The Reverse Arc

Most people seem to see change in characters as a permanent matter—that once a change is made, it stays made, and the character carries on in that new path. It’s understandable to do that at least a little, particularly since the more action-oriented audiences would probably get sick of it and want to move on. But even on the most direct-for-dramatic-purposes of character arcs, there’s usually something that sets the change back a bit just by being there—a sensitive point, if you will. Used well, they can create a further obstacle and some interesting drama without drawing out the arc too much.

Often, people use some sort of object or circumstance that’s associated with the character’s state before an arc; this often results in the character’s subconscious switching her into her old reaction before the rest of her has a chance to catch up. It’s bad enough when it’s just having to deal with an embarrassing memory, but when you’re dealing with a full-fledged trauma trigger, it crosses the line into downright nasty.

On the other hand, there’s what happens when the arc reverser is a person. What makes them effective is that for the most part, people just aren’t that good with change, and they often actively resist it, whether they’re realizing it or not. In benign cases, it might not occur to them that the person they’re dealing with has changed, so they just act like they’re dealing with the “old” character. But sometimes, the second character feels threatened by the change in the first—or is otherwise opposed to it—and is actively trying to put the character ‘back in her place’. Reasons for that, of course, can vary. For every character whose arc-reverser needs her to stay in her old state so she won’t thwart some nefarious plot, there’s another whose arc is being opposed because the other character is scared of what that’s going to do to his role. How aware the arc-reversing character is of his own actions is in itself an interesting question, as that’s going to shape how he goes about resisting the change.

Who says the character herself isn’t the problem? Some people aren’t used to change in themselves, and would rather stay in the easier state. This can be true even when it comes to improving traits—after all, someone who “knows” she’s functionally helpless doesn’t have to take responsibility for what goes wrong, for what could she have done to change it? It was inevitable.

Sometimes, it’s a confluence of more than one of the above. It might just happen (or perhaps be arranged) that the character is dealing with a person in opposition to her arc while being in circumstances that further reinforce the old way. Again, this isn’t necessarily deliberate, though it can be downright devastating when it is.

One of the most common manifestations of this is the Family Holiday Dinner Effect. So there you are, out of the nest for the most part, struck out on your own. But regardless of how you’ve changed, you go back to that house and you’re reacting as if you were still at the most inconvenient possible stage of your childhood—that old family tradition packs quite a wallop. Worst of all, the parents probably don’t even realize they’re doing this; it just hasn’t quite occurred to them that you’ve changed as much as you have.

This is, of course, an easier concept for a writer to use than for a GM, since the writer knows the characters inside out. A GM not only needs to know the characters she’s trying to push this way, but also needs one of two things: either a player who’s willing and able to work with this sort of effect, or a way to mechanically enforce it. Without either of those, it’s likely to come across as a blatant attempt at manipulation, and people who see it and know it for what it is are likely to ignore it. But the writer has her own risks—many have frustrated their audiences by establishing something as an arc-reverser when it doesn’t really matter, but not used it to its full effect when it could actually cause problems to the characters.

It’s a concept worth thinking about. Now happy Thanksgiving, and go enjoy your dinner!

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