Character arcs form the backbone of many a story. A successful upward arc fills the audience with fuzzy warmth, while a well-crafted downward arc delivers powerful pathos. But not all arcs are put together well. When a character’s change is rushed or unjustified, it often has the opposite effect from what the author intended. Audiences have little patience for a character who changes without good reason, and that displeasure will likely translate into lost sales for a hardworking storyteller. To help avoid that, let’s take a look at some of the most unsatisfying arcs roaming free in the wild.
If you ask someone what their favorite Batman movie is, they will say The Dark Knight approximately 110% of the time. This is largely because of Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker, but it’s easy to forget that this film has a second big-name villain in the mix. That villain is Harvey Dent, alias Two Face, a rogue whose signature move is flipping a coin to see if you die or not. That’s not a superpower; he just likes to make important decisions via a random number generator. Kind of a weird concept for a villain, but I digress.
Dark Knight is Dent’s origin story. He starts the film as an upright, virtuous DA and ends it as an unrepentant murderer.* It’s a motif of light and darkness, you see, a commentary on the good and evil that both exist within a human being. It’s almost as if he had… two faces. Ok, I’ll stop.
Lack of subtlety aside, that’s quite a character arc. How does the film manage to transition Dent from team good to someone who is happy to murder innocent children? It doesn’t really. Instead, a convoluted assassination attempt leaves Dent badly injured, including serious burns to one side of his face, and suddenly he’s evil.
The film tries to cover this by having Dent first go after the people who tried to kill him and his girlfriend. That’s reasonable – it’s easy to see how he might decide to take the law into his own hands for revenge. Then he expands the scope of his vendetta to people who were trying to save them but just didn’t quite act fast enough, and it’s much harder to square that circle. Even if he blamed his rescuers for saving him and not his girlfriend,* it’s hard to see how that puts them on the same level as his actual attackers. We never even got the impression he was a particularly vengeful man. Before his injury, the worst thing Dent does is threaten to kill a suspect as part of an interrogation, which is bad, but this is also a world where we’re supposed to cheer for Batman when he dangles people off roofs and yells, “SWEAR TO MEEEEEEE.”
The only justification left to Dark Knight is the implicit idea that because Dent is now physically disfigured, of course he’ll be evil. Not only is this lazy storytelling, but it’s pretty damned ableist as well. Disabled folks are often stigmatized and feared for their looks, something this film only reinforces. For anyone who isn’t aware: having a visible disability does not make a person dangerous. If you won’t take my word for it, the founder of science fiction herself is happy to explain it.
Turning Harvey Dent into Two Face was always going to be a tall order, and the filmmakers made it even harder by cramming his entire arc into the Joker’s movie. If nothing else, we should have at least seen some signs of Dent’s villainous tendencies before he decides to pick up child murder as a hobby. It could also be that Two Face is simply too closely tied to ableist tropes to be worth salvaging, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Edit: This section originally left out Rachel’s role in the plot.
Willow may not have had the industry-changing power of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but it’s still an excellent film with a lot to offer. It’s got a little person as its protagonist, for one thing, and his arc is great. He goes from feeling inadequate because he can’t learn magic to realizing his own skills had value all along. Fantastic.
What’s less fantastic is the arc of Sorsha, one of the film’s villains. She’s not just any villain, though; she’s the big bad’s daughter. That sounds like a clichéd setup for the dashing hero to seduce her, but maybe Sorsha will avoid such a fate? For one thing, the main villain is her mother, not her father, and she doesn’t wear that sexy-yet-evil armor that’s so common in fantasy. So perhaps…
Oops, no, Sorsha does indeed join team good after being seduced by the oddly named Madmartigan.* And it is a doozy of a seduction, let me tell you. First, Madmartigan is accidentally put under a love charm and tries to seduce Sorsha. She rejects him. Then later, during a battle, she decides that she’s actually super into him. Madmartigan goes with it, even though he’s expressed no interest in her when he wasn’t under the influence of magic. She then switches sides.
So we have a villain switching sides based on a man she’s only met once while he was under the influence of magic. Sorsha seems perfectly happy with her job, and her only disagreement with her mother is over how much help she needs. This would be hard to believe even if the film had taken the time to actually show Sorsha and Madmartigan falling in love. As is, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with Sorsha in the third act and had her join team good to reduce the number of loose ends they had to tie up.
Perhaps worse, everyone on team good just accepts this without question. Sorsha has served the evil empire for years by this point, so it’s hard to believe none of the rebels have any grudges against her. Nor does Sorsha ever confront her past misdeeds. It almost feels like a different character has entered the story played by the same actor.
The most annoying part is that unlike Two Face, Sorsha’s arc would not have been hard to correct. All the film needed was a few moments early on where we see Sorsha is unhappy with the excesses of her mother’s reign, then a moment where she’s given orders that she considers over the line, and then she switches sides. No magically induced seduction required. It would also help to establish that she’s only recently joined her mother’s service, so it won’t seem like she has a lot to atone for, unless the filmmakers were prepared to go really deep on her arc.
In The Golden Compass, Lord Asriel is deep in villain territory. He intimidates people to get what he wants, and what he wants is to destroy the source of a magical substance called Dust because he thinks that will end death. Of course, the reader knows that Dust is actually super important for life as we know it, but Asriel either hasn’t been told or he refuses to hear. When he murders a child as part of his plan, it’s pretty clear that he fits the villainous trope of a megalomaniac convinced that his noble intentions justify his heinous means.
So when I heard that he becomes a good guy in the sequels, I figured that must be one heck of a redemption arc. How could he possibly overcome the bad karma of everything he did in the first book? After picking up the second book, I discovered the answer: just pretend nothing he did in the first book ever happened.
That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. After The Golden Compass, the next time we see Asriel, he’s gathering an army to invade heaven and defeat the evil god that lives there. What does that have to do with destroying Dust and ending death, you ask? Nothing. The later books claim he lied about that, even though he had no reason to do so. Awkward retcon is awkward.
Speaking of awkward, the later books just cannot stop talking about how awesome the child-murdering Asriel is. He’s so cool and strong with a huge super cool army, but he’s also the scrappy underdog fighting the good fight against a more powerful enemy. Oh, and did I mention all the hottest women want to sleep with him and he’s way good at sex?
This character would feel over the top even if he hadn’t been a child-murdering villain in the previous book. That crime is never addressed, in case you were wondering, and eventually Asriel ends his run in a big heroic sacrifice, to the eternal grief of all the hot ladies who haven’t gotten to sleep with him yet, I’m sure.
This change in Asriel is so sudden, I’m not 100% sure it even qualifies as an arc, especially since it mostly seems to happen between books. It’s as if the author got tired of the character he’d established but was really attached to the cool name. I’m not even sure it’s possible to fix it, since killing a child is usually considered irredeemable, even if it’s in pursuit of the noblest goal.
But if I had to try, my strategy would be to lean heavily on Asriel’s original motivation to destroy Dust and end death. At least in that scenario, it’s possible to see why he’d think killing a child was justified. Then at the end, I’d have him presented with incontrovertible proof that he was wrong, and let his final act be to help the protagonist stop whatever doomsday scenario is playing out. I’d leave the heaven-war plot out entirely, since it has little to do with his original motivation.
4. Kes, Voyager
Kes began her life as Voyager’s resident psychic alien. Her abilities were extremely plot-convenient, doing whatever the writers needed them to do that week, but it was clear she had a lot of untapped power hidden away. Her personality was primarily made up of kindness and empathy. She was always trying to help her shipmates, and she even advocated for the holographic Doctor when no one thought he was a person. Then, at the dawn of season four, she left the show because her powers were too much for the ship to contain,* which seemed to be the last we’d see of her.
But no! A few seasons later, in the episode Fury, she’s back, and she’s super mad at Voyager. Supposedly, this is because Voyager took her away from her home planet when she was too young to know any better and then abandoned her. However, she practically begged them to take her because she hated her home planet, and they didn’t abandon her – she left so her godlike powers could mature.
It’s already difficult to believe that someone like Kes would turn evil for such a flimsy reason, so the episode isn’t off to a great start. If we wanted to extend far more benefit of the doubt than Voyager deserves, we could assume that something happened to Kes offscreen to make her think what she thinks. Maybe she ran into a stream of angry tachyon particles and they’re scrambling her brain, or something. Unfortunately, that justification falls apart once Kes puts her plan into motion.
This plan naturally involves time travel, because that always goes well. Future Kes travels several years into the past, where her intention is to get Voyager destroyed while smuggling her younger self back to their home planet. Never you mind about any paradoxes that creates; they’ll all be channeled through the main deflector dish or something. Naturally, this plan fails, Future Kes is killed, and everyone in the past finds out about what she’s going to do in the future.*
That’s where it gets weird: their plan to stop Future Kes is to have Past Kes record a message politely asking her not to destroy Voyager. And somehow, that works? We return to the future, Kes attacks the ship, sees the message, and immediately mellows out. Turns out she wasn’t really that committed to her quest of murdering all her old friends. She goes on her way like nothing happened, and they’re all friends again.
Bringing Kes back was always going to be a challenge, since her exit involved developing godlike powers. Giving her an arc where she starts off wanting to kill her old friends and then decides not to is even harder, as that’s a pretty radical change of heart to happen in one hour of TV. The best solution here would have been to give Kes a more manageable arc. Perhaps she’s used her powers to become a sort of avenging angel, destroying ships she thinks have done wrong. Then the Voyager crew would have to convince her to stop, either because vigilante justice is bad or because she’s hurting innocent people. Either way, it would have been a lot easier to believe than a sudden desire to kill her only friends in the quadrant.
If you’ve read the Narnia books, you probably remember Eustace’s introduction because he’s terrible in every way C. S. Lewis could think of. He’s annoying, he’s lazy, he’s entitled, and just about every other negative adjective you can come up with. In fact, Lewis was so eager to make Eustace terrible that some of his traits are contradictory. He’s a bully who pushes kids around despite being the weakest kid imaginable. He’s an academic snob, but the book makes clear he’s not at all smart. He’s also a vegetarian and goes to a school where they don’t hit kids. I don’t know how those last two items are supposed to make him more of an ass, but Lewis seemed to think it was important.
Eustace has a growth arc in Dawn Treader, and on the one hand that sounds really hard for a character who’s the personification of every obnoxious trope out there. But on the other hand, basically any change is sure to be an improvement. So how does this arc manifest? You might expect a series of small moments where Eustace gradually becomes a better person, followed by a critical turning point where that change is made manifest. But you’d be wrong.
Instead, Eustace is turned into a dragon by some cursed gold, and he instantaneously becomes a better person. That’s not an exaggeration. Once Eustace realizes what’s happened, he briefly considers using his dragon form to torment people, then immediately realizes he misses his human friends and that they weren’t mean to him at all and in fact he was the mean one. After that he’s super helpful and nice, even after the great Lion-Jesus* decides he’s been punished enough for his wickedness and turns him back into a human.
Such a sudden transition isn’t convincing, even for a character with less to overcome than Eustace. Real growth takes time, and describing it so suddenly is, frankly, comical. It feels less like Eustace grew as a person and more like the transformation altered his mind, which would make this the introduction of a new character rather than the arc of an existing one.
Part of the issue is Eustace’s over-the-top characterization at the beginning. He’s such a perfect storm of jerkishness that he doesn’t seem real. But beyond making Eustace a little more realistic, what Dawn Treader really needed was to spread his arc out a little. There’s even plenty of time to do it in, since Eustace is stuck in dragon form for quite a while.
Rather than cramming all Eustace’s character growth into one moment, he could have stuck with the idea of using his dragon form to torment people he doesn’t like* a little longer, which is exactly what readers would expect from him. Then he could have realize that this bullying brings him no joy, and a little later he discovers he’s lonely. He expects the other character to reject him, but they don’t, and instead they try to help him. Then Eustace does something to show his contrition, like using his dragon strength to help repair the Dawn Treader,* and he’s returned to human form. Arc done.
While it’s true that only Siths deal in absolutes, I think it’s safe to say that Anakin Skywalker is the most well-known example out there of an unsatisfying character arc. Unlike the other entries on this list, Anakin’s arc wasn’t rushed. It had two entire films to play out,* but it’s still remarkably unsatisfying. While it would be easy to blame the prequels’ general lack of quality, there are a few specific problems that hold Anakin back, and I’m not even talking about the time he yells “noooooooooo” in Revenge of the Sith.
The first problem is that Anakin’s downward arc actually happens twice, and the reasons are contrived both times. In Attack of the Clones, we find out that Anakin never went back to free his mother despite having years to do so. That seems incredibly unlikely, but it needs to happen so she can be kidnapped by Tusken Raiders. When Anakin goes after his mother and finds her dead, he gets revenge by killing everyone in the Tusken camp, including non-combatants and children.
Okay, so that’s his arc, right? The setup was extremely contrived, but he just murdered an entire tribe of children, so he’s obviously evil now. Or not. Instead, Padme tries to make it sound like this is something anyone might do if they get angry enough. The two of them get married, and in the next movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are sharing jokes like nothing happened.
Bold move wasting an entire film on an arc they just have to walk back, but maybe Revenge of the Sith will do better. It starts out pretty well, with Anakin killing an enemy the Jedi wanted him to capture, which shows he’s vulnerable to the dark side’s influence. He just needs something to push him over the edge, and that something is… a vision of his wife’s face, which he takes to mean she’s going to die in childbirth. He decides the only solution is to consult a Sith master for some super-secret Force ritual that will keep Padme alive.
Really? That’s all he could think of? Have bacta tanks not been invented at this point in the timeline? Even if somehow the medical technology in Star Wars can’t handle a rough delivery, it seems like he should at least tell Padme about it so she can decide if she wants to abort the pregnancy or not. If Anakin was supposed to come across as a selfish jerk who isn’t very smart, this might work, but it’s hardly the fall of a good man we were told about in the original trilogy.
In addition to the contrived setup, Anakin’s second arc has one other major problem: his actions have nothing to do with the supposed reason he’s falling to the dark side. We’re told that his main motivation is wanting to save Padme, and to do that he decides to kill all the Jedi, including the children? How does that relate to his motivation? At least in the previous movie, killing the Tuskens was clearly linked to his need for vengeance. That’s why so much of the dialogue after Anakin turns feels stilted and awkward; they should be talking about why Anakin turned, but he doesn’t really have a reason anymore.*
Fixing Anakin’s arc requires more than a few adjustments; we’d have to rewrite the prequel trilogy from the ground up. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but it shows how badly a bungled arc can damage a story. Minor arcs that go bad are just annoying, but when the arc is also the story’s throughline, it absolutely has to be satisfying. Otherwise, audiences will remember the story the same way they remember the Star Wars prequels, and no one wants that.
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