What is a character's internal arc, and how can screenwriters ensure that their protagonist has a great one?
Character arcs can be an intimidating subject for many screenwriters. Much is written about how to develop and write masterful characters and their internal and external struggles and goals that they must deal with throughout your screenplay.
You're bombarded by theories and hindsight character breakdowns of classic film and television protagonists. Naturally, you feel the pressure to measure up to those high standards.
The truth is that character arcs are actually relatively simple to pull off.
We've already explored how to develop a character's External ARC (Action, Reaction, Consequences).
Read ScreenCraft's Action, Reaction, Consequences: Exploring Your Hero's External ARC!
Here we delve into what we call your character's Internal ARC (Acceptance, Revelation, Contentment), using the feature film First Blood as an example.
What Is an Internal ARC?
An internal character arc encompasses the unconscious or ignored inner emotions of your protagonist and how they change throughout the story.
The internal arc cannot exist without the external arc, which is present within the story arc specific to your main protagonist. Their external arc encompasses everything that is showcased externally within the confines of your cinematic story.
Your protagonist has to go through something physical for all to see. Without an external arc, there's nothing that can be shown on the screen.
But the external arc invites audiences into the inner emotions of the character. Without external actions, reactions, and consequences, we won't get a chance to see them change within (internal arc).
If an external arc is what we see the character go through physically, the internal arc is what we feel the character going through, primarily because internal arcs are what offer the protagonist a chance to connect with the audience through empathy and catharsis.
We relate to characters primarily not through their external arcs (unless we've been through the physical conflicts the protagonist is experiencing), but through their internal arcs because emotions are universal.
We can't relate to Luke Skywalker traveling to the stars to take on an Empire. But we can relate to — or empathize with — a boy coming of age and searching for purpose in his life.
We can't relate to a police detective trapped within Nakatomi Tower while battling terrorists and trying to save innocent hostages. But we can relate to — or empathize with — a man struggling to repair his marriage and later discovering that he could have done so much more to salvage it before this disaster hit.
And in the case of our study subject, First Blood, we can't relate to a Special Forces Vietnam Veteran taking on local police, state police, and the National Guard. But we can relate to — or empathize with — a man that feels that he has no place in the home country that he has returned to.
So with all of that in mind, we've created an ARC acronym and break it down to three easily applied directives. If you apply these directives to your protagonist — as well as to the story within your screenplay that directly involves them — you'll see how easy it is to create compelling and engaging character arcs.
In First Blood, we open in Rambo's ordinary world. He's a Vietnam Veteran trying to reunite with the other sole surviving member of his platoon. He discovers that his friend is dead. He's now the last one of them.
It's often important to open your story within your protagonist's ordinary world in the opening pages of your script because it showcases the beginning of their internal arc.
Rambo has accepted his fate. He's the only one left. No one will ever be able to relate to what he went through in Vietnam — not even other Veterans.
So he walks the highways of his home country. He doesn't even bother holding out his thumb for a ride, knowing that nobody is going to take a chance on picking him up — especially with the service jacket he's wearing.
This is the beginning of Rambo's internal arc.
Always start your story with a glimpse into your protagonist's ordinary world before the direct conflict of your story (the beginning of your character's external arc) is thrown at them. It gives the audience context to compare and contrast where they were before the conflict hit them, and where they are after.
Your protagonist's internal arc needs to make a turn from their acceptance of their situation at the beginning of the story.
As they are dealing with the conflict that they've chosen to deal with or have been forced to deal with, their acceptance will be tested. Their world will be rocked. What they believed to be an acceptable attitude, situation, or existence will be tossed, turned, and flipped because of external factors.
And that is what leads to the true turn away from acceptance.
Luke Skywalker never thought he could make a difference in the war between the Empire and Rebellion. Obi-Wan told him that if that's what he believed, then that is what he will always know. Luke later realized that he could make a difference. That was his revelation.
John McClane in Die Hard experienced a revelation when he was at his lowest point during the confrontation between him and the terrorists. He was bloodied, beaten, and slowed down by a gaping wound in his foot. Finally accepting that he might not make it, he shared a revelation with his friend-on-the-ground Al — asking him to relay a message to his wife that he knows he forgot to do the one thing he should have during their tough times; saying sorry.
With Rambo, his revelation comes late within his inner arc. After surviving an explosion thought to have killed him, Rambo heads back into the small town and wreaks havoc. He goes after the sheriff, only to be confronted by his mentor Colonel Trautman. Trautman stops Rambo from killing the sheriff.
Trautman yells, "It's over, Johnny. It's over!"
Rambo replies, "Nothing is over! Nothing!"
He then suffers an emotional breakdown, sharing his inner turmoil. It's a revelation for him because he hasn't had the opportunity to talk to anyone about his emotional struggles since he's been back.
He knows it's over.
Within your protagonist's internal arc, there needs to be an emotional revelation within their story — one where they finally realize what they've been searching for in life without really knowing it.
They move from accepting their life as it is to realizing what they've been really struggling with all along.
While Rambo may not be happy where he is once he has surrendered, we know that he's content because he has surrendered. He didn't try to fight his way out. He didn't take his own life (although in an alternative ending of the film, he did). He walked out with Colonel Trautman peacefully.
His contentment is proven in the sequel when Trautman visits him at a prison site.
Trautman says, "You can't possibly want to stay here for another five years."
Rambo contemplates and then replies, "In here at least I know where I stand."
Characters need to have an arc. How much that arc bends depends upon you, the writer. But it has to bend. And the end result is usually a protagonist that has come to terms with their internal struggles. They've realized where they really needed to be in life.
And it's interesting to see that Rambo's contentment from the first film is his acceptance at the beginning of the sequel.
Luke Skywalker needed adventure and longed to find a place among the stars. He needed to be a part of something instead of wasting his years working on a moisture farm on a desert planet.
John McClane longed to come to terms with his wife and find the love that they had long forgotten. Unfortunately, it took a hostage situation to do so.
Rambo needed to be awakened from his slumber. He needed to unleash those deep and dark feelings he had been keeping to himself. And then he needed to let them all out — for good or for bad.
Acceptance. Revelation. Contentment.
Your protagonist's internal arc is basically an emotional three-act structure.
Show them accepting their current fate and situation (Act 1), force them to come to a revelation about their inner feelings and emotions (Act 2), and then let them be content, knowing that they've figured something out about their life.
If you follow that structure with your protagonist while adding an external arc that helps them come to those inner conclusions about themselves, you'll create an empathetic and cathartic connection to the audience.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies