120. Stories that are hidden from us

A character arc is a fancy was of describing the changes a character goes through from the beginning to the end of a story. There is a hidden assumption in the idea of character arc that stops us seeing the possibility of other stories.

character arc

Consider the classic three act story. An individual is confronted by a problem (an external challenge or an internal flaw). They encounter trials and tribulations in which they are tested. They emerge better than before. Or, of course if the story is a tragedy, they succumb to the problem and emerge worse than before.

What does this remind you of? All those self-help and personal growth programmes perhaps? There is a view of the person and of development contained within these formulae.

  • We are individuals
  • We choose our own fate and can change

These principles of character arc seem so obvious we hardly even notice them as assumptions. But they come from a particular kind of society and, to other cultural traditions, they are far from obvious. How about these propositions:

  • People become people through other people. This is the core principle of the Ubuntu cultures of Southern Africa. In other words, humanity is a quality we owe each other. Or, in the European tradition, John Donne’s famous “no man is an island”.
  • The number of people on the planet who can choose their own fate is extremely limited. The starting conditions of wealth, gender, race, status and caste circumscribe our choices. For many people, change is unthinkable. Those who do escape their circumstances are not representative of their peers.

These differences are not only narrative, but moral. The first principles are individualistic, the second communitarian. What would character arcs be like if we used this second set of principles?

Let’s take an example of well-known tale. Here it is using the first formula. Follow the grid clockwise from top right to top left for the character arc.

Cinderella plot

Using the second formula, the story might look like this.

Cinderella communitarian plot

The Cinderella story has morphed into something more like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other cultures’ story-telling traditions can be very different. While the modern Western tradition requires dualities between subject (the character who acts) and object (the world which is acted upon), protagonist and antagonist (who represent good and evil), this is not true of all cultures. Many use ambiguous Trickster figures who are neither good nor evil. The European tradition used to have Trickster figures but this has now been lost.

Similarly, some traditions don’t require the protagonist to undergo change. In some Japanese literature the character remains unchanged and the reader’s interest is maintained by growing understanding of the character. Similarly, in many Japanese stories the character’s goal is irrelevant: the plot is driven by causality.  Though Japanese literature recognises the Three Act structure, they also have a Four Act structure (introduction, development, twist, reconciliation) and Western readers may find it hard to recognise anything they consider as an ending.

Another way of representing the classic, individualistic, character arc of the Western tradition is:

  • Goal: what does the character want to achieve?
  • The Lie: misconception that prevents them reaching their true potential
  • The Truth: character rejects the lie and embraces the truth, leading to self-improvement

What if the conventional character arc is the lie? It describes a fantasy world in which most of us do not live.

In a complex modern economy, we are materially dependent on each other but socially indifferent. The goods and services on which we depend are furnished by strangers about whom we know and care nothing. This one fact contains the possibility for a huge variety of drama.

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2 thoughts on “120. Stories that are hidden from us

  1. Hi Neil,

    I enjoyed reading your portrayal of the ‘character arc’ and the classic three act structure.
    I think when it comes to story-telling, either in a film or book, the audience holds on to the main character tightly for the reasons you describe.

    I break my ideas down to:

    Happy character in a familiar world – gets the audience empathy.
    Conflict – something happens that makes the character choose a course of action.
    A problem to be resolved. The key story overreaching arc.
    As the story progresses there are many courses for the character to take, each change is a challenge. Each action has a consequence that leads to another course of action.
    The conflicts the character faces, are multiple – physical, mental, moral, internal external. Everyone of those are barriers to the solution to the problem and from here the hidden story emerges – will the character choose the solution that the audience want?

    Of course, as you point out, in the course of the story the character will have overcome and learned something about themselves – albeit a sense of courage and gain – shy to outgoing, weak to strong, poor underdog to rich philanderer – they will be a different person, with a new outlook about life.

    It all sounds so simple, but like real life there are subtle nuances woven into the story. This raises the tricky issue of where to start the novel.

    In my latest novel MISSING.
    Laura at three is taken into care. As a teenager, she is determined to discover her past and find her mother.
    The novel starts when she is 19 years old; on a quest to find her parents.
    She gets help from a retired detective.
    She finds her relatives and a world from which she was denied as a child.
    She discovers the truth about her parents.
    But what she learns becomes unbearable, although she is in line to inherit a house with a farm and land. Her world has changed, and she has to decide; is this what she really wanted?

    The reader is left wondering (I hope) if this is true, could this happen in real life. Well yes because it is based on a collection of different events.

    Neil, I may have digressed, however I did enjoy reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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