Character arc is the term used to refer to a change undergone by a character in a movie.
We call it character arc because the change is not a quick one: it goes from the beginning of the movie to the end, although there is usually a fairly obvious point at which the character realises something important and begins to change accordingly.
Along with the three-act structure, character arc is one of the important elements of a successful screenplay. It gives depth to the story and to the character, as well as a deeply satisfying sense of catharsis.
Here are some character arc examples from some famous films:
Character Arc Examples
|Character arc example||Character at the beginning of the movie||Character at the end of the movie|
|Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)||Schindler does not care about the Jewish people and sees them only as an easy source of investment and cheap labor.||Schindler is appalled by the massacres and is deeply attached to his Jewish people, risking his life and spending money to save them, to the point of bankrupting himself. (This is the irresponsible-father-to-caring-father transition that is so frequently seen in Spielberg’s characters.)|
|Bud Brigman in The Abyss (dir. James Cameron, 1989)||Brigman is a nuts-and-bolts, practical man who does not believe his wife when she tells him that she saw something seriously unusual in the wreck of U.S.S. Montana.||Brigman meets the aliens (who save his life when he finds himself at the bottom of the ocean with insufficient oxygen to return to the rig). He appreciates the aliens’ message of peace.|
|Avner in Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2005)||Avner is more than happy to execute any suspected terrorist he is ordered to kill. He is convinced he is doing the right thing.||Avner has grave concerns over the wisdom of responding to atrocities with more violence. He refuses to participate in further assassination missions. He no longer trusts governments and does not want to have anything more to do with them.|
|Anderton in Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002)||Anderton is convinced that the Pre-crime unit is a brilliant idea. He is mired in grief and is unable to get over the disappearance of his son.||Anderton understands the folly of pre-crime and is delighted to see it dismantled. He achieves closure over his son’s death and reunites with his wife, who is now expecting a new child.|
Unlike the three-act structure, character arc is not absolutely essential in movie making, but it is nevertheless a concept that is worth bearing in mind when developing your screenplay.