catching feelings for anyone else, or will Diana spontaneously combust if she breaks up with him? Whatever the case, Diana is unbothered, and the two are mated by the end of the season, complete with kissing, moaning, and cutting away before things get too explicit for TV.
Then season two begins, as does a bizarre character arc for Matthew that forces us to ask the off-putting question: Have Diana and Matthew actually had sex yet? It certainly seems like they have, what with all the kissing and moaning from earlier. But a few episodes into the season, there’s suddenly dialogue indicating they haven’t, or maybe that Matthew just isn’t in the mood that night, depending on how you interpret it. If you’re wondering how this could possibly matter, then congratulations, you understand what it’s like to watch this show!
That’s when we meet Matthew’s father-in-law, Philippe,* who sneeringly informs the couple that they can’t sleep in the same bed because they aren’t mated yet. “Mated” now apparently means having sex, rather than the magical monogamy from season one. This is extremely confusing for a number of reasons.
- Why are we using the same term for different things?
- If not having sex is the problem, why does Philippe want them in separate beds?
- What was happening in all those previous sex scenes? Third base?
- Why does Philippe care about any of this?
- Why is the show making us interrogate which specific physical acts Diana and Matthew have performed instead of focusing on their romance?
Diana soon gets upset, both because Philippe* is just the worst to her and because Matthew won’t have sex with her. Meanwhile, Matthew is upset because he wants to have sex with Diana but won’t for unexplained reasons. This goes on for about two episodes, but it feels much longer.
Finally, Philippe and Matthew get into a sword fight for completely unrelated reasons,* and during the fight, Matthew gets so angry that he goes into something called “blood rage,” which is basically a vampiric berserker state. The implication is that now if Matthew and Diana go all the way to inserting tab A into slot B, he might rage out and hurt her. I guess whatever they were doing before wasn’t enough to sufficiently arouse his passion.
That at least explains Matthew’s reluctance, but it’s also unclear where the story could possibly go from here. Maybe Matthew has to practice meditation to keep his blood rage under control? Nope! Instead, he tells Diana about a completely unrelated part of his tragic backstory. Simultaneously, Philippe decides that he ships Diathew after all, and not only does he give them his blessing, but he also says they should get married.
Everyone now acts like the conflict is resolved, as if Diana and Matthew have turned a major corner in their relationship. The happy couple retires to their bedroom, and the scene fades out with the implication that this time, they actually have sex. Except, that was the implication in all the previous sex scenes too, so they could still be lying and we’d never know.
More importantly, how does this resolve Matthew’s blood rage? Later we see that he very much still has it, but not with sexy times anymore, I can only assume. Maybe I misread the whole situation and Matthew was actually just balking at the idea of sex before marriage, but if so, you’d figure he’d have said something to Diana about it.
3. The Bully Was Right: Amphibia
With its unusual format, Amphibia has more character arcs per minute than any story I’ve ever seen. Each half-hour episode is divided into two segments, and each of those segments is built around a character arc, in the first season at least. Usually, one of the characters will learn a lesson about treating others better or being true to themselves. One segment might be about Anne learning that she doesn’t have to change her appearance for others’ approval, while the next might feature Sprig trying to admit his feelings for the cute frog next door.
With so many character arcs, a few of them are bound to be duds, but the Combat Camp segment easily takes the cake. The story starts with Anne loudly explaining how back in the human world, she didn’t get along with any of her teachers. This is clearly the start of her arc, though the arc’s exact nature isn’t quite clear, as we have no details on why Anne didn’t get along with her teachers. If she was being disruptive in class, the arc could be about how she needs to take learning more seriously. If her teachers were picking on her, then it could be an arc about not internalizing the hurtful things they said. Lots of possibilities!
The arc solidifies a bit when we meet the dashing newt Tritonio, who announces that he will train Anne and her friends to fight. While he’s kind and supportive to the other characters, he’s super mean to Anne. He says she “doesn’t have the dexterity” to wield a sword, berates her for not doing better, and taunts her whenever she makes a mistake.
Okay, so it’s going to be the second possibility. Anne will eventually work up the nerve to tell Tritonio where he can shove his terrible teaching attitude, right? Haha, no. Instead, when Anne complains, the other characters tell her what a great guy Tritonio is and say Anne just needs to talk to him. When she does, he’s suddenly all smiles, insisting he was only pushing her harder because she has “so much potential.”
Anne immediately buys this excuse, and the segment transitions into a triumphant training montage. Anne gets really good at fighting, Tritonio is all compliments, and he even gives her a sword as her signature weapon. I don’t know what happened to her not having the dexterity for swords, must have been buried in all that potential.
Admittedly, this one hits a bit close to home. “You have so much potential” is often code for “you’re not really trying,” and it’s commonly applied to neurodivergent kids, particularly those with learning disabilities. I was lucky enough not to hear it very often because my parents could afford a school with teachers who understood my dyslexia, but it still came up once in a while. Many kids described this way are in fact trying as hard as they can: what they need is proper accommodation.
But even if you put all that aside, the segment’s argument is absurd. If Tritonio thought Anne was more capable than the other kids, he’d be giving her more advanced assignments. If he thought she needed more help, he’d be spending more time with her. He doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, he constantly cuts her down, which isn’t a good learning environment for any student, neurodivergent or otherwise.
The episode does end with a reveal that Tritonio is actually a villain, which I hoped would be a moment for Anne to realize how badly he treated her. Instead, she affirms that his teaching was great even though he’s a bad guy. So the lesson she learns is that abusive teachers have her best interests at heart; she just needs to practice perfect compliance. Maybe the next segment can feature an arc about why you shouldn’t include that kind of toxic message in a show aimed at kids.
4. It Was All in Her MacGuffin’s Head: The Wizard Hunters
Content Notice: Discussion of suicide in fiction
This dimension-hopping fantasy novel begins with an attention-grabbing first line:
It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself.
Well, I’m certainly paying attention now. I’m also more than a little concerned because fiction doesn’t have a great track record with portraying suicide, but I’ll try to give The Wizard Hunters the benefit of the doubt. One thing is certain: this line opens a high-tension character arc. Not only is Tremaine’s emotional well-being at stake, but also her very life! This arc could resolve with Tremaine no longer wanting to die or her ideation remaining but at manageable levels, or it could go much darker.
Unfortunately, cracks show right away, as the novel refuses to convey why Tremaine feels this way. You’d think this would be important to establish, as it would give critical context for how Tremaine’s arc develops. She might have recently suffered a tragic loss that’s driven her to despair, or she might be traumatized by the war that’s going on outside her window, as Tremaine volunteers with the emergency services to rescue people from bombed-out buildings. Alternatively, her desire might not have an external source. She could suffer from crushing depression or be completely numb and unable to find fulfillment in anything. Or it could be a mix of external and internal factors.
We don’t get any of that. Instead, the narration simply tells us about Tremaine’s desire to die by suicide and then moves on as if that’s all we need to know. We get almost no insight into how Tremaine feels or how those feelings affect her choices. There’s so little about her internal state that for a while I thought she didn’t actually want to die and this was all part of some elaborate scheme. The book eventually clarifies that her suicidal desire is real, but other than that, the only thing we know is that Tremaine doesn’t want her death to be identified as a suicide. Even then, it’s unclear if this is something Tremaine wants for herself or for those who survive her.
After a few chapters of this bizarre situation, the external conflict finally gets going and the suicide arc almost completely vanishes. There’s one point later in the story when Tremaine nearly takes the opportunity to jump from a treacherous ledge, and it’s a jarring moment because her ideation hasn’t been brought up in a while. And then the story continues as if it didn’t start with the main character wanting her life to end.
Several chapters later, another character asks Tremaine why she wants to die, as he’s somehow able to tell that just by observing her. Maybe he can give me some insights into Tremaine’s character, as despite watching the story through her POV, I still know almost nothing about her.
Anyway, the two of them have a short conversation, in which Tremaine says she doesn’t know why she wants to die by suicide. That’s perfectly believable, but it’s also very frustrating. If Tremaine doesn’t know where her ideation is coming from, why wasn’t that established earlier? It certainly sounds like an important aspect of her character. Then the conversation abruptly ends with the conclusion that Tremaine is no longer suicidal.
So… character arc over? Almost. A bit later, in the epilogue, Tremaine theorizes that her desire to die might have at least partly come from a magic item in her possession. Again, that’s technically possible, but it doesn’t change anything. If Tremaine is experiencing emotions intense enough to make her consider suicide, readers should still know what those emotions are, whether they come from her own brain or a sorcerous MacGuffin! In place of an actual resolution, we’re told not to worry about it because that arc is over now. It ends up feeling like the author wanted a provocative opening conflict, but then didn’t want to deal with the messy implications. However, given that other critical aspects of Tremaine’s character, like backstory and motivation, are often missing, it could just be that the character is poorly built.
5. God Doesn’t Care if You Have Friends: Vox Machina
The future is officially here, as we now have expensive cartoons adapted from broadcast D&D campaigns. What a time to be alive.
Vox Machina has a lot of characters,* and several of them go through one kind of arc or another, but our current focus is on Pike the gnome cleric. Her deity, the Everlight, is a generically good goddess who approves of generically good things like healing, redemption, and punching evil in the face. Basically, the least demanding tenets a PC could ask for.
Pike’s arc starts in episode three, when she’s hit by an evil sorcerer’s spell that cracks her holy symbol. Her divine spells no longer function, but this doesn’t look like an arc yet, as it seems like all she needs to do is repair the holy symbol. She apparently doesn’t think of that, as by the next episode, she’s convinced that she needs to make a special pilgrimage to apologize to her goddess before her magic will return. Apologize for getting hit by a spell? Is that something the Everlight holds a grudge over?
This requires Pike to leave the party and go off on her own for a bit. In episode five, she arrives at the Everlight’s temple and announces that she thinks she’s cursed. Wait, I thought she was there to apologize for something. Does she need to apologize for being cursed? This raises the possibility that it’s actually the evil spell that’s keeping Pike from using her magic, which is technically plausible, but again, doesn’t create much of a character arc. A little Dispel Magic will clear that right up.
We don’t see Pike again until episode eight, when she’s finally able to commune with the Everlight. In this vision, the Everlight says that Pike is actually having a crisis of faith, and that’s why her magic doesn’t work. What is this crisis of faith, you ask? It’s that Pike is worried about having friends. Apparently she thinks that she’s putting her fellow PCs “above” the Everlight, though why she thinks that is unclear. A somewhat bemused Everlight explains that it’s actually okay for Pike to have friends, and the arc is officially concluded, complete with a return of Pike’s powers. Yay?
The first problem here isn’t hard to find: there’s no causal mechanism connecting the different pieces of Pike’s arc. If Pike was worried about putting her friends above her goddess, why did her magic only fail after she was hit with an evil spell? The best explanation I can conjure is that the spell temporarily disabled Pike’s powers, and by the time that wore off, she’d begun her crisis of faith. That’s still super weak though, since it doesn’t explain where Pike would get the idea that her fellow PCs are the issue.
The second problem is that Pike gets no development by the arc’s end. Her beliefs aren’t reaffirmed, and she doesn’t get closer to her friends; she just realizes that she was worrying over nothing and goes on her merry way. Sure, sure, that was definitely worth the time of a multi-episode plot!
I’m honestly baffled why this arc is even in the show. In the original campaign, Pike’s player was often out of town for work, so there needed to be a reason for the character to be away as well. But in that same campaign, Pike’s crisis of faith was over killing an unconscious enemy so he couldn’t be a threat later. That’s a much stronger foundation for a character arc, and it’s noticeably absent in the TV show. So if the show didn’t have to deal with an absent player, and they didn’t want to include the arc’s original cause, why bother with it at all? Why not just keep Pike with the rest of the party?
I’ve seen some speculation that Pike was too powerful and had to be taken out of the picture, but that doesn’t track. Before losing her magic, Pike is hardly overpowered. She can do a little healing, make a small magic shield, and enchant one weapon to do extra holy damage. After her arc, Pike gains a suite of new powers that include astral projection, holy lasers, and the ability to enchant hundreds of weapons at a time. So if they were worried about Pike being overpowered, they only made things worse.
My best guess is that they actually had this happen so that Pike could keep up with Keyleth, the party’s druid. Keyleth gets a huge power boost from a magic tree later in the season, and her new abilities easily outstrip anything Pike could do before her arc. Rather than figuring out a way for Pike to level up as part of the story, the writers probably figured it was easier to send her off on a holy quest that at least bears some resemblance to the original campaign, if one isn’t looking too closely. And it’s a foggy day. And the lights are out.
6. Events Definitely Occur: Picard
Content Notice: Discussion of suicide in fiction*
Star Trek: Picard’s second season begins with a Romulan named Laris asking Picard out. This is a little awkward since Laris was happily married last season, but apparently her husband died offscreen, so it’s fine. Even so, Picard says no, though it’s clearly a knee-jerk reaction more than him not actually wanting to date her. Okay, so Picard’s going to have a romance arc this season; that could work. He certainly had plenty of relationship problems in TNG, though they always featured women turning him down rather than the other way around.*
To confuse the issue, Laris then muses on whether Picard is running from something and why he “lives alone.” He doesn’t live alone, and we already know why he’s retired to his family vineyard: he left Starfleet in disgrace over the failed evacuation of Romulus. That was covered last season! The idea that Picard is running from something makes even less sense. He’s never been portrayed that way, not in this show or his previous appearances.
Don’t worry, though: once the main plot starts, Laris isn’t even in the season anymore. I guess that romance arc isn’t actually happening. Instead, Picard has numerous flashbacks to his childhood, where it’s heavily implied that his father abused his mother and possibly him as well. That’s certainly a traumatic reveal, but it has nothing to do with what’s happening in the present, where Picard and the other characters* are trying to stop Q from changing the time line. So technically they’re in the past, not the present. You know what I mean.
Since Picard’s arc is completely untethered from the external conflict, the two compete with each other for screen time. At one point, Picard is knocked unconscious for an entire episode so he can flashback even harder. This slows the main plot to a crawl, making it harder to invest in what’s happening. Worse, Picard demonstrates little need for an arc. Whatever happened in his past, he seems to be perfectly well adjusted in the present. His only current issue, emotionally speaking, is turning down a date with Laris, and it’s hard to see how these abuse flashbacks connect with that.
But wait, this show isn’t done messing with us. As season two nears its end, there’s a big reveal: Picard’s father wasn’t actually abusive – his mother was mentally ill and it was all in her head. Wow. Considering how “you’re imagining it” is a real tactic abusers use against their victims, this seems an incredibly poor choice. But before we can even consider the implications, there’s a second head-spinning reveal: Picard’s mom died by suicide after he let her out of the room she’d been locked in so she wouldn’t hurt herself.
This is honestly hard to process. Not only are we shown Yvette Picard’s suicide onscreen without so much as a parental advisory notice, but the show also portrays Papa Picard as a great husband for locking his mentally ill wife up instead of getting her actual help. There’s a line about how she didn’t want treatment, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to be locked in a room either. I know modern Trek has trouble portraying an optimistic future, but I think the Federation still has readily available mental health care. There’s probably even an at-home option for patients who don’t do well in hospitals.
If you can get past all that, we’re then told that Picard feels responsible for his mother’s death because he unlocked the door to her room. Also, that he suppressed the memory, to explain why we’ve never had any inkling of this traumatic backstory. Uh-huh. If you believe that, then I’ve got a bridge on Ferenginar to sell you.
This all means that at the eleventh hour, with the season nearly over, Picard’s arc has changed to getting over misplaced guilt about his mother’s death by suicide. How we got here from turning down a date with Laris, I will never understand.
With Picard’s real arc introduced so late, there’s very little time for any development. Indeed, Picard manages to have one gunfight and chase scene, plus one heart-to-heart with a character he’s known for maybe five days. That apparently does the trick though, as when Picard has a chance to possibly change history so his mom lives, he doesn’t take it. This arc really is the gift that keeps on giving, and every present is worse than the last!
Skating on past the fact that Picard might have been able to save his mom but chose not to, the show now has everyone act like the arc is concluded. Picard is all smiles, and Q shows up to congratulate him. Once the time travel is over, Picard even takes a moment to ask Laris out. Nothing has actually changed, though. There was nothing keeping him from dating her before, and nothing in his mess of an arc shows why he’s more willing to do so now. I’d be more upset about the implications that abuse is all in the victim’s head if I thought anything in this arc would actually stick with the audience, but I’m not worried about that. The sheer amount of incompetence means that most of it will just slide off, never to be thought of again.
Character arcs are a great source of drama, but they have to be well constructed, or they’ll only be so much unintentional comedy. This goes double for arcs that explore traumatic subject matter like suicide and bullying. In those cases, there’s more on the line than whether your hero will learn a lesson about friendship. If you want to delve into heavy topics, do the work needed to get them right.
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