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Your Character's Dramatic Arc

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Dramatic protagonists are encountered in a state of crisis or incompletion, often expressible as a conflict between contradictory inner impulses. Through the action of the narrative, they either:

  • resolve the crisis, and are transformed by its outcome

  • fail to resolve the crisis or contradiction, and are destroyed

A character’s dramatic arc can be summed up in a sentence that mentions the crisis and, where applicable, the inner conflict:
  • Rick Blaine (Casablanca) paralyzed by a sense of loss and betrayal, must resolve his conflict between self-interest and altruism.

  • Fanny Brawne, as portrayed in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, doesn’t understand poetry, until she learns to live by loving the dying John Keats.

  • Nora of A Doll’s House must resolve her desire to obey society’s expectations for her against her desire to free herself from them, as personified by her smothering, paternalistic husband.

  • Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) fails to reconcile his desire for family and community with the competition in him, that wants no one else to succeed.

  • Mildred Pierce struggles to reconcile her desire to establish herself in the world with her love for her ungrateful daughter.

  • Shelly Levene (Glengarry Glen Ross) struggles to maintain his dignity and usefulness, but has paradoxically invested it in a system that views both qualities as disposable.

Coming of age stories feature a classic dramatic arc. The character’s crisis is simply his or her youth; she must navigate between innocence and experience. In this time-honored formula, experience almost invariably wins.

When clumsily executed, the dramatic arc takes on a homiletic quality, where the hero learns an obvious life lesson and is improved by it.

A dramatic character’s story concludes when his conflict is resolved, successfully or otherwise. For this reason, RPGs, generally driven by serial characters in campaigns of indefinite duration, rarely feature true dramatic characters.

Long-form television serials, which elongate and reiterate a protagonist’s central conflict for many seasons before resolving it, may bear a closer resemblance to dramatic characters in an ongoing game campaign. Tony Soprano’s conflict between his identities as a family man and a Family man is elliptically resolved, and not in his favor, in the finale of The Sopranos. Don Draper’s conflict between authenticity and deception will presumably continue until the end of Mad Men, whenever that may be.

Your current PC probably lacks a dramatic arc or the narrative context in which to resolve it. But if he or she did, what would it be?

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