Dual 'Character Arcs' in 'Erin Brockovich'

Posted by David Freeman on

Hopefully, you're not the same person you were when you were a teen. (If you're a teen, reading this, I realize the above sentence defies logic. But not to worry -- it's an illogical world, and you'll soon get used to it). Perhaps once you were shy, and now you're not. Perhaps once you felt unimportant, and now you understand your value to yourself and others. The point is, as we go on in life, most of us grow in different ways.

The same thing happens in a movie script. Usually, at least one of the characters - and not always the lead character - has some kind of emotional fear, limitation, block or wound at the start of the story.

For instance, in Mark Andrus' and James L. Brooks' script, 'As Good As It Gets,' Melvin (played by Jack Nicholson) is terrified of the world. He's so terrified that he has all sorts of rituals (like not stepping on cracks), which he believes might ward off danger. By the end of the film, these fears have diminished somewhat.

In Ron Nyswaner's script for 'Philadelphia,' Denzel Washington plays Joe Miller, an unethical lawyer. By the end of the film, he gains ethics.

Quite often a character would deny having an emotional fear, limitation, block or wound. For instance, I have no doubt Joe Miller would deny he lacks ethics, if you asked him.

Growth through an emotional fear, limitation, block or wound does not come easily for a character. Usually, the character is forced to grow against his or her will. For instance, in Stephen Zaillian's script, 'Schindler's List,' Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) is forced to grow from caring only about himself (narcissism) to caring about others. As the film progresses, Schindler is, time and time again, thrown into situations where he's got to wrestle with his narcissism and with his emerging desire to care for the Jews who work in his factory.

Thus, at periodic moments throughout your script, you write scenes in which the character wrestles with his or her fear, limitation, block or wound. There's no rule that says the character needs to grow a little after each one of these 'wrestling matches.' Quite often the character doesn't grow at all, or even backslides. But sooner or later, the character will grow. Usually this growth is incremental.

A character's difficult path of growth through an emotional fear, limitation, block or wound is called the character's 'Character Arc.' The above examples represent three different character arcs: going from fearful to not fearful ('As Good As It Gets'); going from unethical to ethical ('Philadelphia'); going from narcissism to caring for others ('Schindler's List'). (While there are probably an infinite number of possible character arcs, my research seems to indicate that there are about 37 which are used most commonly. The three mentioned here belong in that group.)

While there is the very occasional film where no character has a Character Arc, such films are extremely rare. Some scripts do something a bit more difficult than giving one or more of the characters a Character Arc. They give a character TWO Character Arcs. Now normally this doesn't work because there usually isn't enough time in a script to give a character more than one Character Arc, and it's confusing as well.

That's the theory, anyway. But in reality, it sometimes does happen. So how do you pull this off? (I should mention that as soon as we start talking about giving a character dual Character Arcs, we've immediately plunged into advanced screenwriting techniques. So, be prepared.)

There are a number of different ways to successfully give a character more than one character arc and not have it seem forced or confusing. Screenwriter Susannah Grant does it wonderfully in her script for 'Erin Brockovich' (played by Julia Roberts).

Erin Brockovich has, at the start of the film, two distinct fears, limitations, blocks or wounds. The first is her generalized feeling of being powerless, susceptible and incapable of protecting herself. You might, at first, think I'm off base here. After all, she seems tough as nails, not exposed and powerless. Well, hold that thought. Perhaps, in a few minutes, I can convince you. Let me just say, for now, that by the end of the film she is indeed a very strong woman.

Her second fear, limitation, block or wound is that she's afraid to be vulnerable to a man. She's afraid of vulnerability in love. She pushes away George, the gentle biker who wants to date her (played by Aaron Eckhart). And, by the end of the film, she's able to be vulnerable.

So there they are: two distinct Character Arcs. (That is, assuming I'm correct about the first one. I'll present my evidence later on.)

Now, I mentioned that characters usually struggles when they wrestle with their fear, limitation, block or wound. (For instance, Nicholson playing Melvin struggles to overcome his fears in 'As Good As It Gets.') In this struggle, the character tends to resist growing and may even backslide for awhile.

We certainly see Erin struggle not to fall in love with George or, more precisely, not to be vulnerable to him. Erin puts up walls, and George keeps knocking those walls down, one step at a time.

He knocks the wall down a little when he pursues her after her first encounter with him during which she enumerates all the reasons she's an undesirable mate. The walls crumble a little more when she finds him cooking hamburgers for her kids, after she panics when they're not there when she comes home. The walls crumble further when he offers to take care of them while she's at work, and she realizes that she has no other real choice. And that wall gets quite a pounding when he dumps her for awhile for not being loving enough. Thus, her character arc of learning to be vulnerable in love follows the pattern we'd generally expect.

However, what about the other character arc? We don't see Erin 'struggle' to overcome her feelings of being exposed and powerless. Why not? Well, I have a theory:

Normally a character's struggle to grow through the Character Arc which, provides much of the emotion in a film (as was the case with 'As Good As It Gets'). My guess is that Susannah Grant felt there was already enough emotion in the script without this struggle. After all, whole families are being poisoned by the toxins in the water, and Erin and her law firm are the underdogs in an impossible fight against PG&E.

Also, Erin's problems, as large as they are, pale next to those people who are sick and dying, who become her and Ed Masry's clients. Perhaps Susannah Grant might have felt that it would have seemed inappropriate to further dramatize Erin's personal turmoil in the face of the much greater misery around her.

Though there are at least a handful of ways to give a character a dual character arc. I have observed that the two arcs always have a relationship, even if it's not obvious at first. For instance, in 'As Good As It Gets,' Melvin covers up his fear of the world with a belligerence aimed at dogs, Blacks, Jews, gays, women and the world at large. But, whenever he's forcefully confronted (by the Cuba Gooding Jr. or Helen Hunt characters), his belligerence collapses like a house of cards.

When he begins to overcome his fears of the world, he no longer requires his protective 'mask' (i.e. protective covering) of belligerence. So it SEEMS like he's got two Character Arcs: (1) Going from fearful to not fearful, and (2) Going from belligerent to not belligerent.

In actuality, though, it's one Character Arc -- from fearful to not so fearful -- accompanied by the dropping of his 'mask' of belligerence. The dropping of the 'mask' gives the appearance, at first, of being a second Character Arc. Thus, the link.

In Erin Brockovich's case, there's a somewhat similar way the two arcs -- (1) going from feeling exposed, powerless and incapable of protecting herself, and (2) learning to be vulnerable in love -- are linked.

We learn that Erin has a lot she tries to bravely handle -- supporting her kids, trying to keep food on the table, duking it out with a harsh world. But, in the beginning, her strength isn't true strength. It's more like a toughness that she's needed to survive. It's her defense against her harsh conditions. It's her 'mask' -- her protective covering.

So Erin is tough as a defense against her difficult existence and as a result of being dumped by her last guy. However, as she moves forward in her legal case, she helps more and more people and becomes their pillar of strength and hope. She has to grow 'big shoulders' to handle all that responsibility. And, as mighty PG&E begins to realize, she's a threat and they begin to treat her as such, thereby letting her know she's growing in stature.

So, in the beginning of the film, she seems strong. But this isn't truly the case. Actually, she has a tough exterior to protect herself from feeling exposed, powerless and incapable of protecting herself. But, as the story progresses, she does become truly strong. Strong enough to have hundreds rely on her. Strong enough to take on PG&E.

People who feel susceptible and incapable of protecting themselves need defense mechanisms, like being tough and invulnerable. This is how Erin is at the beginning. And her toughness excludes any possibility of romantic love. For romantic love could lead her to being hurt, and she can't stomach that. As she becomes genuinely strong, she no longer needs her defense mechanism of toughness and invulnerability. And so she can become vulnerable to love.

You might say that her toughness, in the beginning, generally is an effective survival strategy for her, but it becomes unworkable, or a problem, in the area of men. For she needs George to look after the kids, and, thus, she begins to rely on him -- which makes her notice his caring attitude and all his good qualities -- and suddenly her tough attitude seem inappropriate. But it's hard for her to let go of it since this has been her key survival strategy.

Thus, the dual Character Arc. She goes from feeling exposed and incapable of protecting herself to strong, and, along the way, she drops her protective toughness, especially in the area of love, where it had been such a problem. To summarize her Character Arcs: -- Character Arc #1: Going from feeling exposed, powerless and incapable of protecting herself to strong. Character Arc #2: Going from fear of vulnerability in love to being able to be vulnerable in love.

In some ways, it's like 'As Good as it Gets.' Just as Melvin drops his belligerence when he learns to not be so fearful, Erin can drop her protective toughness and be vulnerable to love once she becomes truly strong. However, there are several differences in these two characters. It's these differences which make scrutinizing the script for 'Erin Brockovich' so difficult.

In 'As Good As It Gets,' it's easy to see that Melvin's belligerence is just a protective covering, for we see numerous scenes of the fear it covers up. For instance, when Cuba Gooding, Jr. angrily confronts him once near the beginning, Melvin is terrified.

Not so for Erin. We almost never see moments when she feels exposed, susceptible and incapable of protecting herself, which would reveal what the toughness is covering up. Therefore, we primarily need to infer them from some of her tough, defensive actions. However, there are at least three instances when we can see her feelings of being overwhelmed by life show through.

The first is when she takes her kids out to eat fast food, but doesn't order food herself because she doesn't have the money. Then, alone at home, she eats out of one of the few tin cans of food in her cupboard. The second time is when she tries so desperately to get Ed Masry to hire her. From the script:

~~ C.U. on Erin as she steps in close to Ed and speaks in a low voice that combines fierceness with desperation:

~~ ERIN: 'Don't make me beg. If it doesn't work out, fire me... But don't make me beg.'

The third time is when George finally wears down her defenses, and she's about to let him kiss her. It's an emotional scene when she says to George:

~~ ERIN: 'Are you going to be something else I have to survive? 'Cause I'll tell you the truth. I'm not up for it.'

Those are the clearest examples I'm aware of in the script, which reveal what's really going on beneath Erin's toughness. Susannah Grant brings our attention to it with the next piece of prose in the script. It comes right after the above piece of dialogue.

From the script:

~~ But he kisses her anyway. And for the first time in so long, she feels like something other than a failure.

While the three moments listed above do show Erin's inner feelings of being exposed and accosted by life, three moments aren't a lot, and these ones are pretty fleeting. That's what initially makes Erin's case a bit harder to figure out than, for instance, what's beneath Melvin's belligerence in 'As Good As It Gets.' Also, in Melvin's case, he's got general fears (i.e. fears of just about everything) and general belligerence (toward just about everyone). When he drops the fears, he doesn't need the belligerence.

Erin, analogously, takes out her protective toughness against a number of people -- toward Ed Masry, her boss, played by Albert Finney, toward the other women in the office and toward George. But she can get away with it against Ed and the women in the office. She can't against George, for (1) in his own gentle way, he doesn't back down, and (2) she desperately needs him to take care of her kids, so she can't afford to be so harsh.

Thus, it's in the area of George -- in the area of love -- that we see the most evidence of her defensive toughness melting as she gradually becomes strong. For this is the area where her toughness gets in the way the most and has to give.

As in 'As Good As It Gets,' we've got the appearance of a dual character arc. To be exact, though, we have a character arc (her going from feeling exposed and powerless to strong), and we see her defensive toughness melt in the area where it was causing the most problems -- with the man who loves her and whom she needs.

Let's say you wanted to use this technique in your writing. How would you do it?

You'd start by giving your character a fear, limitation, block or wound. For instance, let's say your character is a man named Alex. And let's say he feels like a nobody. You'd either show some scenes of Alex feeling this way (the 'As Good As It Gets' approach), or you'd just hint that this is how he feels beneath the surface (the 'Erin Brockovich' approach).

Then you'd show how Alex covers this feeling up when dealing with the world. Using the 'As Good As It Gets' approach, he might have a generalized method for covering up his feeling of being a nobody. For instance, maybe he tries to dominate and control people in every situation he gets into, so they're forced to treat him with respect.

Again, using the 'As Good As It Gets' approach, as the script progresses -- and Alex comes to feel that he's not a nobody but rather somebody with genuine worth, value and importance in his own and others' eyes -- he'd no longer have to dominate and control people.

However, if we were to go with the 'Erin Brockovich' approach, Alex might still try to dominate people, but maybe we'd 'focus' this -- so that we especially see evidence of this in one area of his life where his defensive 'mask' of dominating people is causing the most serious problem -- toward his two teenage children (just like Erin's toughness was unworkable with George because she needs him and eventually loves him).

Continuing with the 'Erin Brockovich' approach, as the script progresses -- and Alex comes to feel that he's not a nobody but rather has genuine worth, value and importance in his own and others' eyes -- he no longer needs to dominate and control his children, but can instead appreciate them and love them.

If you wanted to be very artful, you could even go one step further. Perhaps, at the start of the script, his domination and control of his kids is about to cause history to repeat itself. (Having a plot somehow loop around back on itself in an interesting way like this is one of a long list of 'plot deepening' techniques -- i.e. techniques which give a feeling of emotional depth to a plot.)

That is, maybe Alex was well on the way to giving his teenage kids the same feeling of lack of worth that he has always had. And now, at the end, when Alex can appreciate them instead of dominate them, that near catastrophic cycle is broken, and he just manages to rescue one of the kids from a serious lack of self worth that comes very close to causing a tragedy.

For instance, perhaps his teenage kid is involved in some dangerous, reckless, self-destructive action like night-time street racing (which compensates for his lack of self worth because it gives him esteem among his peers) and almost gets killed -- but for his father's last-minute, caring intervention.

I hope this article has shed some light on the subject of dual character arcs or apparent dual character arcs. If you've perhaps found this material difficult to assimilate, you're not alone. It took a lot of examination on my part to figure out what was going on in both 'As Good As It Gets' and 'Erin Brockovich' and necessitated several rewrites of this article to try and present the techniques as clearly as I could.

This material falls, without doubt, into the area of advanced screenwriting techniques. Therefore, now that you've been through the article once, if you still feel like you don't fully grasp the ideas and techniques explained here, you may want to consider going back to the beginning and reading it through again, now that you know the general direction of the piece. Advanced material takes work to assimilate. But all the best writers I know work at it. I will say this, though -- the payoffs for such work, in terms of the quality of one's writing, can be tremendous.

Most importantly, I hope I've given you some techniques you can use in your own writing. And please do keep writing. This world will be a lesser place if you don't treat us all to your unique insights into the difficulties, challenges, wonder and sometimes humor of the human condition. The beauty of these insights are your gifts. When you share them, the rest of us are elevated, made richer, and our collective road is lightened.

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