March 22, 2018

Constancy amidst change


The character arc constitutes the core of drama designed to entertain, that hopes as well to enlighten the audience (this applies to comedy too, as "all great comedians are great dramatic actors"). The tale being told arises out of conflict, the fruits of which must manifest themselves in the denouement.

Ghost in the Shell (directed by Mamoru Oshii) epitomizes this basic story structure. Major Kusanagi's character arc parallels the narrative arc, to the extent that by the end of the movie she has literally become a different person. Meanwhile, her partner Batou remains a rock of constancy.


This tension between the constant and the variable focuses our attention on the metamorphosis taking place. Mathematically speaking, however, the distance between the two is the same regardless of the POV. In other words, the person doing the changing need not necessarily occupy the lead role.

In Children Who Chase Lost Voice (directed by Makoto Shinkai), the protagonist, Asuna, goes on a great adventure. But she undergoes no great transformation. She simply grows up. Shinkai includes a scene at the very end emphasizing that Asuna is no less an ordinary girl than she was before.

But Shun and Morisaki, who accompany her on her journey, are completed altered. Not only has Morisaki abandoned all the reasons for the journey he began with, he now bears indelible scars as punishment for his presumptions.


A steadfast protagonist that anchors the narrative holds especially true in television series. By contrast, the soap opera (and many a sit-com) is typified by the constant pursuit of shock and surprise, that inevitably inflicts more change than the suspension of disbelief can bear.

Which is not to suggests that stolid staples of genre storytelling like the detective drama lack character arcs. Quite the contrary. What makes them so enduring and endearing are the circles of fate that turn through each episode.

The antagonists are so often drawn the ranks of the rich and powerful because the decline and fall is so much greater. The man who had it all at the beginning of the episode loses everything in the end. We observe this decline and fall through the eyes of the detective, who serves as the Chorus.

A role epitomized by that of Watson, far more the observer of the human condition than Sherlock.

Staples of the television crime drama like CSI and Law & Order have less to say about actual crime and punishment than about the wages of sin and the costs of hubris. They are secular homilies for a modern age.

Like the preacher at the pulpit, in an anarchic world, the protagonist of a series must steer an outwardly steady course, evolving in a measured manner while remaining true to the constraints of the genre. By doing so, he casts the moral of the story into even bolder contrast.

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