Make Sure Every Major Character Changes

The worst movies are where nobody changes. Just watch a lousy James Bond movie like a “A View to a Kill” and you’ll see that he’s still the same in the end as he was in the beginning.

At the very least, the hero needs to change emotionally. Yet just making the hero change means all the major supporting characters fail to change and thus feel flat and one-dimensional. The key to telling a good story is to make the hero and all the supporting characters change as well.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a good movie to study because it consists of so many characters who all change during the course of the story:

  • Olive, a little girl who wants to compete in a beauty pageant and finally gets to achieve her dream.
  • Richard (her father), who is a failed motivational speaker but eventually learns to embrace his family’s flaws and accept them for who they are.
  • Sheryl (her mother), who is an overworked mother who learns to accept her family.
  • Dwayne, Sheryl’s son from another marriage who dreams of becoming a fighter pilot but accepts that he can’t when he discovers he’s color blind.
  • Edwin, Olive’s grandfather who got kicked out of a nursing home and is forced to live with the family, but eventually helps Olive bring the entire family together despite his own death.
  • Frank, Sheryl’s gay brother who tried to kill himself after a rival steals away the man he loves, but he eventually learns to become part of the family.

The more characters change, the stronger the story can get because so many characters will feel like real people. When so many characters change through similar story arcs, the overall story feels more satisfying than seeing a single hero change. The multiple character changes support the hero’s change.

While “Little Miss Sunshine” has so many characters changing, most movies only show a handful of characters changing. In “Rocky,” Rocky changes by proving to the world that he’s not a loser. His trainer, Mickey, also changes because he always dreamt about training a champion and through Rocky, he finally got his chance. Adrian, Rocky’s girlfriend, changes too because she started as mousy and timid, and by the end, she’s in love with Rocky.

Study any great movie and you’ll notice how many characters change emotionally over the course of the story. Your hero must definitely change and the hero’s mentor must change as well. Finally, the hero’s ally should change as well.

In “Star Wars,” these multiple changes look like this:

  • Hero — Luke changes from timid and lacking confidence to feeling confident because he finally trusted the Force.
  • Mentor — Obi-wan changes from being haunted by his past failure in creating Darth Vader to helping Luke defeat Darth Vader.
  • Ally — Hans Solo changes from caring only about money to caring about doing what’s right when he rushes in at the last minute to save Luke.

Strip away any of these changes and you get a partial story. In “Onward,” Pixar’s latest film, the hero changes and his mentor (his brother) changes, but the hero’s ally (his mother and the Manticore) do not change at all.

When Hans Solo rushes in to help Luke in “Star Wars”, that highlights Hans’s change from being motivated solely by money to doing the right thing.

When the hero’s mother and Manticore rush in to help the hero in “Onward,” the hero’s mother nor Manticore have changed one bit, so their actions in helping the hero in the end feels empty and meaningless, which hurts the overall story.

In your own screenplays, make sure as many characters as possible change. The hero must definitely change, the mentor must change, and the ally must change. Forget this and you might wind up with an okay movie, but include multiple changes and you could wind up with a great movie.

Which would you rather choose?

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