Even chimps can change

Today I’m thinking about how the major character of a novel changes through the story. In other words, his or her character arc.

Having the major character change through the story is one of the key ways an author knits plot to character. It is also a powerful tool to reveal character. But why, really, does a character have to change? Aren’t some characters fascinating enough without changing their spots?

The answer is usually no. Static characters who repeat their same strengths in answer to every challenge appear cardboard to us. (Exception: Gregory House in House, and other highly quirky characters. Except: are you, like me, getting tired of House? Is he never going to change? The series’ writers have a dilemma. If he learns about himself, he won’t delight us anymore.)

For most major characters, we need to see the plot act upon the person, changing them. If the events of the story aren’t powerful enough to shape a character, then the events are the wrong ones for that character. That’s why you often here this suggestion for creating plot: What is the worst thing that could confront this particular character? Yup, we are right from the beginning trying to weave plot with character.

In a well-told tale, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

From very early in the story, then, we work on challenging the character with plot, and forming the plot through the success or failure of the character.

Even a chimp can do it. And does, in:

The Rise of The Planet of the Apes

You did realize that the major character in this story is Caesar the chimp? Because Will, the scientist working on the Alzheimers cure, never grows. He never gets it. He’s a foil for Caesar. (I suppose James Franco got big bucks for it, anyway.)

The dramatic question in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be expressed this way: Can the first highly intelligent chimpanzee find a place of belonging in this world?

What weakness does Caesar (Will’s pet Chimp) have that he must overcome? Close your eyes, and think about what holds Caesar back. And the answer is: his dependence upon humans. And how likely is it that he will overcome this? Taken at face value, without knowing the franchise storyline, I’d have to say, this chimp doesn’t stand a chance. Even if set free in a jungle, he wouldn’t last a week. So happy in the wild? Can’t happen. Happy in Will’s attic? Did it pull at your heartstrings to see him watching through the window as the neighborhood kids played? Attic forever? Doomed.

Hurray, we’ve got a story problem!

All right, at what point does the hero first see that he’s got a problem (the story problem.)

It is when he encounters the German Shepherd in the park, and both Caesar and the dog are on a leash. Class, if you follow screenwriting, you will recognize this moment as plot point one. The expression on his face as Will cluelessly tries to help him deal with traumatic the event by showing him where he was born! The character is now engaged with the dramatic question.

The rest of the story up until the confrontation on the Golden Gate is all about how Caesar changes. Some points of conflict where Caesar succeeds in changing or fails:

1. Can he help Will’s father from being beaten by the neighbor? He tries, disastrously. The way to be at home in the world is not to use ferocity against humans. They will punish you.

2. But can he fit in at the primate sanctuary if he doesn’t use ferocity? What is the place for violence? Even if he knew how to be aggressive, he’s ambivalent. Will has taught him to respect others. This ambiguity deepens our empathy for the character. Up against wild animals, Caesar’s toast. Can he win against the sadistic animal handler? Not yet, he’s still waiting passively for others to treat him well.

3. What is the alternative to physical violence (which can never be the solution while he’s alone and up against electric prods)? The answer is that Caesar learns the power of reasoning. He decides to gain leadership over his fellow caged animals through planning. He frees the gorilla from solitary confinement, and with this massive animal’s allegiance, Caesar not only frees himself from harassment by the other animals, he has an epiphany. About power. His power.

4. What is the moment where he emphatically changes from dependence to independence? When he refused to go home with Will. The ineffectual doctor finally figures out how to bring Caesar “home,” and Caesar refuses. Now Caesar is ready to embark on his warrior phase. Classic mid point of storytelling.

5. Not only does he refuse to go home with Will, but he steals the virus canister with which he “uplifts” all the caged chimps and orangutans and the gorilla. In short order he shows them the way “up the tree” (tree of evolution!) to the skylights and to freedom. Narrative climax (using all the gained knowledge and lessons of the story.)  This is Caesar’s great defining moment. He has overcome dependence, and is finding home among like-minded, if you’ll forgive the pun, chimps.

6. The scene on the bridge. The plot climax, showing clearly that revolution has begun, and foreshadowing that Caesar and friends will ultimately win it all, the whole world. (So in this scene Caesar doesn’t change, but I include it since I’m recounting plot points.)

7. And in the forest, the second declaration of independence: from Will. When Will invites him back home, Caesar speaks for the first time: “Caesar is home.”

Character arc?  This story is a classic example. Caesar’s arc was the engine empowering the whole story and was seldom lost sight of on screen.

The story arc is the clearest instrument for the intersection of plot and character. It is the reason for the story and it’s most eloquent expression.

9 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog. This post answered a terrible plot problem I have been up against lately. The real problem was that I didn’t quite know what was wrong. Now I do, and I can go about fixing it. Thanks so much!

  2. Jay Noel says:

    Whew. For a minute there, my mind was back in the 1972 movie “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” Had to let the brain figure that one out. I was thinking, “James Franco? Does Kay mean Ricardo Montalban???”

  3. Kay says:

    You’re very welcome, Ben. Sometimes we hear the right thing at the right time. Happens to me, too.

  4. Kay says:

    Yes, the franchise is still alive… and I must say, better than ever. (You have a Lot of catching up to do!)

  5. Yes, the monkey franchise is still strong and I agree better than ever. I recently listened to the Writing Excuses podcast on “the Hollywood Formula” and this excellent post underscored some of the same points. Can’t hear it enough time about the importance of the character arch. There is the challenge in a series, especially a long series (like House but also in long book series) how to keep the freshness of the stories if there’s going to be little if any character growth.
    While I’m only into book one of the Zak Bates Eco Adventure YA fantasy series, I’m already wondering how to keep Zak growing and changing book after book.
    Any suggestions?

  6. Kay says:

    I must say that my opinion on series is not based on personal experience. So this is just my instinct speaking. I have written one series, The Entire and The Rose. In that quartet of books, the character arc of the major character spread across the four books, and there was change. But it is not an open-ended series. For those, I think you can’t have a traditional story arc unless you intend to cap off the series. And even then, if the series goes into a bunch of books, the growth is so slow as to be irrelevant as a serious engine. Bottom line: you don’t change a series major character in profound ways. Their weaknesses constantly worsen their responses. This helps your plotting. It just doesn’t help characterization. Look at House. The series writers have played with him falling in love and going on the wagon. But his demons always ruin things. So there may be temporary change… but it’s not really an arc, because the major character is not profoundly changed. The story may have to be plot-oriented, then, with character work done in depth, but not in sync with plot elements in a true arc.

  7. Tom Hopp says:

    Great points about series, Kay. You did a tour de force to get four books from the Entire and it worked quite well. This must be why there are so many trilogies out there, one just runs out of dramatic changes a character can go through. Even the mighty George Lucas resorted to two trilogies in Star Wars, the Luke Skywalker trilogy and the Anakin Skywalker trilogy. Arcs just run their course. I’m about to start work on my third Dinosaur Wars novel and it will be the last, for the reasons you stated. By the way, there’s a Hollywood deal cooking for Dinosaur Wars, so wish me luck. Regarding longer series, I think one way to bring in a new arc every time is to have an interesting guest in the story. You can create an episodic series with excitement generating from each newcomer, their predicament, and their resolution. That was the approach of the Star Trek series, the Tarzan novel series, and many more. As you suggest though, with the main character not changing, it isn’t quite as compelling.

  8. Kay says:

    Congrats, Tom! That film connection could be exciting.
    Interesting what you say about how Star Trek handled the arc in a series question. of course that was Highly commercial stuff… and makes one wonder if you can do without character change if you’re just telling a rousing plot tale.

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