Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What "So Undercover" and "Miss Congeniality" Can Teach Us About Character Arcs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

What happens when a great plot meets a character readers don’t care about?

I’m a huge fan of stories in all formats, from books, to movies, to TV shows and even games. But movies are particularly useful when talking about fiction. They condense a story into 90 minutes (more or less), and are more accessible than a novel that will take hours to read.

One great example is how a pair of similar movies showed how important a strong character arc is to a character-driven story.

So Undercover is basically Miss Congeniality with sorority girls, and the concept is so similar the weaknesses of one (and why) stood out like a palm tree at the North Pole.

So Undercover is about...

Molly, a tough-as-nails, street-smart private investigator, who is drafted by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority, where she quickly discovers she's way out of her element among a sisterhood of snooty, high-maintenance, materialistic college girls. But Molly accepts the top-secret mission in order to protect the daughter of a key witness in a case against the mob.

Compare this to Miss Congeniality...

FBI Agent Gracie Hart goes undercover as a hopeful, eager contestant to be the next Miss United States in order to ferret out a terrorist targeting the event. But Gracie doesn't have a beauty-pageant bone in her body, and it's up to a team of consultants to turn the FBI's Dirty Harriet into a poised beauty.

Both movies follow two tomboys of the law enforcement vein (FBI vs. investigator) as they enter a world of stereo-typically feminine women to prevent a dangerous crime. While undercover, they struggle to fit in. Essentially the same fish out of water movie.

Here’s why I still watch Miss Congeniality and will never watch So Undercover again.

I cared about Sandra Bullock's character, Gracie, in Miss Congeniality.

I didn't care about Miley Cyrus's character, Molly, in So Undercover.

On the surface, they're both well-done movies. Good acting, fun writing, good setups. But one movie had a solid character arc (Miss Congeniality), and the other did not (So Undercover) and that made a huge difference in my care factor.

I love plot as much as the next gal, but plot alone does not an awesome novel make.

And as a hard-core plotter, that’s hard to admit. But that’s the difference between a plot-driven and a character-driven story. Unless the story is about the heart-pumping action, readers want to care about the characters.

If you only look at the protagonists in these two movies, you'd think Molly would be more sympathetic:
  • She has a touching backstory—a father with gambling issues—so it's up to her to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
  • She's pulled into this case against her will because she needs the consulting fee.
  • She's very good at her job.
  • She's funny with a snarky sense of humor.
  • She's a young gal struggling to make something of her life.

And Gracie seems a lot less sympathetic on paper:
  • She' a bit of a mess, pushing the whole "non-girly girl" thing a bit far. She doesn't even comb her hair.
  • She's all alone, and doesn't have anyone depending on her.
  • She's socially awkward.
  • She's a little reckless.

Molly is the girl you'd probably want to hang out with, while Gracie is the one you'd likely slip away from at a party. 

Until you meet them in person.

Gracie has flaws. Big ones. But her flaws are why you care about her. She has a lot less going for her and lot more to learn and overcome, which makes her sympathetic. Molly is already solid as a person, even though she has a few rough edges.

And that's where the character arc comes in.

(Here's more on The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Make Sense)

Tip #1: Flawed characters with something to learn are more sympathetic and have more room for growth.

Gracie is trying too hard to be one of the boys, and she's forgotten what it's like to be a girl. To her, girls are frilly and weak and lacking in the traits (she feels) a good FBI agent needs to be successful. She's handicapping herself by rejecting her own natural talents. To her, women can't be strong. She's denying a part of herself and she's not happy. She's trying to be what she's not.

Molly is strong and capable, but she isn't trying to avoid being a girl. She's tough for sure, rides a motorcycle, is into weapons, but there's never a moment where you feel she's trying to be like the guys around her just to fit in and be taken seriously. Her age is more of a problem for her than her gender. To her, the girly girls are stupid and easily ignored. Her life has problems, but they're aren't of her making.

Tip #2: The struggle to change helps endear a character to the reader.

Molly gets some new clothes and a makeover and fits right in. She smiles and offers some easy fake quips to hide her tough exterior, but she never becomes anything more than the tough chick in a dress acting like a sorority girl. She uses her investigator skills and is successful without having to change her ways or learn from her experience.

Gracie has to work hard to fit in with the pageant contestants. It takes a lot of effort to get her to look the part, and even more to get her to act it. The more she tries to be what she's always been (the tough FBI agent) the less she fits in and the less capable she is. She has to learn to use her untapped strengths as a woman to do her job well.

Tip #3: A change of heart or viewpoint must come from a real change made from a struggle and an experience, not just because the plot says so.

When Molly decides to stick up for the sorority sisters, she does because...I don't really know why, aside from they let her stay with the sorority after they wrongly accused her of stealing from them. They don’t win her over by changing her view, she just gets used to their girly ways. And sticking up for them doesn’t cost her anything.

When Gracie decides to stick up for the women in the pageant, she does so because she sees they aren't what she thought they were. They’re not vapid beauty queens, but strong, capable women with ambition and a desire to make the world a better place. They've changed her viewpoint by their actions, and when she does stick up for them, it costs Gracie her job.

Tip #4: A character arc that forces a character to face their faults and come out stronger for it is a character readers can root for

At the end of So Undercover, Molly is pretty much the same person she was when the movie started. She's found a guy, but not because she grew as a person. He liked her for her the whole time, and her pretending to be someone else even came close to driving him away. Had she run into him on the street while doing a PI job, they could have wound up together anyway. 

She's decided to go to school, but there's never a sense that she's doing it to become a better person or has learned from her experience going undercover. She's just in a position where she no longer has to worry about Dad and this looks like fun. And Dad is miraculously no longer a problem, which doesn't make sense. Last week she worried about him, this week she's decided she has to live her own life and can't take care of him anymore, and that's okay.

By the end of Miss Congeniality, Gracie has learned to embrace her femininity and use it to empower her. She no longer has disdain for the pageant contestants, but respect for what they do and who they are. She's found a new source of strength and her life is better because of this transformation. Including her love life, as she ends up with one of her fellow agents. (Though in a way, this is a bad thing as he didn't notice her until she became beautiful. Shallow dudes do not make good boyfriends). But Gracie is happy and no longer alone, so it's a win in her book.

(Here's more on The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

If your protagonist learns something from their experiences in the novel, readers will care more about them and their story.

Two movies, two women, two similar journeys. One I cared about, one I didn't. Gracie's story left me smiling and happy, cheering for her and thinking what a cute and fun movie it was. Molly's story left me thinking that could have been better. It had all the right pieces but it fell flat.

Don’t be a Molly. Learn from these two women, and don't let your novels fall flat with weak character arcs. 

Take five minutes and identify where and how your protagonist changes during the story. Do they learn a lesson that helps them grow as a person? Do they need to? (Not every story needs a character arc, but the more character-driven it is, the more that arc is needed). Brainstorm ways your plot might affect your protagonist and their character arc.

What's your character arc? What does your protagonist learn from their story experience?

*Originally published February 2013. Last updated October 2020.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you: 
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow, very interesting analysis, Janice. Love it! Perfect examples of why character arcs matter, and why characters that are too "well rounded" from the very beginning have less room to grow, and are thus less engaging.

    I think, though, that the "getting the boy" part is better in Molly's case (from what you described, I haven't seen So Undercover yet). The idea that women need to be feminine to be attractive is quite a theme in Hollywood, and has a negative influence on girls. While in Molly's case the guy loved her for herself, and her acting out of character almost alienated him. That says a lot about the importance of being oneself and not succumbing to archaic gender roles, whereas in Gracie's case she kind of did just that. At least that's what I take from those aspects of the two movies. :)

  2. I'd never even heard of So Undercover before this, though I'd heard of Miss Congeniality. This probably explains why!

    My MC is a tough, needs-neither-help-nor-friends guy, whose ability means that he does need friends if he doesn't want to kill himself. Learning humility is a big part of his character arc.

  3. I've never seen either movie, but I've heard good things about `Miss Congeniality.' Character arcs are awesome but (I've recently discovered) harder to pull off than they look. Seems I'll be needing to re-read those articles you linked. :)

    I'm glad you asked what my characters arc is, because that means I have to put it in words and that will help me pin it down, which in turn should help me figure out an annoyingly rough scene. (Like I said, character arcs are harder than they sound...)

    Okay. My MC is really loyal to her family to the point where she mistrusts outsiders, and would hide evidence of crimes if a family member would be implicated. She needs to learn that trust isn't blind, and also that sometimes family is the ones you choose rather than the ones you are born with.

  4. I loved the analysis and comparison to the movies. I only saw Miss Congeniality and really liked it. I doubt I'll see the other one for the reasons you listed.

  5. I've seen some bad plots that were saved by a great character as well. My current character started out as a nice retired cop from Detroit who has to solve a murder in the diner he just opened. But the more I thought about him, the less I liked him. So I decided he needed to have a darker past involving a bit too much booze, and maybe a wife that couldn't handle it any more and had an affair...with his partner. Now I like him. He's got some forgiving to do, of himself, his wife (now dead), and his old partner. It will be tough to do when he finds out his ex-partner is involved with the criminals who killed his wife. When it gets to the point that I cringe, I know I'm getting close.

  6. The book I just finished reading had a great plot, but not so great characters. I couldn't figure out what was wrong until I read your post. Neither the hero or heroine grew. This is definitely something I need to double check with my own WIP. Thanks for the great post.

  7. Underdogs always give me goosebumps when I see them show up in the first few pages of a story. I think, "Ooo. I've got him/her. That's the one I want to win." Because - you're right - they need us to root for them. Great post, Janice.

  8. I watched So Undercover last week, mainly because I am a Miley Cyrus fan, but like you was left feeling disappointed and I wouldn't watch it again, whereas Miss Congeniality is one of my favourite movies, I've watched it more times than I can count.
    you make excellent points here and I can definitely see it.

    I think my character learns that it's OK to ask for help and rely on others. She starts off quite hot headed and determined to succeed on her own, but when she ends up in a group, she finds that each person's skill or talent can help and that it is OK not to be tough and strong all the time.

  9. So insightful and helpful. Off to my writing wiki this goes! Thanks!

  10. This analysis is great, especially using two very similar things that end up with very different results because of specific nuances missing from one that plump the other, making it the more likable one.

    And this kind of craft info can be used across the board, which is awesome. Thank you.

  11. Not much to add as everyone has covered what I was thinking. Just another awesome post, Janice! :-)

  12. Veronica, totally agree. That was the one aspect of So Undercover I actually liked better. Molly didn't need a man to make her life better, whereas Gracie's did (or they gave that impression)

    Rachel, fun arc! So many terrible things you can do to your protag to get him to learn that.

    Chicory, character arcs can be rough for sure. Getting them to line up with the plot arcs can drive me crazy sometimes. Trust and family are great themes, and make great arcs, so you're on the right track. What helps me, is to think about the climax and what the protag has to do to win there. That's usually connected to the growth and the one thing they need to accept to become the person they want/need to be. So maybe your protag needs to trust someone she wouldn't have before?

    Natalie, it's not a bad movie, it just wasn't one that stuck with me. Which was such a shame.

    Ron, love that! "When it gets to the point that I cringe, I know I'm getting close." What a great way to sum that up.

    2unpublishedgirls, most welcome! Hope you find good things in your WIP

    Cat, I'm a SO with you on those underdog stories. Especially sports underdogs. Can't get enough of them.

    Barmybex, good arc, and a valuable lesson as well.

    Carol, good luck!

    Angela, glad it helped. It's amazing how easily subtle things can change a story.

    Tracy, thanks!

  13. Writing kind of lends itself to sadism, doesn't it? :P

  14. Hi Janice
    great blog, I loved the use of the two movies to explore the importance of characters arcs, these things are always easier with examples.
    I thought your first tip was particularly important. It's all-too easy to create an exciting, fun-to-read character from the get go. Creating one with flaws, a real person that you can develop and grow is, as you described, essential to the reader caring.
    As I tend to pants-it most of the time, i've been trying to begin my story and let the character find him or herself. Once I have the basics, i create a timeline, going back into the characters past and finding out what they went through to get to where they are at the beginning of the story. Then, the bit I thought was the beginning simply comes later on, at least in terms of character. I've found this a good way to create someone organically without trying to write flaws in as I go.
    Great stuff,

  15. Rachael, lol I think it does :) At least on some days. Maybe that's why we do such evil things to our characters? Payback!

    Michael, thanks! Your process sounds like a nice mix of both sides. Allows for a lot of freedom to just see where the story goes and who the characters are.

  16. This is a great post, and timely as I've been increasingly wondering if my main character is interesting enough. I still haven't figured it out, but your post will give me food for thought. :)

    I'll try to describe my character arc, but I agree with the above poster -- it's really hard. :)

    Ok -- she's a servant girl and an orphan, raised by her employer to be quiet and submissive. An opportunity arises for her to find out about her parents, which causes her to leave all that is familiar as she faces an unknown world. Over time, she learns to find her own voice and the inner strength she never knew she had.

  17. I am jumping in to this blog way late in the game, just ran across it while clicking though another blog. Here is my question. My protagonist is trying to keep her daughter out of prison by declaring her insane, incompetent to stand trial, but my ending had her being the opposite of what the reader would have thought. Does the protagonist have to grow to be a better person in the end, or is it okay to surprise the heck out of everybody by making her be the deceitful one in the end?

  18. Joanne, sorry for the delayed reply, I was out of town at a conference :) No, the protagonist doesn't have to grow into a better person. They typically change over the course of the novel, but always. You could certainly have her turn out to be deceitful and surprise readers.

    A word of caution there however...

    Endings should be satisfying to the reader, so if a character they've been rooting for and trusting all book suddenly becomes the bad guy who has lied to them for 400 pages, will they enjoy that twist or feel tricked by the author?

    If that twist confirms something readers have suspected all along, then it'll probably work great. If readers are blindsided, they'll likely be unhappy.