Male and Female Character Arcs
First, let me make it clear that characters do NOT have to be male to have a Male Character Arc nor female to have a Female Character Arc. Both Male and Female Character Arcs are unisex. Typically, males have a Male Character Arc and vise versa, but they are not bound by gender.
I made the mistake of not clarifying that point a few weeks ago and almost had the limbs torn from my body by irate female storytellers.
I was sharing a nice dinner with a few friends and we were discussing the most recent Academy Awards. One of my friends, a woman, mentioned that she was glad to see the Academy nominate Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone for Best Lead Actress, claiming that it was rare to see such a tough female character be the focus of a film and be praised for it.
Here’s where I made the mistake by saying, “She was probably nominated because her character has a Male Character Arc.” It was amazing to see how fast the party went from pleasant to Let’s-Skin-Tim.
The Male Character Arc charts the growth of a character whose heart is too hard in the beginning, while a Female Character Arc charts the growth of a character whose heart is too soft. By the end, the character has learned (or at least is starting to learn) how to have a more balanced emotional life.
Like I said earlier, male characters are typically given Male Character Arcs and vise versa, so when you give a female character a Male Character Arc, or a male character a Female Character Arc, you are essentially playing against type — meaning, what the mass public is used to. It’s difficult to do but if you’re able to pull it off you can have characters as rich as Ripley from Alien (Male Character Arc) or Lester Burnham from American Beauty (Female Character Arc), and not surprisingly, these characters are often nominated for Academy Awards – which is why I said what I said at the party.
- Ripley of the Alien franchise has a hard heart. In each story, she must learn a deeper and deeper sense of what it means to be a compassionate person. That’s why at the beginning of Alien, Ripley won’t let an injured man back onboard the ship (lacking compassion) and in the end she risks her life to save a cat (starting to learn compassion).
- Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Ree, from Winter’s Bone hates her father (a hard heart), but through the ordeals she experiences she learns to soften her opinion of those she initially hated.
- Lester Burnham from American Beauty lives a passive life without risk or involvement. As he says in the beginning, he feels “sedated” (too soft). The rest of the story documents how he learns to grow a spine and live life the way he wants to.
- Po from Kung Fu Panda has a Female Character Arc, growing from a fanboy who doesn’t believe in himself (low confidence, too soft) into the Dragon Warrior (higher confidence).
Why are they named Male/Female Character Arc? I don’t know. I assume it’s because, stereotypically, males embody hard characteristics and females embody soft characteristics. It would probably be less confusing to have different names like the “Hard-Hearted Character Arc” and the “Soft-Hearted Character Arc,” but that’s just what they’re called. (If anyone knows of better names I’d gladly adopt them.)
A really interesting difference between the two character arcs is that characters of the Male Character Arc generally do not know they are too hard-hearted but characters of the Female Character Arc do know they are too soft.
Characters with a Male Character Arc stubbornly try to face their story’s problems in the hard-hearted way they are comfortable with until life will no longer allow them to carry on without changing (usually by the end of act two).
Die Hard is like this. Bruce Willis plays a husband who is too hard to say “I’m sorry” to his wife. It takes a band of international thieves, bombs and bleeding feet to make Bruce say “I’m sorry,” but even when he finally does, he doesn’t say it directly to his wife, he tells his buddy to tell her. But at least he’s learning.
The Female Character Arc, however, tends to follow a character who knows by the end of act one that they need to change. Being too soft isn’t helping them live their life. They have to get tough. But life and society are not going to make it easy for them to do that.
Kathleen Turner has this type of Character Arc in Romancing the Stone. She lives a sheltered life, desperate for a man to love her. But once her sister is kidnapped and held for ransom, Kathleen must get tough to save her. Along the difficult and dangerous way, she learns how capable she is and that she doesn’t need a man, she just has to love herself.
If you want to learn more about the Male and Female Character Arcs, I’d check out 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.