I finally got a chance to see “Iron Man” the other day and it got me thinking about character arc. I know, weird coming from a big action movie, huh? But the writers and actor obviously went to great lengths to clearly spell out the characters arc. And you know what? They did a pretty damn good job of it if you ask me.
The movie starts with Tony Stark, a guy with absolutely no moral compass, a real jerk and a womanizer. But did you notice what else they did? You can’t help but like the guy, as much of an a-hole as he may be. Yes Tony’s an irresponsible alcoholic who glibly sells the Pentagon a bar for every lethal missile they order. But he’s funny, he’s personable, and he talks to the little guy when most guys in his position wouldn’t give them a second glance. Most importantly, you see that he’s got a good woman who cares about him so he can’t be all bad, right? For me, the set up all went on a bit too long but still it effectively gave you a flawed character who you still wanted to spend two hours with to see how he redeemed himself.
And therein lies the problem with 80% of the scripts I read. After about five pages I just don’t like the main character. Yes, you need to give your hero a place to go. He (or she) needs to grow/change/maybe improve as a result of the journey they go on through the course of the story. But they don’t have to be whiny, bitchy, completely unlikable people! You want the reader and eventually a viewing audience to be drawn into their story despite their flaws and foibles, not be repelled by their basic nature.
Usually the problem is that it’s impossible to understand what the character wants and what’s in their way. If you only knew that, you might excuse the whiny, bitchy behavior. In “Iron Man” you know that deep down Tony wants to be the kind of man everyone thinks his father was but is conflicted. Was dad that good? After all, he made millions selling death and destruction and no matter how you rationalize it that’s still got to be confusing. So rather than deal with it he hides behind his own outlandish behavior. Complex, but no so overly complicated you can’t figure it out. And RELATABLE. No, most of us aren’t billionaire weapons dealers but we do have deep conflicts about who we are, what’s our purpose in life, etc. This is so not going to go over well with the artsy fartsy crowd but I think they movie makers – whether it was the writers, director or actor – did a fantastic job making a comic book hero into a real, flesh and blood man.
Whether you agree or not, think about it the next time you start a script and make the lead character a) stupid b) mean as a snake or c) a combination of a & b all in the name of giving your character some place to go. Take a step back, make them human first, and then work out the arc.