Hubby and I are in television transition. We dumped cable and are using our current Amazon Prime membership to view series television. We found out it’s great to be able to watch shows in a series back to back without having to wait week after week or from season to season. Plus, no commercials. I’m sure when the budget allows we will become Netflix converts. I also discovered it’s a great way to study story structure and character arcs.
We recently finished watching the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation series. Get ready, I’m going to wave my geek card big time. From 1987 to 1994, Next Gen ran seven seasons with 175 shows. There were some very excellent episodes including “The Inner Light”, “Chain of Command”, “Darmok”, and “Frame of Mind” as well as several duds such as the truly disappointing “The Royale”, “Second Chances”, and “Masks”. Told you I was going to wave that geek card.
The writers did a good job of taking all the main characters in the ensemble cast through their respective character arcs. What is a character arc?
“As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story. He begins as one sort of person in the beginning; things happen to and around him in an “arc” that ends when the story is over. Your lead character should be a different person at the other end of the arc.” James Scott Bell “Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure” (excellent book, highly recommended)
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Star Trek: TNG and you plan on watching it, you might want to skip this post.
Some resolved TNG character arcs:
- Wesley gets to use his ‘the special one’ powers and goes off exploring the galaxy with the Traveler
- Roe Laren leaves Star Fleet behind and joins the Maquis as she is truly a rebel at heart
- Geordi finally gets the girl (even farther off in the future – poor guy)
- Alexander and Worf come to an understanding in their rocky father-son relationship
- We find out whether the Captain and the Doctor ‘do’ or ‘don’t’
One character whose character arc was not obvious to me was the main protagonist, Captain Jean Luc Picard. Besides being the captain of the most blinged-out vessel in the Fleet, Captain Picard was Renaissance Man (Shakespeare, classical music and fencing!) Ladies Man (his romantic leads usually appeared at least 20 years younger than him) and Old Man Who Can Kick Butt (did you see him fight off those Klingons who jumped him on the Home World!) all rolled into one. But he didn’t seem to change all that much over the course of the series, either externally or internally. At least Riker had the beard.
In the very first episode the omnipotent alien Q has put humanity on trial and Jean Luc Picard is in the defendant’s box representing all humankind. Picard declares that humanity deserves to exist. Q allows that it remains to be seen.
Through the series Picard endures many bad guys,(Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and Crystal Entities, oh, my!) trials and tribulations (even having his humanity ripped from him as he’s forced to become the machine-enemy Borg) but the book-end episode of the series has Q still trying to indict humanity for the crime of being human. Picard will have none of it and holds steadfastly to the belief that the human race is good and will survive.
If character arc is growth, where is Picard’s growth? He has basically the same inner views that he started with. Can a character have a worldview, whether positive or negative, and when tested continue in the same worldview and it be considered growth?
Jim Hull at Story Fanatic makes the case that it can be:
“Without a doubt, Main Characters need to grow. A story cannot develop organically if the principle characters within it do not grow and adapt to the shifting dramatic tides. When an act progresses from one area of exploration to the next, the Main Character needs to progress as well. That’s how stories work. Therefore it is easy to see how growth, and in particular the Main Character’s growth, is inherent in the mechanisms that run story. But when you talk about change and how the Main Character “has” to change, you’re making an assumption about the nature of that growth. Not all growth is transformative. Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them. This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world”.
A character who has the opportunity to change how they think or feel about something, but remains steadfast in how they think or feel has still changed. They’ve strengthened what they believe through dealing with the conflict or obstacle in the story. They are different by remaining true to themselves.
In my WIP my protagonist, Lena, has several obstacles that cause her to challenge what she believes about people, faith, and herself. She flip-flops throughout the story and you’re not sure whether she’ll remain true to herself or sell out to what society says she should do. What will happen? I’ll have to let the character arc play out.
Want to explore and go where no one has gone before with character arcs? Check out these links:
- Character Arc 101 from Storymind.com
- The Great Character Arc Controversy from The Mystery Man On Film
- A New Character-Driven Hero’s Journey at Cracking Yarns
- Tip # 71: Make Your Subplot About Character Arc from the always awesome Larry Brooks at Storyfix.com
Try using a drama television series to study story structure and character arcs. It’s a painless way to learn how to write character arcs. Make it so.
Question: Have you used television shows to learn about writing? What television series would you suggest to study story structure and character arcs?