Post by Pete Watson-Wailes

Main picture: Alice in wonderland by Gordon Tarpley

Previously in the series:

Continuing our series of of looking at storycrafting, we've examined part of characterisation in looking at Alignment Examples & Motivation, and we're continuing on the character theme here, looking at the fifth part of effective storytelling - character arcs.

Character Journey in RPGs

With a character's internal motor (their motivation and alignment) defined, you can start taking them on a journey. This is spurred by the events of the plot and the world they inhabit, but is separate to them. So what exactly is it?

A character arc is, at its core, the journey a character goes through emotionally and intellectually from their current state to a future, different state. This can be a good or bad transition; the form isn't that important. The important thing is that it's impactful to the player and their group, and that comes from tension and resolution. Which brings us on to...

Wants vs Needs

The pivotal moments in a character's journey come in moments of anagnorisis - when they make a vital discovery and realise something true about either the world or themselves. The best way to do this is to play their motivation off against something deeper.

Character motivations are inevitably a want, rather than a need. For some examples from films and literature:

Work Character Wants Needs
Thor Thor To be King To be humble enough to accept he's not ready
The Iron Giant Hogarth To be a man To be OK being a child
Lord of the Rings Frodo To live in peace To accept peace comes through others' sacrifice
A Christmas Carol Scrooge To be rich To learn to value friendship & caring

The best of these work when what they character wants is fundamentally at odds with what they need. In Thor we see that everything he's done until the start of the film has made him complacent in his strength and his "right" to rule. The more he's appeared kingly, the less he's become a ruler capable of leading Asgard. Equally, Scrooge's wealth has poisoned his mind, which has driven people away, making it impossible for him to remember why caring for others matters. The further these people pursue what they want, the further they're taken from their need.

It's this tension that makes the moments of anagnorisis so powerful.

The Revelation

This is the point where the character finally recognises something true. This can happen more than once in a work, and indeed in series of films or long-running shows, there's almost certainly going to be more than one. However, sticking with our list from above, here's the revelations our characters receive:

Character Revelation
Thor Kingship is about servitude and humility, not power and strength
Hogarth The adult world is no better than the world of a child
Frodo He must be willing to sacrifice a future life of peace to do what's right
Scrooge His hoarding of wealth makes him lonely and hurts those around him

It's these moments of understanding that change the character, develop them, and allow you to see the world differently as a result of their changed perspective.

In the case of Thor, his revelation makes him accept that he's not ready to become king. This is then reinforced in the second film where he comes to realise that he cannot be king and do what a king must. He has come to value his duty to protect his people and have a clear conscience more than his desire to rule.

I would rather be a good man, than a great king

This then sets up an obvious revelation for his next outings - the same revelation Frodo has; that for others to enjoy what he desires requires him to sacrifice that very thing. He's still putting his own desires above the needs of Asgard. He must come to accept that he can be a great king, and that fact and his birth as the son of Odin means he must be king, even if it's not what he wants.

The Choice

This brings us to the final point. In the wake of a revelation, the player/writer must decide what the character does with this information. This can go well and push the character towards being a hero, or towards becoming a villain.

For some examples, in his defining moment of choice, Anakin decides to come to the aid of Palpatine rather than Mace Windu, marking the start of his turn to the Dark Side. On the other hand, the titular character of The Iron Giant, on understanding the town will be destroyed, chooses to give his own life to save that of those who cannot defend themselves. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet reads the letter from Darcy and realises she has been flattered by Wickham and wrong in all her judgements of Darcy. She decides to put her previous assessment of his character behind her and to judge him by his own merits and actions, no a received interpretation of them. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne decides that he can't endure what's happening, and that he'll turn himself in to stop more people being killed. In that case though, it's subverted as Dent takes his place before he can do it.

This is where the fun in character arcs comes from - the presentation of a choice which will meaningfully alter a character, and the decision and resolution of it. It's how you make a character grow, and keep the story meaningful to the characters in it.

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