Author Topic: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.  (Read 9754 times)  

Online Corvid

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I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
« on: December 03, 2020, 01:00:11 pm »
Is this good/bad? Who could say?

But, just thinking about this today as I work on my latest, my favorite movies, or stories I gravitate towards, all feature fairly arc-less protagonists.

Back to the Future, Mad Max: Fury Road, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 3:10 to Yuma, Aliens

I also enjoy Jack Reacher novels, and westerns where the laconic hero 'does stuff', and then it ends.

Not sure what any of this says about me as a writer, but I do think it goes to show you don't necessarily have to adhere to the popular notion of imbuing POV's with arcs in order to craft something readers/audiences will find satisfying.


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    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #1 on: December 03, 2020, 01:34:54 pm »
    Is this good/bad? Who could say?

    But, just thinking about this today as I work on my latest, my favorite movies, or stories I gravitate towards, all feature fairly arc-less protagonists.

    Back to the Future, Mad Max: Fury Road, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 3:10 to Yuma, Aliens

    I also enjoy Jack Reacher novels, and westerns where the laconic hero 'does stuff', and then it ends.

    Not sure what any of this says about me as a writer, but I do think it goes to show you don't necessarily have to adhere to the popular notion of imbuing POV's with arcs in order to craft something readers/audiences will find satisfying.

    Sounds like you prefer plot-driven to character-driven works? I think it's a spectrum, with most works being somewhere in the middle, so there's both a plot arc and one or more character arcs, but some works are strongly to one end or the other. That's my general impression, at any rate.

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    Offline Douglas Milewski

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #2 on: December 03, 2020, 01:36:13 pm »
    Supporting examples are both numerous and omnipresent. Virtually all episodic TV, well into the 80's, had no character arcs.




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    Online Corvid

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #3 on: December 03, 2020, 02:02:51 pm »
    Sounds like you prefer plot-driven to character-driven works? I think it's a spectrum, with most works being somewhere in the middle, so there's both a plot arc and one or more character arcs, but some works are strongly to one end or the other. That's my general impression, at any rate.

    Yes, the spectrum thing resonates... I recall a Brandon Sanderson lecture (or maybe it was a Q & A, can't remember) where he talked about sliding scales for these kinds of things.

    Supporting examples are both numerous and omnipresent. Virtually all episodic TV, well into the 80's, had no character arcs.

    That's right, I'd forgotten all about '80s TV. The Three's Company gang, Sonny Crockett, Thomas Magnum, Ben Matlock, B.A. Baracus... little if any arc to be found, and yet, I loved those shows. Maybe that's why I loved them - the same way I love certain T-shirts I've had for 15+ years, and are practically falling apart at the seams.


    Online NikOK

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #4 on: December 03, 2020, 02:29:36 pm »


    Back to the Future, Mad Max: Fury Road, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 3:10 to Yuma, Aliens



    I feel like this is also a list of movies that bucked popular trends.  Back to the future took the summer adventure movie, added classic sci-fi elements, and took on something of an odd relationship of an older scientist and his high school age friend.  Fury Road gave us a stylized post-apoc world with 80s cocaine-hollywood levels of weirdness and even subverted the series protagonist from Max to Furyosa.  No Country was a modern western, which, when has that happened, before or since?  Aliens took star trek like sci-fi, turned the lights down low, and let HR Geiger do whatever he wanted.  And The Big Lebowski goes out of it's way to be the structurally weirdest movie ever.  Lazy protagonist who gets in an ever escalating problem and it's narrated by a cowboy?  Sure!  But just because it somehow works.

    So, maybe character arcs are less important to you than seeing something of quality that fresh, or even just a unique vision.

    Online Crystal_

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #5 on: December 03, 2020, 02:50:44 pm »
    I don't know if I agree those films are without character arcs. They may not have strong arcs but in most of them at least one character has an arc.

    In Back to the Future, Marty's dad has a strong arc (though in an untraditional way) and Marty also has a shift in his perspective.

    Offline Simon Haynes

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #6 on: December 03, 2020, 03:39:36 pm »
    I'm not a big fan of change, so plot-based suits me just fine. As for writing, I like to take the same characters and put them into different situations to see how they'll react.

    It also makes it easier to continue a 10-12 book series five years later.


     

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    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #7 on: December 03, 2020, 04:18:08 pm »
    I don't know if I agree those films are without character arcs. They may not have strong arcs but in most of them at least one character has an arc.

    In Back to the Future, Marty's dad has a strong arc (though in an untraditional way) and Marty also has a shift in his perspective.

    Hmm, yes, I think you're right.

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    Offline Jena H

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #8 on: December 03, 2020, 05:21:26 pm »
    I'm definitely a more plot-driven kind of person.  I too don't really care much for character arcs, character "growth," etc.

    I watch a lot of TV, and I'm definitely in the minority when I comment that I don't like all the "personal stuff," or "relationship stuff" in some shows.  (Especially cop or other action shows.)  My statement usually is:  "It's a show about government agents, so I want to see those agents at work.  I don't care who they're dating or who's in financial trouble.  If I want a soap opera, I'll watch a soap-y show."

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    Offline ShawnaReads

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #9 on: December 03, 2020, 05:25:11 pm »
    Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything, but I think it's pretty well understood that women tend to be drawn more to characters/relationships and men are more likely to be drawn to plot/action-heavy stories. In extremely general terms, of course, with plenty of exceptions. But I think this is why a lot of men say they don't read female authors. They claim that women don't write as well or don't write interesting stories, but what they really mean is that they (the readers) find character/relationship stuff boring and they want to read about action.

    Offline Simon Haynes

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #10 on: December 03, 2020, 05:47:26 pm »
    I remember reading a book on Facebook ads for authors, and they said it paid to split your target audience into male/female and write different ad copy for each. One ought to concentrate on the characters, the other on the plot.

    I guess his point was that even if only 70-80% of each grouping are more inclined towards a certain type of copy, you'll still get a better result than if you write something which tries to appeal to everyone. He backed it up with figures, too.

    The downside is that this method ignores people who fit into one category but prefer the other type of blurb, and indeed people who fit neither or both categories.
     

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    Online NikOK

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #11 on: December 03, 2020, 06:09:07 pm »
    Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything, but I think it's pretty well understood that women tend to be drawn more to characters/relationships and men are more likely to be drawn to plot/action-heavy stories. In extremely general terms, of course, with plenty of exceptions. But I think this is why a lot of men say they don't read female authors. They claim that women don't write as well or don't write interesting stories, but what they really mean is that they (the readers) find character/relationship stuff boring and they want to read about action.

    This might definitely be true, but I'm the exact opposite as a reader.  I'm a guy and I 95% of the time prefer character stories.  I'd bet that you are right though, and I'm just a little strange maybe  :D

    Offline ShaneCarrow

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #12 on: December 03, 2020, 06:46:59 pm »
    Back to the Future, Mad Max: Fury Road, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 3:10 to Yuma, Aliens

    In BTTF I think Marty comes to realise people truly do have agency over their lives and can change how things go, time travel or not - i.e. if his parents had made different decisions they wouldn't have ended up poor. In the trilogy as a whole he learns not to care about peer pressure etc and be a more responsible adult, i.e. not getting into a drag race because somebody called him chicken.

    All the Mad Max films (except the first, which is an odd film, maybe why I love it so much) have a very old, cliched character arc: the lone male reluctant hero who doesn't care about anyone but himself but eventually comes to care about and protect others. See also Han Solo, Kevin Costner in Waterworld, the protagonists of half the Westerns ever made... there's a thousand of them.

    No Country For Old Men's main character comes to the realisation that evil and violence will forever be a presence in the world and there's little he can do to combat it or explain it. (From a perspective of literary analysis, the main character is Sheriff Bell, not Moss.)

    Aliens begins with Ripley being relatively cold and distant (much as she is in Alien) but revealing a warmer side after finding Newt and also developing a sort of surrogate family unit along with Hicks. She also overcomes her distrust of androids with Bishop.

    I haven't seen The Big Lebowski or 3:10 to Yuma but I think you are probably correct about Raiders of the Lost Ark, because Lucas and Spielberg really just based it off old, simplistic 1930s and 1940s matinee adventure serials.

    My point is that most stories with any kind of firm characterisation at all have character arcs, even if they're not hugely obvious or important or central. In the stuff you cited (among the ones I disputed) I'd say Max's arc is the most clear and Marty's the least. It's certainly true that plot-driven stories have less character growth and less of an "arc" than character-driven narratives, but I can think of plenty that buck the trend. My favourite example would be Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series, which has incredibly complex lead characters, namely Gus and Call, who do not change one iota from beginning to end of a 3,000-page series.

    Shane Carrow

    Offline J. Tanner

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #13 on: December 03, 2020, 07:14:47 pm »
    The OP just likes action movies, which are accepting of light internal character arcs, but those arcs are often there. I think Shane mostly nailed it. A few additions...

    All the Mad Max films (except the first, which is an odd film, maybe why I love it so much) have a very old, cliched character arc: the lone male reluctant hero who doesn't care about anyone but himself but eventually comes to care about and protect others. See also Han Solo, Kevin Costner in Waterworld, the protagonists of half the Westerns ever made... there's a thousand of them.

    Fury Road is actually Furiosa's story. Max is a side character. Furious experiences the change and the struggles with it.

    Quote
    I haven't seen The Big Lebowski or 3:10 to Yuma but I think you are probably correct about Raiders of the Lost Ark, because Lucas and Spielberg really just based it off old, simplistic 1930s and 1940s matinee adventure serials.

    Indy experiences change in each film. In Raiders he overcomes his fear of snakes, rekindles a relationship he'd thought was lost, and overcomes his skepticism of religious belief. In temple, it's craving fortune and glory to prioritizing a local culture over his own reward, and in Crusade he confronts his opinion of his father.

    Lebowski is a pretty typical serial detective story where the protagonist effects change upon the outside world that's out of balance in some way--usually justice. This kind of story is a good example where the protagonist rarely undergoes an internal change. Grab any Lee Child book for a contemporary novel example. Reacher is just Reacher, time after time. Bond is mostly like this, but the recent films tried to mix it up a little.
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    Offline ShawnaReads

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #14 on: December 03, 2020, 09:42:48 pm »
    This might definitely be true, but I'm the exact opposite as a reader.  I'm a guy and I 95% of the time prefer character stories.  I'd bet that you are right though, and I'm just a little strange maybe  :D

    I would imagine only a very small percentage of people actually fit completely into all the gender stereotypes, if any. I fall along the expected female line in this way (although I think that's been getting more true as I get older; when I was a teen, I read mostly plot-based stories; I never read a romance book until my mid-twenties, and only because a male relative recommended one), but I definitely fall into the expected male stereotype in other ways.

    This kind of thing is probably why stereotypical characters are so frustrating to read. No one is actually simple enough that they meet all the expected stereotypes or generalities. It's not that hard to write believable characters if you just think of them as people instead of plot devices. (And this may be partly why I prefer character-based stories. I like the characters to decide how the story should go by their natural actions and reactions, not have their actions and reactions ham-fisted in to fit the desired plot line.)

    Offline Decon

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #15 on: December 04, 2020, 04:33:04 am »
    Even Reacher has character arcs if you know where to look.

    Same with Mad Max and many others mentioned. It's all about the strength of the arc that differentiates plot driven and character driven.

    They might be set in their ways, but they have to face challenges driven by circumstance they would normay avoid.

    That in itself is a character arc, however soft with strong characters not open to change.
    « Last Edit: December 04, 2020, 04:35:58 am by Decon »


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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #16 on: December 04, 2020, 04:35:42 am »
    I'm pretty much the exact opposite--I will happily read a book with no plot that's just the characters talking and meandering about and living their daily lives (bonus points if those daily lives are in a fantasy world or on a spaceship). I have to fight with my stories to make sure there's enough plot and it's not just endless conversation and introspection! There's definitely room for all sorts of preferences, and it's one of the things I love about indie publishing, that pretty much every reader can find a book for them, whether it fits in the mainstream "this is the way a story must be constructed" or not. All plot and no character arc? You got it! All characters and no plot? There's some of that, too. Books for every type of reader!
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    Online NikOK

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #17 on: December 04, 2020, 05:06:19 am »
    I'm pretty much the exact opposite--I will happily read a book with no plot that's just the characters talking and meandering about and living their daily lives (bonus points if those daily lives are in a fantasy world or on a spaceship). I have to fight with my stories to make sure there's enough plot and it's not just endless conversation and introspection! There's definitely room for all sorts of preferences, and it's one of the things I love about indie publishing, that pretty much every reader can find a book for them, whether it fits in the mainstream "this is the way a story must be constructed" or not. All plot and no character arc? You got it! All characters and no plot? There's some of that, too. Books for every type of reader!

    Ha, nice.  This is almost exactly how I pick books too, so I like your style :D  Someone criticized a book I did once by saying, "It's like the reader is sitting in a dingy bar listening to the characters tell stories" and I was like, hmm, I know you are trying to say that as a bad thing but it's also precisely what I was going for.  I took it as a win overall.

    Offline jdcore

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #18 on: December 04, 2020, 06:20:31 am »
    Those 80s shows had a sort of character arc in every episode. They just never stuck to the next episode.

    Online Corvid

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #19 on: December 04, 2020, 08:18:00 am »
    I would argue we're grafting arcs onto characters as an academic exercise, as writers are wont to do, but I don't think there's any 'there' there.

    To preface: when I refer to character, I'm referring to the protagonist. And, by arc, I'm referring to the character entering the story one way, and leaving the story having fundamentally changed as a person.

    In Back to the Future, Marty doesn't fundamentally change as a person. Changes occur around him, but he arrives back in 1985 as the same guy he was when he left. Which is kind of the point, really. He happens to have nicer things going on in his life when he gets back, but that's not an arc. He's happy to be back in familiar surroundings, to see his family in a better place, he's got the truck he'd been eyeing, and he's happy to see his girlfriend again. But, is he a different person internally as shown by the storytellers? My argument is, no.

    We can't attribute an arc to someone just because there would be one should this happen to someone in real life. We can only go with what we're being shown, told, etc by the storyteller. Yes, you could easily imagine Marty having a fundamentally different outlook, or having changed a great deal internally from the experience he'd gone through, but if it isn't there on the page, it just isn't there.

    In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa rebels against Immortan Joe by absconding with the rig. The bad guys chase her. She eludes capture, then races them back to the home base, killing the chasers in the process, arrives at home base, and takes over. She leaves, she fights, she comes back. Is she fundamentally changed as a person from the experience? I think in real life most people likely would be. Is Furiosa? No, I think the mindset and internal drive that led her to act in the first place, is the same steely resolve we see written on her face as the story ends.

    In No Country for Old Men, the Sheriff enters the story disillusioned, and leaves it the exact same way. If you prefer Moss as your protagonist, he might've had a chance at completing an arc if...
    And, in a twisted way you could say Chigurh is the protagonist, and he definitely does not have an arc. Evil going in, evil going out.

    The Big Lebowski: well... the Dude abides. He's the laziest man in Los Angeles County at the beginning, and as we see him at the bowling alley at the end, he's the same guy... the same old Dude.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones exists as almost the anti-arc. Lost arc? yuk yuk Point is, he doesn't fundamentally change. Same in, same out.

    In 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans enters the story as a moral, stand up guy trying to see a job through for the good of his family. That never changes. He never changes.

    In Aliens, Ripley enters and leaves the story as the same person, only the circumstances surrounding her have changed. She went through hell in the first film, and fought the monster, and got away. The same thing happens in the second film. She fights her fear, and she slays the beast, but is she fundamentally changed as a person by the end? I don't think so.

    She has warmth towards Newt and Hicks, but she was a warm person from the start. She may somewhat trust Bishop in the end, but do I think she'd enter another scenario where she's stuck in the same situation, and there's an android present, do I think that she'd be feeling different about having the android there than she did at the beginning of Aliens? No, I don't.

    When it comes to seeing an arc in Ripley, I think we look for that because we know in real life if someone were to go through something like that they would most likely be fundamentally changed, but from a storytelling standpoint, I don't think it's there.

    Same for Jack Reacher. You can pick up any one of those books, and read them out of order, because he's the same dude in every book. He arrives, he conquers, he leaves. Pretty much every Reacher book is a remake of 'Shane' or, if you prefer, it's more recent (though not recent at all) redux: Pale Rider. Lee Child says he's fascinated by the Knight Errant type of character, and that was his inspiration for Reacher.

    In Canada, we had a similar Knight Errant type of character who gained popularity on TV. The show was called 'The Littlest Hobo', about a German Shepherd who wanders into a small town, solves everyone's problems, and leaves. Since he's a doggo, we don't watch it expecting any character arc as an audience, and that's because it isn't the point of the story. He elicits change around him, which is interesting to watch. Same for all of the stories named above. I would say all of the protagonists mentioned are all catalysts for change, while never changing themselves.

    Again, I think we're prone to inventing arcs in our minds when we consume stories - sort of like your brain filling in gaps in your eyesight or hearing, or experiencing the phantom pain from a missing appendage. You could probably do this for the most plot-focused story out there if you wanted to.

    And, so, I think we tend towards mistaking 'external things happening' for character growth/devolution. That's the thing I'm getting at with the above examples; 'doing stuff' is not a character arc. Having stuff or other people fundamentally change around you is not a character arc either.


    Online alcyone

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #20 on: December 04, 2020, 10:23:31 am »

    To preface: when I refer to character, I'm referring to the protagonist. And, by arc, I'm referring to the character entering the story one way, and leaving the story having fundamentally changed as a person.


    To put it in craft terms, you like stories with flat or static character arcs. Basically, the hero starts off as the hero, and they are the same person at the end. Any change or growth that occurs is relatively minimal. You can find those arcs in every genre, but they tend to be most common in action/adventure, the established superhero, and mystery stories.

    The "fundamentally changed as a person" arc is the transformational arc, basically The Grinch who's heart literally grows on the screen. In a more subtle form, it's often seen in genres that favor some version of the hero's journey, like fantasy or sci-fi.

    In the middle are growth arcs. Basically, the character learns something. They don't change fundamentally as a person, but they are a little wiser for the experience. These are found in all genres.

    (I think of arcs as existing on a spectrum. Few arcs are truly perfectly flat, and few arcs involve the true 180-degree change like we see in The Grinch.)

    Online Crystal_

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #21 on: December 04, 2020, 10:33:52 am »
    If you didn't want to discuss the finer points of character arcs, why did you make a thread about them?

    Offline Becca Mills

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #22 on: December 04, 2020, 10:50:11 am »
    Thinking about a character like Furiosa, I'm starting to wonder if there's always a clear difference between a character arc and a plot arc. I mean, her situation fundamentally changes from beginning to end, and becoming leader must cause/necessitate internal change. But do we really see any psychological change on display? I could be forgetting stuff, but I'm thinking not: she's tough as nails at the beginning and also at the end. But maybe character arcs don't have entail psychological change; maybe when a character achieves a goal or endures/overcomes adversity, that's a type of character arc?
    « Last Edit: December 04, 2020, 11:58:05 am by Becca Mills »

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    Offline Amanda M. Lee

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #23 on: December 04, 2020, 11:10:56 am »
    Like others have said, all the movies listed have characters arcs. I can't speak to Yuma because I haven't seen its but the rest most certainly do.

    Amanda M. Lee

    Offline David VanDyke

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    Re: I'm realizing I do not like character arcs.
    « Reply #24 on: December 04, 2020, 11:23:32 am »
    Like many things taught in lit classes, character arcs are aimed at high literature. High lit seldom sells. Sure there are exceptions--LOTR comes to mind--but genre fiction is not primarily about character arcs. In fact, arcs can destroy a series if the arc undermines the fundamental "certain something" that made the series great. Like, if sexual tension between two protagonists is a primary part of it, they can't seal the deal by for example getting married--at least until the end of the series--without risking losing that certain something.

    Kirk, Spock and McCoy had little or no arc until the movies. They are frozen in time, as are Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Beaver Cleaver, Gilligan, the A Team, the Quantum Leap guys.

    Not to say genre fiction can't have arcs. B5 comes to mind, and streaming and binge-watching series today, there are many more arcs. But there are still relatively changeless characters even as others have arcs.

    Think of an arc as an ingredient that is sometimes prominent, sometimes absent.


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