Friday, July 9, 2010

The Backward Character Arc

I’m back from vacation and ready share my insights once again.

Ask anyone who knows me. I love stories with happy endings. Give me sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Give me a character who changes for the better. Give me Disney!

But I watched a movie the other day that seemed the antithesis of my strong desire to leave the theater covered in fairy dust. Up in the Air starring George Clooney is a downer, yet I oddly liked it.

Before you rush out and rent it, let me give you my disclaimer. The language, particularly in the first five minutes, but spattered throughout the film, is offensive and in my opinion, unnecessary. There is also a brief female nude scene. Also, unnecessary. I don’t know why “sophisticated” stories translates to gutter language and smut. I nearly turned the thing off so I could jam it back in it’s Netflix envelope. I’m glad I didn’t.

The tagline for this movie is, “The story of a man ready to make a connection.” Ryan Bingham is a seasoned airline traveler with a company who fires people for corporations. His life is literally up in the air. He’s rarely home, he barely knows his younger sister who is getting married soon, and his life can be summed up in one neat little carry-on bag. And he loves it.

Ryan isn’t ready to make a commitment, or so he thinks until he meets Alex played by Vera Farmiga. She is the girl who is the female him. Also travels extensively, knows the ins and outs of car rental, and covets the American Airlines concierge key in Ryan’s possession.

Another thing that Ryan has that Alex doesn’t is scruples. More on that in a minute.

As Ryan and Alex rearrange their schedules so they can be in the same city at the same time, Ryan begins to fall for Alex. The self-proclaimed loner bachelor begins to enjoy feeling like a couple. After his sister’s wedding, he has an epiphany. Love means never having to be alone again.

Ryan has this epiphany in the middle of a seminar where he is the keynote speaker. When he’s not firing somebody, he’s speaking on baggage. . .internal that is. He teaches people how to cut the fat from their lives, and for him that used to mean relationships. But just as he’s introduced, he realizes that he no longer believes his own conviction. He leaves the podium and the thousand or so people who came to hear him and hops on a plane. When he lands, his rental car leads him to Alex’s doorstep, where she lives, or rather. . .where she lives with her husband and kids.

Ryan is crushed. It was because of Alex that he threw out his entire belief system. He no longer wants to live and die alone. He wanted a companion. Instead, he gets someone who angrily informs him that he was merely an escape, a “parenthesis.” How humiliating.

The end of the movie has Ryan continuing to fly, but the zeal is gone. He no longer sparkles when talking to the ticket agent. He has lost the spring in his step as he drags his carry-on bag behind him. The fun is gone, and now he is just another passenger traveling from one destination to another.

How can a “give-me-true-love-or-give-me-death” kind of gal like me enjoy a movie like this? Because it made sense. People are wired to connect with other people. I loved watching him change to the person I knew he could be. And then, I was just as angry at Alex as he was. The story put me in his shoes; I empathized with him. That’s the key to any good story, by the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I longed to see him glance across the aisle to a pretty woman who shyly grins back, giving me some kind of hope that he would be okay. But I didn’t get it. For all I know, Ryan is still up in the air, sipping his cocktail, and avoiding commitment.

This, my writer-peeps, is how to write a character arc backwards. Ryan starts out happy with his life in perfect order. It changed when he met Alex, and he was still happy but his introspection changed. Disney would have given him a happily-ever-after. But the rule of arcing your character is not that the hero/heroine end up in contentment, but simply that they end up in a place different from where they started.

And the writer did it perfectly.


Up In the Air -

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