Biff, what a character

This is the first article in the Back to the Future theme week series. Contains spoilers for the Back to the Future and The Godfather films.

The three things that matter most in a story are characters, characters, and characters.

— Bob Gale

Character arc is a narrative technique that, in a nutshell, means that a character figuratively transforms from one person to another during and due to the events of the story. The character might experience a change in personality or opinions, learn a lesson, or otherwise come out as a different person.

Here are some famous examples:

  • Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge's extreme transformation from a bitter old man to a philantropist is one of the purest forms of character arc.
  • George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Christmas is a well-suited theme for character growth stories.
  • D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. D'Artagnan is a hot-headed peasant who becomes a heroic musketeer.
  • Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies. Many of the Star Wars characters have their own character arcs.
  • Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Michael starts out as wanting to have nothing to do with his father's crime syndicate but eventually rises to take his father's place. This is an example of a character arc that results in negative change.

So how to include character arcs in interactive stories? Here are a couple of options.

Option zero: No character arc

A valid, and very common, option is to disregard any character growth entirely. Not every story needs it, especially in a game where the main focus might be in gameplay, exploration, puzzles or something else other than the characters.

The use of this option should be carefully considered, though; although no writing rule should be followed blindly, the character arc is almost universally regarded as a fundamental building block of a good story. Change is part of a character's metaphorical journey, and if the journey didn't have any impact on the characters then it could be argued that the events they experienced weren't really that meaningful.

Option one: Player character arc

Back to the Future didn't start out as a trilogy. When the first film became a huge success, the creators started working on sequels.

While the protagonist, Marty McFly, had driven the first movie's story forward, the film was never about him. The main character was his father, and that's where the character growth takes place: George McFly transforms from a submissive loser into a self-confident, successful author.

Screenshot from Back to the Future II with Marty and Biff

"Are you chicken?"

The filmmakers realized that while it was ok to have the protagonist not experience any real growth during one film, it wouldn't work for an entire trilogy. So they gave Marty a character flaw: he would lose his temper every time someone called him a coward (or, more specifically, a "chicken.") Now he had a negative trait that he could grow out of and thus demonstrate that the journey had affected him.

I'm the first to admit that the whole chicken business feels artificial, especially since there's no sign of it in the first movie, but it does show how important aspect characters and character growth was to the movie's creators.

Player character growth can be much less effective when the player's experience of the story doesn't match the protagonist's experience. As an example, let's assume that the protagonist starts out as resenting one of the NPCs but grows to respect them during the story. If the player hasn't experienced the same kind of change in their attitude towards this NPC, it's a mismatch that can make the story feel unrealistic. There must be a clear reason that has caused the change in the protagonist.

Option two: Non-player character arc

Marty didn't get much more agency in the sequels either. In the second film the focus is on Biff who becomes a powerful and corrupt businessman, and the third is about Doc Brown who builds a new life in the Wild West and finds love.

Marty is someone who mainly goes along with the things happening around him. He is almost purely a reactive character. In many ways this is very similar to the typical game protagonist. The player character is often an empty shell where the players are supposed to project themselves. The player very rarely has any real agency: the plot happens, and the player reacts to it in ways that trigger the next events.

When the game has no strong opinion on the player character, character growth can be delegated to NPCs. They are also less susceptible to the problems associated with how the player experiences the story, because the player is less likely to identify with the NPCs as strongly as they might with the protagonist. Again, there must still be a clear reason why character growth has taken place: an NPC can't just suddenly reappear with a completely new personality or opinions.

Option three: Choose Your Own Growth

Interactive media gives us yet another option: the author can let the player decide what kind of character arc the protagonist experiences. A good example of this is Slouching Towards Bedlam where the player's actions have long-reaching consequences in the protagonist's fate.

Providing several options for the player is of course a lot more work than making a single predetermined path. It needs more effort than just slapping on a final choice at the end. If we think of the character arc as a literal journey it should be clear that the same path can't lead to two different destinations.

In the best case when the story provides enough room for the player to move it doesn't necessarily even need to conclude the character arc explicitly. The player creates and experiences the character's journey, filling in the blanks. When the character arc is being built organically during the entire story, any possible last choice at the conclusion should feel like a natural choice to the player instead of just a bundle of alternate endings.

A big pitfall to avoid is the "kiss the baby / eat the baby" choices, i.e. moral choices that make you choose between an obviously good deed and an obviously evil deed. They have been widely criticized and ridiculed, mainly in AAA games, because they are ultimately meaningless: you could just as well ask at the beginning if the player wants to play a good or a bad character and be done with it. The impact is far bigger if the choices the player makes are subtle rather than obvious.

For more practical guidance on writing character arcs, K.M. Weiland's How to Write Character Arcs is an extensive online resource.

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