Hey fiction buffs! You’ve heard of character arcs before, but did you know there’s different kinds?
Yeah, probably if you read or watch any TV show that’s fictional, you knew that. I’m simply being dramatic.
You might know of arcs (and for you non-buffs, an arc is how a character or plot develops from one point, usually an immature one, to another, usually a better, wiser one. Typically the arc is what shows us the point of the whole story, but there are negative arcs that show one good guy turning bad, or a good guy slowly giving up on their cause. These are the bad example arcs that are meant to be a warning.) But have you heard of a Resurrection Arc?
Most arcs follow a pattern and this one does too. It’s actually pretty widely used, but since it is often misused, and people are now knocking it, I thought I’d write a defense of it.
All arcs are meant to change the characters and show them something they did not see before. Some arcs are a part of the plot and the characters learn by dealing with the challenges of that part. That’s what category I put a resurrection arc into.
A lot of things kick off arcs. The most famous is getting a challenge like being chosen for something, or the sadder common catalyst is a character losing someone close to them. Sometimes just witnessing a tragedy is enough to do it, other times the character has to lose their soulmate for their arc to begin.
However, there’s another really cool thing that kicks of some arcs. And it’s a resurrection. A resurrection can happen one of two ways. Either it’s a character literally coming back from the dead, or from being almost dead, or they just thought they were and it turns out they weren’t; or something else can be restored to a character that they felt they lost. In fiction especially this can mean a gift or power, or it can mean a belief in something they had lost faith in. It’s popular now for a memory to also be something that helps a character in this way.
In older stories resurrection is often just straight up someone’s coming back to life. This theme appears in fairy tales way more that we realize. Often it’s intertwined with redemption. Many of Anderson’s lesser known stories involve resurrection, and even his most famous ones that have had those elements removed in the retelling.
In modern fiction Death has an oddly compelling presence. Take “The Fault in Our Stars,” or almost any dystopia fiction now. Death is everywhere, often very young people are obsessed with it. (Funny that it’s often older people writing this stuff.) I always loved life, I was happy when nobody died. I considered “The Lion King” a sad movie, (and that part still is.) But of course, Mufasa isn’t really gone, and that can be part of a resurrection arc. Realizing that death isn’t so powerful. It’s why you won’t see this arc in the death-shadowed stories I just mentioned, unless it’s in some twisted, unholy way. Frankenstein’s monster is no example of resurrection, just to be clear.
Life wins out in the end, and love. That’s the message of resurrection arcs in a nutshell. But the complaint, which I’m sick of hearing, is that they don’t create lasting stakes.
Since the Avengers franchise took off, fans have been growing dissatisfied with happy, everyone’s alive, stories (like they don’t all hate it when their friendly neighborhood Spiderman gets knocked off, please.) While I find the constant whining about it to be stupid, I do note that there’s something to be said for making things a bit more realistic.
It’s not that no one dies that really bugs me, it’s that no one gets hurt for very long, no one loses anything in their lives, and no one seems to be affected for longer than two films by any traumatic experience. Also I fail to see character growth even when they are.
In truth, whether characters live or die has nothing to do with depth. Action flicks that kill off henchmen by the dozens aren’t known for being deep. And Chick flicks that don’t kill anyone, or else do it in a more drawn out, romantic way, aren’t necessarily shallow. The Notebook is dumb for most of the movie, but the ending always gets to me because it is saying something profound about love.
That said, I think people who knock resurrection arcs are missing their potential. It’s not always a cheap cop-out to have a character not stay dead. In fact, often it’s a very good catalyst for growth in both them, and everyone else.
When a characters is resurrected, everyone has to reconsider what life and death means to them. They have to ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice, and what they aren’t. But most of all, it changes the dynamics of how they see the antagonists. Maybe there are things more powerful than whatever the evil stands for.
As for the character who comes back themselves, they get a chance to change things about their lives that maybe only losing them gave them the clarity to do. Or they impart some wisdom on the other characters that they couldn’t before. Resurrection means restoration.
If we no longer like that, it is because we have grown more hopeless. It’s more cool now to just accept the crap in you life and deal with it, then it is to hope for a change. People encourage you to give up on hoping for others to change, for things to turn around. Be the force, they say. Well, that’s fine in its place. But what about when your force isn’t enough?
What about when all the kick-rear skills in the world won’t save you? What about when you’re losing heart and nothing else will help? What about when someone simply can’t save themselves?
Resurrection is what solves this, and nothing else can. It’s a restoring of life and hope and faith to someone who had lost heart. It’s the only thing that makes redemption fully possible. Because though a death may redeem someone, it only sticks if life comes out of it.
Resurrection, in the end, is what breeds humility. What engraves the inevitability of our own need for someone to intervene on our behalf into our souls. By overcoming mortality, it reminds us of it.
It’s not cheap. It’s often the hardest thing to do well.
I for one will never get tired of this arc, until next time–Natasha.