In any story, the main character needs character arc; that is, he has to change.
This weekend I saw the new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed the cinematic material, the visuals and soundtrack, for instance. I thought the characters were well-acted. I did appreciate the glimpse of a bygone musical era and I’ll probably buy the soundtrack. And yet, for me the story failed, because the Coen Brothers broke one of the most basic tenets of storytelling: there must be a character arc. At its most basic, this means the main character must somehow evolve. He must be different at the end of the story than he was at the beginning, even if the difference is subtle.
Look, Inside Llewyn Davis has good reviews, stars all over the ratings. I get that. I agree with the reviews if you watch it as a portrait of folk music at the inception of its heyday–Bob Dylan is newly appeared on the scene. The LA Times says, “It’s the music that moves ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.” Agreed. Journalist Randall Roberts explores the role of music in the story, admitting that Llewyn Davis is not a very likable character and the emotional movement in the film is created by the music.
Whether you love Inside Llewyn Davis or not, ask yourself what you’d have if the music wasn’t there to carry the emotional movement of the story? In other words, if this was a story on the page, without the soundtrack, what would you have? O Brother Where Art Thou? would be a romp even without the soundtrack. Not so Inside Llewyn Davis.
Any time you set out to learn how to do something new, you will be confronted by a string of rules. And as the old adage goes, once you’ve mastered the rules, you are free to break them. Maybe that’s what the Coen Brothers were thinking when they wrote Inside Llewyn Davis, that they had mastered the rules of storytelling and now are free to bust them open. The catch is, breaking a rule only works if you make it work. Character arc is so deeply fundamental that I don’t think you can break this one, and Inside Llewyn Davis supports that claim.
Llewyn is a folk musician in 1961, so committed to his art that he’s afraid of being “careerist” and “square.” Maybe committed isn’t the right word, maybe delusional is better. Opportunities come his way and he blows them: he signs a contract as a freelance studio musician and doesn’t get royalties on a hit; a club owner is looking for the next Peter, Paul, and Mary, but Llewyn walks away instead of shaving his beard down to a goatee and joining a trio; he passes by the exit to Akron, Ohio after learning he has a child living there. The guy is such a loser he runs over his cat.
And yet, I liked him enough that I wanted him to evolve. No doubt I liked him because every time he sang I was moved. I watched him make one blunder after another and still wanted him to change for the better. Character evolution isn’t always for the better, but this guy was bottoming out the entire film, so I figured he had nowhere to go but up. In fact, there was so little character evolution—very none (with a wink to Pennie and Scott)—that the first scene in the movie was also the last. When I saw Llewyn get beat up in an alley the first time, I knew this guy was hitting bottom. There was nothing about the film to suggest we’d gone back in time and would be coming full circle, so I was surprised to see the scene play out a second time. The second time it made more sense because it was in context. But that was the sum total of the experience of seeing the alley scene repeated. I got it. Llewyn was hitting bottom. Still. Again. A character arc can be for better or for worse, but it can’t be a flat line. A flat character arc is an oxymoron, after all.
Maybe the Coen Brothers wanted to do a character study of how the descent looks. That’s fine. But then what? Doesn’t the audience deserve a pay-off? That is, the emotional satisfaction of having taken a journey with a character in whom they have invested that ends somewhere satisfactory. They seem to have a thing for The Odyssey. Suppose Ulysses never made it home. Men are eaten by the cyclops. Or turned into swine by the witch. Ships are broken on the sirens’ rocks. And the story ends with Ulysses (which is the name of one of the cats in the film) adrift, floating from one tragedy to another, while the suitors waste his fortune and Penelope dies chaste but paralyzed by her faith in her husband’s return. How would Homer’s audience have responded? I can tell you, Scott and I left the theater feeling the movie had been pointless. I could have instead watched a documentary on the early folk scene minus the depressing main character and that would have been satisfying.
What is the foundation of character arc? Agency.
I’ll say it again. Agency.
Your main character has to act. Has to make choices. Has to do something. Llewyn was drifting. Things kept happening to him. He was along for the ride and every time he had the opportunity to act, he didn’t. He drifted on by.
If you are thinking about flaunting the rules of storytelling, go ahead: play, experiment! Maybe you’ll make something amazing, but more likely you’ll have an experiment and nothing more. And if you are thinking about setting a character adrift, make sure it’s not your main character. Your main character needs 1) a goal, 2) obstacles, and 3) agency. But don’t take my word for it. Examine all the stories you love, then watch Inside Llewyn Davis and make up your own mind about the role of character arc in storytelling.
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