Long vs. Short Character Arcs

Before we had technicolor filmstrips, composers, and some serious technological advances, film and TV competed against one another for viewers’ attention. Although people today don’t choose to be a fan of either one or the other, there are still interesting comparison/contrasts between the two entertainment media. Many actors prefer one channel or the other to perform in, while some like taking part in both.

Earlier this year, I was reading this interview in Collider.com with John Krasinski and Ginnifer Goodwin for their then upcoming movie, Something Borrowed. Krasinski admits that without a doubt, playing a character in a long-time running TV show, The Office, is far more fun than playing a character in a movie who has to let it all out in one scene.

I understand that TV shows allow actors to flesh out their characters, continually building on what they know and adding and taking away from characters they play. It’s fun for the actors. But what do viewers prefer? I never really considered this question before I read the article and thought back about how television and film used to compete for viewers’ attention. Film was the beginning, and since then TV has become a huge medium in today’s society. And most people you ask may prefer one or the other, but are typically not opposed to either. And that’s really what it is–a preference, not a “must have,” or “should be.”

If you look at Krasinski’s character on The Office, Jim Halpert, you know that eventually he and Jenna Fischer’s “Pam” will get together. But we also know that it isn’t going to happen right away, because why would there be a need for a television show then? No, it must be drawn out. In that particular case, it takes three full seasons for the inevitable to happen. In Something Borrowed, his character, Ethan, has an arc–but a very short one. In fact, he drops a big bomb on the main character, Rachel, in one of the last scenes.

Whether it be television or a movie, the characters always start at a starting point. That way, there’s room to grow, learn, and develop relationships. While a movie typically has two hours on average to get it all figured out, TV shows often have multiple seasons with as many as 25 episodes a season. So which is better–the short or the long character arc? I believe it all comes down to context. And if the character arc fits the time allotted to the medium, then it suits it well. Although today, both media have clearly lost their predictability all around. Today, a TV show’s main character’s relationship will inevitably reach some resolution between seasons 3 and 5. Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, Glee, Psych, the list goes on. Everyone has to stick around for a later season to see the characters get together; therefore, there always must be a certain amount of relationship drama occurring in seasons 1-3.

In movies, typically something bad happens in the beginning of the film to the main character. Then, that character makes a life or environmental change to their situation. He or she is introduced to someone, and a new relationship begins, develops, deals with drama, splits, and inevitably comes together in the end. Many movies are exceptions to that rule, but this is a very common foundation screenwriters use for movies.

Jim and Pam

Obviously, this is all just my opinion on characters arcs in television and film. So here’s a pro/con list I came up with to conclude the topic:

Long Character Arcs (in television):

Pros: Well-developed character, more detailed, more room to be less predictable = possibility of more surprise, greater relatability

Cons: Ability to have over-written characters, drastic changes to characters can anger audience, space to be over-dramatized, repetitive

Ethan and Rachel

 

Short Character Arcs (in movies):

Pros: Challenge for actors to adapt, well-written characters, writer is forced to follow a direct path, typically less dramatic

Cons: Less originality, ability to have under-developed characters, less relatability, predictable story arcs, lacks in detail

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3 thoughts on “Long vs. Short Character Arcs

  1. Interesting discussion. One aspect that television definitely has is being able to develop stories and characters to great depth that you would be unable to do in film. However, I find that most TV shows don’t really go past a certain level and then it become redundant with little growth in the characters and we get tired of them. I personally prefer film characters in that they might a leave a little more to the imagination and end up being more fascinating that way.

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  2. Overall, I actually think the same way! I really enjoy getting to see TV characters fleshed out, but it seems that the characters always reach a certain point where their characteristics, personality, and story arc in general becomes really repetitive and not fresh anymore. Film actors have only limited scenes to play a convincing character. It might be a shorter job, but it’s a harder job, if you ask me. Yeah, I agree that film characters leave more to the imagination and let the audience do a little more speculating on their end. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Pingback: Life after Bad

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