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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.


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