I miss tough guys.  Guys without character arcs.  Characters who who show up, kick some ass, and then go home basically unchanged.  They aren’t shallow characters.  They’re simple and direct, and they get the job done.  They aren’t there to learn about themselves.  They’re there to shoot aliens and stop supervillains and otherwise have daring adventures and keep bad guys at bay.

What happened to those guys?

It occurred to me while watching Cowboys and Aliens, an otherwise enjoyable film, that way too much time was invested in the character arcs for my own personal taste.  As always, this is subjective, but I didn’t really need subtle motivations and character growth for a movie about cowboys fighting aliens.  I call it the Conan Rule.  Conan isn’t there to learn any important life lessons.  He isn’t there to make friends and become a better person.  He arrives to slay sorcerers and mad kings, to destroy monsters and ride into the sunset with a maiden on his arm and a grim smile across his face.  And that’s just fine by me.

(Speaking of Conan, let’s hope the new film understands this.  I’d hate to sit through a story where Conan wrestles with feelings of guilt and uncertainty.  It’d be completely missing the point of the character.)

Not every protagonist needs a character arc.  James Bond doesn’t need a backstory.  John Carter of Mars doesn’t have to contemplate the futility of living in a violent world.  And Wonder Woman can just be an Amazon crimefighter, here to lend a hand.

Recurring characters, in particular, suffer from the desire to give them arcs.  These characters weren’t designed for it, and often, it comes across as strange.  I don’t need to read yet another Spider-Man story where Peter Parker learns to live with his gift / curse.  I don’t want to witness Superman coming to terms with his amazing powers.  And I don’t care how many adventures Conan has, I don’t need him to be anything other than Conan.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve grown so fond of the reboots and re-imaginings of late.  Because the only way to give Peter Parker, James Bond, or Superman a character arc is to start over.  After these characters have learned their “definitive” lessons, established their defining philosophies, there’s nothing new to be done with them on the personal growth front.  And because character arc seems to be required at this point, they become uninteresting.  But rather than just giving Superman robots to fight or moving onto new characters, writers instead decide to reset everything so that they can tell the same character arc again.

This is the problem with a recurring character.  If they continue to grow and change as time goes on, then logically, they should eventually become unrecognizable.  Writers are stuck between two opposing goals.  They want to write about the character changing, but they don’t want the character to actually change.  Batman will never decide to give up crimefighting.  Spider-Man will always be broke.  And James Bond will always be a spy.  Because that’s what defines them.  Even when it doesn’t make sense.

Spider-Man, for example, is part of both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four.  But somehow, he’s still broke and an outcast hero.  He was even married to a supermodel for decades before she was magically removed to make him more “relatable”.  But I think she was removed because she didn’t fit with Spidey’s established character.  And writers, unable or unwilling, to explore new Spidey stories about a married man (and maybe even a father) who is a superhero, just reset the character.  And they probably weren’t wrong to shy away from that development because it’s not what most readers want out of Spidey.

Character arcs for recurring protagonists / antagonists are almost always going to be a waste of time.  And disappointing.  Once you get them to where they need to be, there’s no need for them to grow and change, and it seems strange that characters exhibited the ability to change and then just suddenly stopped doing it.  X-Men: First Class showcases Eric’s transformation into Magneto, which is fine, but once the film is over, we are given the final version of Magneto, the character who will now never change or grow again.  Charles has every single bit of his character development happen in the film too, including getting paralyzed.  Prof X is finished as a character, and further growth is impossible.

I miss adventure stories where the character doesn’t learn anything about themselves and where the focus of the plot is less about what the characters are feeling and more about punching evil aliens.  Maybe it’s deemed too superficial, but the other side is that the more time characters spend learning about themselves, they less time they have to fight bad guys and save the world.  And while I’m all for a good story of personal growth, I also really enjoy it when James Bond blows up a bad guy’s secret installation or Captain America punches out Hitler.  And sometimes, a cowboy can just shoot the evil aliens because they’re EVIL and that’s what cowboys would do.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Well said, oh Master of Words. I read a lousy book on how to write the other day, and practically the only good thing it said was that a series character should have all their characteristics set before the series started, because they weren’t intended to have a story arc. They were intended to be a comfortable pal to come back to and know what to expect.

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