Spoiler Alert: Plot points from the first season of How to Get Away with Murder discussed herein.
In the previous post, I touched briefly on the subject of character arcs. An arc is the personal transformation or catharsis a character undergoes—almost always against his will—over the course of a story: In fulfilling his obligation to get outlaw Russell Crowe on board the titular 3:10 to Yuma when everyone else bails on the dangerous endeavor, rancher Christian Bale learns at long last to have dignity; in the process of uncovering who framed him for murder in Minority Report, PreCrime detective Tom Cruise comes to terms with the devastating loss of his son some years earlier (excellent movies both).
Arcs are what give a story its emotional resonance. Take Dirty Dancing: It could’ve easily been one of a thousand 1980s teen-romance movies all but forgotten here in 2015. But, it became a worldwide phenomenon—and lasting cinematic classic—because not one, not two, but five characters experience profound transformational arcs in that film: Baby, Johnny, Penny, Lisa, and Mr. Houseman. That’s rich storytelling—deceptively so.
Transformational arcs are designed to force a character to confront his so-called “fatal flaw”—a psychic wound that’s been haunting him, that’s been holding him back, since incited by some trauma in the backstory. (So, in 3:10 to Yuma, the traumatic catalyst would be Bale’s shameful cowardice on the battlefield; in Minority Report, it was the unsolved kidnapping of Cruise’s son that led to his personal downward spiral). There are exceptions to this design—Luke Skywalker, for instance, has a very powerful arc that spans three movies, no less, yet he bears no fatal flaw when we first meet him on Tatooine (for reasons we’ll perhaps discuss on another occasion)—but, by and large, protagonists typically suffer from some measure of psychic scarring that makes the events of the plot emotionally difficult for them, forcing personal growth in the process.