Ten Movies With Strong Character Arcs

A couple weeks ago I broke down the components of a solid character arc. But hearing about them isn’t as fun as watching them in action. Whether you want to get a better feel for how character arcs work, or you just love character-centered stories, these movies won’t disappoint you.

1. Zombieland


Most zombie movies are gripping tales of survival, with little chance for inner reflection. In contrast, Zombieland barely discusses the original outbreak. Instead it skips forward, introducing characters who can handle zombies, but perhaps not each other.

Scenes are set by the delightful narration of the main character, Columbus. He tells viewers how his socially-awkward behavior has kept him from becoming someone’s lunch. But it might also prevent him from achieving his dreams – if the zombies don’t kill him first.

Available on Netflix DVD or Amazon Instant Video.

2. Rise of the Guardians


Dreamworks clearly put creative emphasis on the characters in this movie, and it shows. It’s hard to fully develop characters in a two hour movie, but in Guardians, each character has been given distinctive mannerisms, back story, and inner desires. As a bonus, the characteristics of Santa Claus and the Easter Rabbit are subversions of their typical depictions – Santa is lean and mean, not fat and jolly. This makes them especially interesting and memorable.

While Rise of the Guardians features big battles to protect children against the bogeyman, its true center is Jack Frost’s quest to discover his identity and purpose. His arc includes ups and downs that are both rewarding and easy to follow.

Available on Netflix DVD or Amazon.

3. The Butterfly Effect


If you like stories that are gritty and complex instead of light and fluffy, The Butterfly Effect is the movie for you. This psychological thriller time travels back and forth in the life of the main character, Evan. This gives the audience an incredible amount of backstory and insight into his emotional motivations. What would be a simple quest in a movie like the The Time Machine (2002) is instead an obsession created by love, pain, and regret.

This movie may not be for everyone. In particular, it has triggers for physical and sexual abuse. But it’s powerful story. The DVD comes with two endings; they both work for Evan’s arc, but I recommend the theatrical version.

Available on Netflix DVD or Amazon Instant Video.

4. The Nightmare Before Christmas


This movie is a classic for good reason. Is there anything more entertaining than a skeleton bemoaning how empty he feels? He’s serious though, don’t laugh at him. Besides, there’s plenty of other things to laugh at in this fun and wacky tale.

Jack is a great example of a misguided hero. He doesn’t know how to fix the personal despair he feels, so he makes some very unwise choices. To claim true happiness, he’ll need to learn from his mistakes.

Available for streaming on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.

5. Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

Dr. Horrible Duet

This is not technically a movie, but close enough. Whedon’s cult classic about a wannabe villain packs an amazing amount of character change in only 45 minutes. Add in the wonderful acting and singing, and there’s just no comparison for this unique web series.

Dr. Horrible is also one of the few examples in modern film of a tragic hero – one that falls from grace instead of overcoming odds. Once you mix in his misguided pursuit of villainy, you end up with a hollow victory. If you’re working on a character arc with a less-than-happy ending, don’t miss this one.

Available for streaming on Netflix or on DVD from Amazon.

6. Willow

Willow Finger Challenge

Treat yourself to some ’80s epic fantasy and a young Val Kilmer with this memorable film. But unlike other fantasy stories, the main character isn’t human. Willow’s a Nelwyn played by little person actor Warwick Davis, and he doesn’t like humans (called Daikini) very much. If you enjoyed watching the hobbits in Lord of the Rings make their way in the big bad world, this movie will give you much the same experience. It just has fairies and brownies instead of elves and dwarves. Also, Gandalf and Sauron are women.

Willow’s arc is about gaining confidence and courage. Pretty standard fare, but satisfying nonetheless.

Available on Netflix DVD or on Amazon as a DVD/Blue Ray Combo.

7. Shrek


Shrek also has a standard but well-executed arc, wrapped in delightfully subversive themes. Shrek is tired of rejection. To keep it from happening, he hides in the swamp and scares away all visitors – until, one day, they won’t stay away. Then he becomes a classic reluctant hero.

His character arc is probably the most clearly communicated of any in this list, so if you want something simple and easy, start here.

Available on Amazon Instant Video.

8. Idiocracy


If you ever wanted the saying “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” to be made into a movie, here it is. Except instead of populating the U.S. with those who are blind, the writers created a ridiculous dystopian earth run by idiots. The Joe Shmoe main character doesn’t want to lead them, or do much of anything at all, so he’s dragged through it kicking and screaming. At one point, the writers even reward his non-committal behavior by renaming him “Not Sure.”

This is an adults-only film; it’s full of inappropriate content. It’s also one of the funniest movies you’ll ever watch.

Available on Netflix DVD or on DVD from Amazon.

9. ParaNorman


ParaNorman was created by the same creative team behind Coraline, and while it’s definitely a children’s movie, it’s still fun for all ages. The hero, Norman, is a boy who sees ghosts. They aren’t frightening – they’re his friends. The problem is that no one else knows who he’s talking to all the time. Naturally, that makes him feel alienated from his fellow humans. But whether or not he likes the school bullies and bigoted townsfolk he’s surrounded by, he’ll need to save them from a witch’s curse.

If you want a great example of how antagonists can be used to emphasize the character arc of the protagonist, this is the movie for you.

Available for streaming on Netflix or for purchase on Amazon.

10. The Lego Movie


If you haven’t seen this movie yet, run for the theaters. Now. It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, whatever, its catchy music and rock-solid storytelling will keep you in your seat. When you’re done, the only thing you’ll have to be disappointed about is that every other movie in 2014 will seem weak in comparison.

The main character has a double arc, but his two issues are intermixed so well you won’t know they’re separate unless you’re paying close attention.The love interest also has a clear arc. And the villain. And several minor sidekicks. Not only that, but it’s incredibly funny – just see it already.

Watching for Character Arcs

If you’re watching these movies as a practice in building character arcs, ask yourself these questions as you watch:

  1. What is the character’s problem? Remember it’s about their personality or feelings, not any external situation.
  2. What change either forces them to face their fears and doubts, or gives them an opportunity to pursue their dreams?
  3. What steps do they take to solve their problem?
  4. What final test are they given? Do they make a sacrifice?
  5. Do they fail or succeed? What are the consequences?

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  1. Kjeld

    I got here looking for new movies, my favorite movies hold strong character arcs I constantly look for movies like it, but found so few.

    I like the list given, it goes towards more comic and animated movies which I also enjoy, made me which for also a more serious list that really moved me in its execution, seeking more of them here are a few,

    My list of strong character arcs are the ones that were pretty drastic changes recovering from great losses, all in less than 2 hours, of a believable and emotional ride, in that list I put

    -Thrust worthy all good Roman soldier to Slave to Hero of the republic, his greater purpose, inspiring his friend Juba and his son, and I always wanted to see a sequel unrelated as they kinda do it in Avengers but in a comic unrealistic way, where Juba (Djimon Hounsou) would return to his home land and a new adventure as good as gladiator takes place with as little mention to gladiator as possible.

    The Count of Monte Cristo
    -Another betrayal when an all good character close to wed his amazing wife is defeated by his jealous friend, turn to prisoner, turn to pirate, turned to count of Monte Cristo, at every turn you see, rule and cheer for him.

    Any one would suggest other movies with such a drastic character arc?


  2. Jones

    Delightful Narration!?!
    Its quite easy to say rather than show.
    The lead protagonist was a loser to begin with, if he went on a date his character would arc!

  3. LazerRobot

    I know this article is 5 years old so this is a shot in the dark but…what is Emmett’s double arc? I just watched the Lego Movie again, and it’s phenomenal! But I am curious what you’re referring to when you say double arc.

    • Chris Winkle

      Oh let’s see… I think the two issues I was talking about is that he’s a) lonely and b) doesn’t think for himself. Both of those issues are pretty clearly introduced in the beginning scenes and solved by the end.

      • LazerRobot

        Cool, makes sense! Thank you for your response!

  4. Nagaraj

    Hi, I’m writing script for a movie. Its a love with action movie. As I started my protogonist as a wandering violinist. He use to work in concerts, orchestras, bands and etc. As a wanderer he always travels from one place to another. One fine day he reaches a sea side village with beautifull church, river ( joining sea), coconut trees, cloudy and rainy mood so on. In a village where he meets a girl and fall in love (??) for first time. Then the story move on to a conflict where, the two gangs of village are quarrelling for some political and there business issues. Where heroine is the prime witness for the murder, done by gang 1 leader. Now she is in the hands of gang 2 leader, he filed a case against gang 1 leader keeping heroine within his security. She is protected every second wherever she moves. Gang 2 leader not restrict her to be in home. So as she is interested in music, she attends music class in church. Where hero comes as a music teacher for her and other 20 students. The court has postponed hearing for next month. So in the given time period gang 1 leader tries to kill heroine whereas gang 2 leader is in security for her. In a situation like this hero has to save her. Though he loves her very much he will not reveal his love towards her. But a father of her knows that this guy is in love with her daughter. So exactly in the middle of the story father of her pleases hero to save her daughter from both gangs so that he will marry his daughter to hero. And in the very next scene gang 1 leader calls hero and asks hero to bring her some place alonely. So that they can kill her. Hero accepts his offer toooo. Bcoz if he didn’t done this job done. Some one will surely do this…. So second half of the movies is to save heroine and keep the promise given to heroine father. So that he can marry her after. But somewhere in the second half father lose belief about hero that he cant save his daughter. Extra love and care about his daughter makes him to not believe in him. So father cheats hero against gangs that leads hero to the death. Though hero saves heroine, he dies in the final battle. Finally the overall screenplay will be narrated through heroine father with a guilt and regret in his heart…

    Q: I am not getting protogonist inner conflicts…
    Where I may be missing…
    Please do help and answer my question sir…

    • Cay Reet

      From what I can see, your external conflict is completely spun around protecting the life of the female lead, but there’s no deeper motivation than ‘I’ve fallen in love with her’ for the male lead. Your protagonist has no internal conflicts, because the external conflict has nothing to do with him personally. If he decided that there’s other nice girls around, he could drop out of the story completely.

      Your male lead could instead
      – have a personal reason to fight the gangs, such as having lost people to them in the past (but that might lead to fridging) or having been personally attacked
      – be the leader of gang 2 and in love with the girl (that means he has more stakes in the story)
      – be a law-enforcement agent of sorts instead of just a wanderer, so he has come there with a purpose which lends itself to the external conflict
      – be a long-time inhabitant of the village who has grown tired of the gangs and hopes this situation will take both out
      – be related to the girl instead of being in love with her (the father would make a better lead in such a story line where the female lead is threatenend)
      – be a mercenary (they are wanderers by the nature of their job) and hired to protect the girl, then fall in love with her on the job

      In essence, your hero needs a personal reason above ‘I’ve fallen in love with this girl I’ve never seen before’ – especially if he sacrifices himself in the end to save her (in the big confrontation). As a wanderer, your male lead doesn’t have a strong personal connection to the village and those in it – and thus you can’t find an internal conflict for him. There is none, because no matter how much he’s in love with the female lead, it’s not deep yet – at least not deep enough for the big sacrifice at the end.

      If you look at the ‘western’ genre (meaning the Old West of the US), you will find that the wanderers which are common in that genre are always people who fight for justice because of their own past – they’re former criminals making up for it, they’re law enforcement, they just feel the need to make the west a little safer for their own reasons, but usually not just because they’ve fallen in love with someone. Your wanderer has none of those motivations, he’s just a drifter.

    • Cay Reet

      Addendum: In addition, you have severely miscast your male lead for an action-oriented story (which you describe here). The only reason I see why the male lead should be a violinist is that he can come in as a music teacher – yet, musicians aren’t known for their fighting skills and your main conflict means that he has to physically fight in the end. How is he going to do that? What world does he live in, where a musician is trained in fighting well enough to go up against a whole gang (even if he doesn’t win, he clearly saves the girl, after all)? Change the music teacher for something else (the mercenary I mentioned in my first answer comes to mind) and you have a much better male lead.

      Also: a romance with action parts is weird to say the least. Normally, you have it the other way around – an action movie where romance happens as a sub plot. Romance stories are usually spun around misunderstandings or intrigues from a third party (be it another suitor or the family of one of the leads who doesn’t want the romance to bloom). There are romance stories where the female lead (usually them) is in danger and needs saving, but even then the male lead has to have a close connection before the action part happens. Stories where the male lead saves the female lead usually are action stories with a romantic sub plot, not romances with an action sub plot. Romantic sub plots can both be ‘I’m in love with the girl, so I go out and find her, no matter the danger’ (but that usually requires that they’ve been in love for a while before, so the emotional attachment is bigger) or ‘I have accidentally saved this girl and now I need to protect her – she starts to grow on me’ (meaning they start out in danger together, but not in love and the relationship develops on screen). Offering marriage for saving the girl works in fairy tales (where princes are honour-bound to save the girl, anyway, and usually are looking for a bride), but not in the situation you describe. It looks to me as if you need to severely change your plot for this to work. You might also want to look at your main characters wants and needs to identify their internal conflict (want = what the character’s goal is; need = what the character needs to develop into a better character).

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