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Is “Good” Characterisation Really About Change?


Characters SHOULD change?

At first glance, it would seem the answer to this question about character change is obvious. It’s oft said so-called “good” characterisation is about change by writing Gurus, script readers, editors and educators. It’s said that a character – usually the protagonist – must make a personal realisation or change something physical (or indeed, both), whilst DOING something else (usually the situation apparent).

What’s more, the notion of  “arc” and “character development” is drummed  into writers of ALL descriptions, but especially screenwriters. Since the advent of transmedia and convergence of all the mediums then, it makes sense that novelists and writers of web stuff take note of this idea too, especially if they want to hook the potential of other platforms.

But is good characterisation REALLY about change? My takes:


This is the traditional route, as outlined above. It’s what’s taught on screenwriting courses and it’s what a script editor, producer, publisher or filmmaker might ask you IF you’re lucky enough to nab a meeting.

And we can see this at work in popular movies throughout the ages, with none more obvious than movies meant for children and family audiences. Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios movies always feature stories in which their protagonists must come to some sort of personal realisation during the main event, such as:

Rapunzel’s realisation she is in charge of her own destiny in TANGLED

Woody’s realisation he must share Andy in TOY STORY

Fiona and Shrek’s realisations who they *really* are in SHREK

Diego and Manny’s realisations what friendship and loyalty is worth in ICE AGE

Mary Katherine’s realisation we all have our place in the world in EPIC

WHY: It’s not difficult to see why family films choose this route: they’re the type of movies that favour moral messages, so if yours is too – whether a movie, TV script, novel, web series, comic book or something else – then you probably want to make sure your character/s come to some sort of realisation in the course of the story, too. But that’s not the end of it …


“WTF?!!” You say. “But a “good” character HAS to change … Saying s/he doesn’t goes against I’ve everything I’ve learned!”

I know, good ain’t it? Break those rules, baby. Chew on this:

Let’s take two movie icons from cinema history: Ripley from the first ALIEN movie … and John McClane in the first DIE HARD. Where is the change in their behaviour, throughout the movie? Tell me.

I’m waiting …

… Waiting

—oooooooh outta time. UNLUCKY.

I put it to you there is NO CHANGE in Ripley or Mcclane’s arcs or development in those two movies, for the following reasons:



Ripley is a smart, motivated worker, who does things by the book. We also see she doesn’t really like or relate to her co-workers that much from the get-go. Some, she even goes so far as to actively DISlike, such as Parker, Lambert and Ash.

But bar the odd barbed comment here and there (“You’ll get whatever’s coming to you”), Ripley works on the basis she is there to do a job … And she does it. She won’t even let Dallas, Lambert and Kane back in when the alien attaches to the latter’s face! The only reason it gets on board the ship is because Ash overrules her.

In other words then, Ripley is one of life’s SURVIVORS. And guess what: survive she does!!

Modified behaviour?

Yes, yes as the situation goes to Hell and their lives are in danger she modifies her behaviour towards Lambert and Parker, but that’s a survival tool, not evidence of any specific change in personal arc at grass roots level.

Don’t forget, Ripley DOESN’T modify her behaviour towards Ash for the very same survival reason: she is suspicious of his motives and she’s right to be. It’s her who finds out about The Company’s infamous directive, “crew expendable”. And yes, she does shed a tear for Lambert and Parker when she finds them dead in the cargo bay – but again, that’s less to do with “change” and more to do with the fact that if she didn’t, not only would she seem like a psychopath, the audience would not like her as much.



John McClane is an old fashioned guy. He’s stubborn and a pain in the ass when it comes to his pride and his honour, which is signified by his troubled relationship with his wife, Holly. Not only has she taken the kids and moved to further her career, she’s had to do it without John, because apparently “he’s a New York Cop who doesn’t know how to do anything else” and certainly he does very little, if anything, to persuade us the opposite of this during the course of the movie. Granted, he wants to fix his relationship, but lacks the emotional tools to do it, even when Holly reaches out to him. Instead he sabotages this peace offering by quibbling about her using her maiden name, which is Gennarro.

So McClane starts a proud man and ends one, standing on the doorstep of the Nokatomi Building the victor – because he would not give in, no matter what. 

Modified behaviour?

“Oh, but wait!” You say, “He introduces Holly to the news crew as “Gennarro”!!”

You’re right, he does … but what does she say? She CORRECTS John and tells the news team her name is McCLANE.

So any change he MAY have had to make, however small, is effectively null and void: he gets his own way and the victory is his AGAIN. (And let’s not forget there’s a very important reason pertaining to the PLOT she was called Genarro anyway … It meant the terrorists didn’t realise Holly’s hostage value as McClane’s wife until the second turning point).

WHY: It’s no accident that GENRE films meant for adults feature icon characters like Ripley and McClane who effectively START and END the same; these movies were made BEFORE the majority of writing courses, books etc and their (frankly flawed) obsession with character “change” being the be-all and end-all.

Whilst it is of course possible to write a genre movie (or indeed anything else) with a great and effective character who DOES change (GRAVITY, anyone?), they’re few and far between as scribes essentially overcomplicate characters’ motivations and screw them up. So, learn a lesson from cinema history: worry about giving your genre characters a DISTINCT PERSONALITY instead, like Ripley and McClane. 



But as with anything in this writing lark, it’s not about either/or: whilst you MAY or MAY NOT introduce change via your protagonist, there are also other ways too – which your protagonist MAY or MAY not be a significant catalyst for. Like these:

The Change Agent # 1

Sometimes protagonists are change agents. That is, the protagonist is so unusual and/or so remarkable, they inspire the other characters around them, for good or ill. An obvious example of this would be Forrest, in FORREST GUMP. His simple outlook on life, inspired by his mother’s steadfast belief in him (and immortalised in the famous line “Life is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get”) is not his OWN  call to action, but the inspiration for others’, like Jenny and Lieutenant Dan.

The Change Agent # 2

Sometimes a protagonist is lost and floundering, not knowing where to turn. This type of character often turns up in the Romantic Comedy genre. A secondary character as mentor will inspire them *somehow* to get a hold of their life and steer it in the right direction, even if the protagonist does not know that’s what’s happening, as in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. Summer is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype often dismissed by feminist commentators, yet I feel is *generally* a positive representation: she knows what she wants and won’t apologise for it. This is signified by Summer’s marriage and pregnancy at the end of the film, to someone else. This in turn teaches Our Guy to take a chance when he goes for the job interview and meets the woman on the sofa.

The Everyman

This guy’s – and it nearly always is a guy – plain “ordinariness” is what’s going for him: the audience find it easy to imagine themselves in his place. During the course of the narrative The Everyman must (usually) learn a life lesson (especially in comedy), though in Thrillers he may simply have to vanquish the beast, such as David Mann in DUEL or Alex Cross in KISS THE GIRLS.

The Passive Protagonist

Passive protagonists often turn up in the comedy genre and only become problematic when there is not another character – whether antagonist or secondary – to pick up the reins and drive the action FOR them. Typically, they will wrench the reins back in the resolution and fix everything that needs to be done … Though sometimes not, as in HARSH TIMES, which is definitely NOT a comedy! There’s some debate over whether Jim is an antihero or an antagonist. I believe Mike is the protagonist, whom Jim leaves with a single, devastating choice in the last few minutes of the movie.

The Anti Hero

The Anti Hero may turn up in comedy, such as Marvin in AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Really, it’s up to the other characters to accommodate him, than the other way around. In contrast, Phil must learn to accommodate others if he is going to live the life he wants (and get the girl) in GROUNDHOG DAY.

The Anti Hero may also turn up in the Thriller and/or Action-Adventure, such as Bryan in TAKEN or Snow in LOCKOUT. These guys will not change … We go from hating them to loving their unapologetic – and sometimes morally relative – outlooks on life.

Dual Protagonists

Sometimes dual protagonists have the same motivations, for different reasons, such as “save our loved ones … save the world”, like Steve and Dave in INDEPENDENCE DAY. Other times, one half of a duo makes a realisation before the other one … This means they’re not really dual protagonists at all! This happens as John becomes in the antagonist versus Jane in MR AND MRS SMITH.

Unreliable Narrator

The Unreliable Narrator is most commonly associated with novels, but a movie that pulls this off with aplomb is Liz in THE HOLE.  Liz presents herself as both victim and victor throughout this story. The audience – signified about The Police Psychologist – can never be sure if the schoolgirl is telling the truth or not … And by the time we are? It’s TOO LATE.

In other words then?

You’ve got a SHEDLOAD of characterisation tricks up your sleeve, so why the hell only use the first one??

500 Days Of Summer


There’s all these different ways of presenting a change, or not presenting one AT ALL. This notion that characters MUST change – “or bust” – is simply false.

In answering the question, “is good characterisation about change?” we must conclude “yes” … AND “no”. Change in the protagonist is JUST ONE of the many tools in the writer’s arsenal … And frankly, the former is massively overused at present! What can YOU do, that’s different to the “usual”? As I’ve outlined here, LOTS!

Good luck! YOU NEED IT

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27 thoughts on “Is “Good” Characterisation Really About Change?”

  1. This is also true of Harry and Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber! – Neither really change, which is kind of why the film is so hilarious and ironic.

    Maybe the trick is, getting the right balance between story arc and character arc? When a protagonist is faced with adversity or great external conflict in the plot, the strength of the character is tested. This rather results in metamorphosis (arc) or using existing ability/traits to rise to the challenge. In terms of Ripley and McClane, their challenges seem to be the litmus test that allows them to prove their heroism and step up to the challenge. Really interesting post! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Yes, that is true Yazmin – Lloyd and Harry start and end the same as well … DUMB AND DUMBER! 😉 This is signified by the continued eating of chillis (and ketchup) over the credits sequence.

    I think you’re right too about the situation itself “testing” the characters’ mettle … I have found myself writing MANY times in the last few years about this in development notes or feedback, usually along the lines of:

    “Why does [CHARACTER] have to have such a challenging/tragic back story? Why isn’t being [stuck down a well with a flesh eating beast or whatever] ENOUGH to contend with?”

    We’ve fallen in love with the idea of characters OVERCOMING personal histories, I think – and whilst it can work – GRAVITY is an obvious recent example – it’s not 100% necessary and sometimes, is preferable to NOT do.

  3. I don’t know about Ripley, Lucy. Yes, she’s a by-the-book player, and so her actions could be seen as an extension of this. But to survive she has to find inner qualities – resourcefulness under pressure, fearlessness, ruthlessness, – that I’m sure she didn’t know she had at the outset. In the sequels, she knows (as do we) that she already has these qualities, which makes her survival a little more routine/predictable.

    What also changes in that first film is the other characters’ (and our) perception of her. She’s a stroppy pain-in-the-neck at first, a formidable saviour by the end (even though she doesn’t actually get to save anyone but herself … and the cat. Always save the cat!).

    1. I don’t agree, on the basis that “resourcefulness under pressure” is not a character change, but a reaction to the situation in hand. And she was always ruthless, on the basis she would have left Kane, Lambert and Dallas outside the ship. As for fearlessness? No way. She is extremely scared throughout as far as I can see, else she would be a psycho. She engages with the situation because she is courageous, not fearless – and this courageous attitude is set up from the beginning, I saw no “stroppy pain in the neck”, but rather a woman who knows what she wants and has the emotional tools to do that.

      1. Good points, Lucy (although isn’t any ‘character change’ really “a reaction to the situation in hand”?).

        Perhaps ‘fearlessness’ wasn’t the right word, but she does find ‘courage’ (in the face of physical danger, and not just the courage to stand up to authority) where I’m sure she didn’t know she had it. This makes her, by the end, ‘brave’. Isn’t ‘brave’ a character trait?

        And the other members of the crew do find her ‘a stroppy pain in the neck’ at first, I think (unless I’m mistaken – it’s been a while). Their perception of her changes.

  4. But even if that is true, that’s THEIR perception of Ripley, not Ripley herself ;P

    And are we talking about change, or choice anyway? There are two choices here – Ripley can stand up for herself in the face of the threat of the alien, or lie down and die. Bit like her professional life, really – which is male-dominated, her the outsider both literal and figurative, with even Lambert drawing a line in the sand between them, though Ripley does not let this bother her. So we’re back at Ripley being a survivor from the offset again.

    1. You’re right, it’s their perception, but I think that this is an interesting aspect of ‘change’ in a more general, objective sense. The reaction of others to a character is, after all, an important facet of what affects our view of him/her and makes us root for them (or not).

      As for “choice or change” … I still think that although we see from the outset that Ripley is a tough person, she doesn’t ‘choose’ to react bravely in the face of extreme peril. The situation forces her to find bravery within herself and dig it out. One of the things that sets Ripley apart from McClane is that the latter goes into the story with bravery already a part of his armoury. Ripley has to find it – and dead quick!

      (But I’ve taken up enough of your time already …)

  5. Yes, Lucy, yes! Time somebody spoke out on this one.

    Regarding Alien, it should also be noted that Ripley does not emerge as the protagonist until after the half-hour mark and then, as Yazmin suggests, her emergence is as the one who rises to the challenge.

  6. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) does not change.
    Travis Bickle does not change.
    Rupert Pupkin does not change.
    Maximus the Gladiator does not change.
    Tom Ripley does not change.
    All the characters from GoodFellas do not change.
    etc. etc. etc.

    1. Yep! This times a million … but certain screenwriting books, courses etc INSIST “no change = shit characterisation” which is totally untrue.

      1. Not only “certain”. I think most “screenwriting gurus” insist that the character has to change, which is ridiculous. Unfortunately many writers and studio execs regard this a golden rule.

        1. It’s bad enough that characters absolutely have to change in longer forms such as movies and novels, but I’ve seen more than one instance where a writing coach has declared that even in short stories there must be change and a noticeable character arc.

  7. (screenwriting theory/software) handles the change/steadfast question quite well I think by comparing the main character (our point of view) with an impact character (alternative point of view).

    Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive for example is a steadfast main character who doesn’t change and it’s actually Gerard (the impact character) who does most of the changing.

    To be clear the Dramatica model is that of a Grand Argument Story (a specific type of work that is conceptually complete and emotionally and logically comprehensive). Not every movie fits that model e.g. Alien which appears to me more like a morality tale. I.e. “don’t stick your face into the unknown or there will be dire consequences” (tale) vs “here is how we think you should deal with the unknown” (grand argument story).

    Some useful resources: (p.157)

    1. Agree with the notion that Dramatica handles this question of change with more accuracy and finesse. Mike summed it up nicely – you have a Main Character (the one whose eyes we look through) and you have an Influence Character (formerly the Impact Character – basically the one who we look at). Both start a story with a point-of-view, a way of doing things. At the end, one will do a complete 180 on this point-of-view (Change their Resolve) while the other will stick to their guns (Remain Steadfast with their Resolve).

      All great stories work this way.

      1. Dramatica is awesome. It doesn’t really help me with what it’s meant for ultimately but it’s a great brainstorming/make you think tool.

  8. Thanks for the good article!

    I agree with almost all of your observations, I do have one small gripe, though: While there are unchanging anti-heroes, I don’t think Melvin is such a fitting example for this type of character. He may not want to change, but the forced contact with others brings about quite a lot of change in him.
    In the beginning he’s shown as a misanthropic loner who doesn’t have much contact with the outside world and wants as little variation in his life as possible. By the end of the movie, he’s still not the easiest person to be around, but he loses some of his OCD-type behavior (signified by not avoiding the cracks on the pavement anymore), can actually tolerate a roommate, and, most of all, manages to declare his love – something he could not possibly do in the beginning.

    IMHO, the difference to the traditional changing hero is more one of perspective. We’re watching Melvin rather than identifying with him, so we’re not taking home the lesson “If I change my behavior, I can be a better person”. Instead it’s “Wven seemingly hopeless old curmudgeons can change and become better persons”.

    Oh, another example for a catalytic hero would be Marty in the first “Back to the Future” movie: He doesn’t really learn any valuable moral lesson or become a better person. He completely changes the world around him, though. In part 2, they tried to introduce personal change for Marty with his “don’t call me chicken” issue, but to me it always felt contrived and the movie didn’t really need it.

    1. Sure, tho in order to be with Melvin or around him, the other characters have to modify their behaviour, more than he does his own IMHO. And on that basis I would argue he starts and ends in the same point, as more of a change agent. That said, it’s been several years since I saw the movie, so perhaps if I were to view it again in light of your comments, I might change my mind. Thanks for the food for thought.

  9. ‘Travelling Angel’ films whose protagonists do not change? Robin Williams in Dead Poets, any James Bond (he stays James Bond no matter what?), Mary Poppins? Lots of French films, Omar Sy in Intouchables?

  10. My favourite film on this topic is (The original!) Mary Poppins.

    You could be mistaken (given the title) in thinking the film is all about her, but she is the agent that indirectly cultivates the change in the Father, Mr Banks. A fact that is even more impressive as it is the kids that are in direct conflict with their father, not Mary. I think the writing here is quite brilliant -nothing is forced, this story bobbles along quietly in the background, through the chain of playful distractions in the foreground, until it blossoms to full prominence in the final act.

    This one film has taught me more about storytelling, than a lot of the more high-brow cinema that budding writers are encouraged to break-down. (plus you can watch it while the kids are awake!)

  11. …someone please show this article to Zack Snyder and every other writer who says a modern Superman movie can’t work.

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