We all know that most good characters undergo some kind of change over the course of their story. Whether it’s a change in perspective, circumstance or goal, WE as the audience feel closer to the character, having witnessed their growth. But when audience members learn to expect character growth, it takes a more extreme transformation to really surprise or move them, but not surpassing a point of no return.
We’ve compiled a list of the most extreme character arcs, that set these classic characters apart from the rest. Ranging from intense emotional development, to acute physical transformations to tremendous situational changes, we’ve selected archetypal figures who start and end their story in drastically different positions.
10 Extreme Character Arcs
Sarah Connor – TERMINATOR 1 & 2
Sarah Connor experiences extreme character growth from her introduction in THE TERMINATOR to her key role in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. She initially refuses her destiny with angry disbelief in the first film, shouting:
‘Do I look like the mother of the future?’ and ‘I didn’t ask for this honor, and I DON’T WANT IT, ANY OF IT!’
However, Sarah learns to come to terms with her role, not only accepting it, but also eventually facing the challenge with confidence and determination, stating ‘We’re here to stop the end of the world’ in Terminator 2.
Sarah’s character arc is not only extreme because of how she starts and ends both films, but also for what she goes through in between. She overcomes great obstacles and shows remarkable strength in her recovery, learning to rebuild after almost losing her humanity and her sanity in the second film.
Her last lines in Terminator 2 are the perfect example of her new-found strength and purpose, as she declares
‘The unknown future rolls towards us, I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too’.
Walter White – BREAKING BAD
Walter White’s character arc marks his downfall from a once promising chemist and gentle family man to a ruthless, deceitful criminal and murderer. Walter’s transformation is particularly poignant because of his changing relationship with the audience.
Walter starts off with the audience’s full sympathy, due partly to his terminal cancer diagnosis and his bad luck in missing out on the fortune from his company Grey Matter Technologies. He is introduced as a character at rock bottom, and so his decision to enter into the drug trade is at least partially justified by his desperation to provide for his family after his death.
However, Walter’s copious lies as well as his increasingly compromised morals cause him to gradually lose the audience sympathy. The series creator Vince Gilligan has described his overall goal with Walter’s character as
‘Turning Mr. Chips into Scarface’,
showing Walter’s descent from protagonist to antagonist across the five seasons.
Some of Walter’s most iconic lines come in Season Four, by which point he has fully cemented his authority in the drug scene. There is something quite chilling about the blunt force of his lines to Skyler,
‘You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!’
The extent of Walter’s evolution is also most effectively shown by the negative impact it has on his family. His involvement in his brother-in-law Hank’s death in Season Five is a particular low point for his character. Actor Bryan Cranston described his character Walter’s character arc as heading towards an ‘ugly’ fate in the series finale, a fate with no redemption.
Michael Corleone – THE GODFATHER 1 & 2
Michael Corleone’s dramatic character arc is defined by his initial reluctance to join the family business, returning as a decorated war hero and openly shunning a life of crime. However, over the course of the GODFATHER films Michael descends deeper and deeper into the world of organised crime that he appeared determined to avoid.
Michael is careful to distinguish himself from his family in the first film, reassuring his love interest ‘that’s my family Kay, not me’, when discussing his father’s habit of making people an offer they can’t refuse.
However, after the turning point where Michael kills the corrupt police officers Sollozzo and McCluskey in a public restaurant, his cold-blooded ruthlessness is much more evident, as he steadily assumes the characteristics of a psychopathic criminal, justifying the killing as ‘strictly business’ and saying
‘If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone’.
Michael Dorsey- TOOTSIE
Michael Dorsey undergoes a complex transformation in TOOTSIE, a transformation that can be divided into three main stages. First, Dorsey must recognize the source of his problems and accept that if he does not change, he will not be able to make a living as an actor. His situation at the beginning of the film is laughably bad, as best highlighted through this exchange with his agent:
Michael Dorsey – ‘Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?
George Fields – ‘No, no, that’s too limited…Nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you either’.
The second stage, is when Dorsey tries to quickly fix the problem on a physical level, by morphing into Dorothy Michaels.
It is during the second stage that the audience begins to root for Dorsey, after seeing his blossoming relationship with Julie, making them hope that his emotional transformation will outlive his physical disguise.
The third, most decisive stage, is when Dorsey must re-adapt to life, after having given up his disguise. By this point, the audience is desperate for Dorsey not to return to his old self, not only for his sake, but also for the sake of his relationship with Julie. The self-awareness and humility that he demonstrates by the end of the film, shows us just how far he has come. Leaving the audience with the charming and memorable lines:
‘I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean? I just gotta learn to do it without the dress’.
Randle ‘Mac’ Murphy – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
‘Mac’ Murphy is introduced to the audience as a selfish, violent and unsympathetic character in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, having served time in prison for statutory rape. He is shown to possess an arrogant disregard for authority, trying to cheat the system and play out the rest of his sentence in the comparative comfort of a mental institution.
During his stay in the mental institution, ‘Mac’ Murphy undergoes a dramatic transformation, becoming a foil to the antagonist Nurse Ratched. He learns to shed his selfish behaviour, sacrificing his own life for the benefit of the other patients, and to help ‘Chief’ Bromden’s secure his freedom.
‘Mac’ Murphy becomes more sympathetic to the audience as he starts to show compassion for the other patients, and eventually wins their respect and admiration. He tries to reach out to the other patients and teach them to stand up against Nurse Ratched’s tyrannical rule, telling them
‘What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average a**hole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it’.
By the end of the film, the audience is deeply concerned with the fate of ‘Mac’ Murphy’s character, and the only comfort to be taken from his tragic defeat is ‘Chief’s’ mercy killing, which at least affords ‘Mac’ Murphy a final sense of dignity and peace.
George Bailey – IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
George Bailey undergoes a dramatic shift in perspective during the course of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Bailey’s character is introduced to the audience at his lowest point, just as he is ready to give up on the world and himself, by committing suicide on Christmas Eve.
The audience is able to empathise with Bailey throughout the story, as he always retains his humanity, even postponing his suicide to save a seemingly drowning Clarence. After wishing that he had never been born, Bailey is forced to see what the world would be like without him. His guardian angel Clarence shows him what an impact he has had on the people around him, making it impossible to deny his contribution to society.
After seeing that his friends and family would be worse off without him, George is ready to relinquish his previous notions of suicide, begging Clarence to help him, saying
‘I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.’
George’s character growth is made complete with a final, physical reminder of his importance. The copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the inscription ‘No man is a failure who has friends’, gives the audience confidence that George will never question his own value again.
Roland Pryzbylewski – THE WIRE
‘Prez’ repeatedly proves himself to be incompetent and poorly suited to a job as police detective in THE WIRE. He starts off on a bad note, as his unnecessary violence towards a teenager in Season One further compromises the already minimal respect from his colleagues, and he is suspended from street duty.
Prez’s development is made interesting, by the very fact that his arc does not go smoothly from one extreme character trait to another. Even after major breakthrough moments of success, such as his key role in deciphering the secret codes for the Barksdale wire-tap mission, Prez constantly relapses back into his incompetent ways.
In Season Three, he derails his own police career yet again, by failing to identify himself as an officer whilst on street-duty. A mistake which results in him fatally shooting a plain-clothes officer.
Forced to leave the police force, Prez turns his life around by pursuing a career as a math teacher in a failing school system. In Season Four he eventually gains the respect of his students, by managing to teach them math in a way that is also relevant to their life on the street. He becomes a trusted mentor for a select few students while they remain in his class, finally winning the success, respect and trust that eluded him as a police officer.
The way in which he helps his troubled students ultimately wins him the respect and sympathy of the audience as well. As we see him evolve into a caring and mature teacher, who although, never above mistake, is finally able to rise to the challenge of his job in an honourable way.
Nelson Van Alden- BOARDWALK EMPIRE
Nelson Van Alden first appears in BOARDWALK EMPIRE as an intense, deeply religious and self-flagellating Prohibition Agent with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. After accidentally drowning his Jewish colleague Eric Sebso whilst forcibly baptizing him, proclaiming “Thou hast fulfilled the judgement of the Wicked!!”, he turns fugitive and finds himself deeply embroiled in the brutal and sadistic world of the Chicago gangster, Al Capone.
Acting as a mobster enforcer, the anguished and self-loathing Van Alden slides further and further from his puritanical roots:
“I used to believe in God, but now I don’t believe in anything at all”.
Nelson has a drastic character arc, as he turns against his beliefs, personal and professional, before finally being forced by the feds to turn informer. His arc also has a tragic end, as Van Alden is unceremoniously shot in the head whilst in a final act of frustrated defiance, swearing in the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ” to reign justice down upon Capone.
Darth Vader – STAR WARS- THE PREQUEL SERIES
Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is one of the most dramatic in the Star Wars universe.
After initially being prophesised as the ‘chosen one’ to bring balance to the Force, Anakin subverts his heroic potential by crossing over to the dark side of the Force. He then uses his powers for corrupt and amoral purposes, being fuelled by negative emotions and a hunger for power. Anakin’s transition and descent into evil is categorically marked by his change of name and appearance, showing a definitive separation from his former potential.
The extremity of Anakin’s character arc is reinforced through his changing relationship with the other central characters. His allegiance to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, marks a significant turning point in his character development, as does his eventual decision to turn against his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi and his wife Padme Amidala.
The genius of Anakin/ Vader’s character arc is that it misleads the audience, tricking them into believing that Vader’s evil state will be the final destination. However, Vader miraculously fulfills his potential and carries out the prophecy, by abandoning the dark side in order to save his son Luke and kill The Emperor in one final showdown. Vader’s redemption in STAR WARS: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI therefore, manages to subvert the audience’s expectation of his character, making his character arc all the more extreme.
The Bride- KILL BILL VOLUME 1 & 2
Kiddo, The Bride, is defined by her unrelenting desire for revenge. She is portrayed as a smart, resourceful and ruthless figure, who is not afraid to use her powers as a deadly assassin. Kiddo’s character arc is extreme because of the intensity of her initial goal, revenge. For the majority of the two films, having Kiddo forgive Bill and embark upon a happier life with her daughter, is the last thing that any audience member would expect from her.
Tarantino has himself explained that he saved most of Kiddo’s character development for the second film installment, deciding to first establish her as a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Having Kiddo as the only Viper to be taught the ‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique’ is just one of the way to distinguish her character from the other assassins.
Towards the end of Volume 2, Kiddo finally shows a more human side, addressing her relentless quest for vengeance and her violent behaviour. She shows a new-found self-awareness, admitting that she would never have been able to live a normal married life.
Despite enacting her revenge on Bill, she also manages to forgive him, cementing her personal growth. The final images of the film, showing Kiddo crying with happiness, after embarking on a new life with her child, further demonstrate the extreme emotional change that has occurred in her.
10 Extreme Character Arcs
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