Redemptive Character Arcs and Why We Love “Stranger Things”
Like many of you, I nerded out watching Stranger Things. It’s fun in so many wonderful ways. I loved the science fiction. I loved the nostalgia. I loved the visuals. But most of all I nerded out about the writing. The redemptive story arcs are a thing of beauty and can teach us all valuable lessons for our own writing. The Stranger Things characters shine because of their nuance and complexity. Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators, teach us not to judge our characters. Let them be human, flawed (sometimes horribly unlikable), unpredictable and capable of redemptive, even noble actions.
Steve: The most obvious redemptive character arc is Steve’s. He’s such a stereotypically terrible high school boy when we meet him; charming and self-centered in that ‘too-cool-for-you’ way. The Duffers have talked about the fact that they enjoyed Joe Keery’s (the actor) performance so much it inspired them to write Steve’s redemptive arc (a testament to positivity working miracles in this industry). By the time he’s yielding a spiked bat in “Chapter Eight: The Upside Down” I was thinking, “Whoa Steve! I didn’t know you had it in you.” In a more formulaic TV show or film he would have cowered in the corner (for an audience laugh) while Nancy and Jonathan fought off the other-worldly monster, thus solidifying Jonathan as the better partner for Nancy. But instead we get realistic characters with realistically complex emotions and, therefore, actions.
Nancy: More subtly (but more crucial to the story) is Nancy’s character arc. Her’s is surprisingly non-judgmental as well. Because, let’s face it, she’s basically a bad friend when we first meet her, her selfishness juxtaposed against Barb’s (Barb!) earnest compassion. Nancy neglects Barb’s wishes to pursue her own interests. But then after Barb’s disappearance, Nancy begins to change and grow. We see this as she pulls away from the norm (from her new and negative friend group and even crush Steve). We see Nancy struggle to understand herself and those around her – those people around her telling her who she is, who she isn’t and who she should be (Barb and Jonathan both included). But Nancy carves her own path, ultimately taking action to rectify her fatal neglect of Barb (poor Barb). In the process she becomes the instigator of the climax of the season – the monster hunt. Her’s is a complex redemptive arc that includes a lingering sense of guilt, a feeling strong enough to lead us into Season 2.
The boys: Then there are the best friends; Will, Mike, Lucas and adorable toothless Dustin. They fight often with a passion reserved for best friends. Most notably, Lucas and Mike fight about including Eleven in their hunt for the door to the other dimension. Lucas is right that Eleven is lying but Mike is also right that she has their best interest at heart. I loved the writing of this conflict. It’s such a beautiful depiction of friendship; it’s ability to stretch to near breaking points and then rebound. The message: that people are not completely one thing or another, good or bad. When we allow our characters to act in both unlikable and noble ways they not only become more relatable, even lovable, they more naturally propel the story forward. They can even create more storytelling possibilities with their wily unpredictability.
Eleven: Lastly, there’s Eleven. Let’s be real, we love her the entire time. At least I did. But she does have a bit of a melt down and knocks Lucas unconscious. She does seem to kill or maim quite a few guards. She is the one who opens the portal to begin with (albeit very much against her will). But she is also the one who clenches victory for team Get This Monster Out of Here. Her character arc is perhaps the most obvious, as she sacrifices herself for the greater good, but it’s no less effective because of it. I’ll admit to some serious feelings when she bids Mike goodbye with a long glance back at what could have been.
One of the greatest things we can do for our own writing is allow our characters humanity. Let them live in the grey areas between good and bad. Redemptive character arcs are a great place to start. Mind control, monster hunting and conspiracy theories help too. But they wouldn’t mean nearly as much without strong character arcs.
Director of the Big Break℠ Screenwriting Contest
Eva Gross is the Director of the Big Break℠ Screenwriting Contest. She studied writing at Emerson College in Boston and has enjoyed time as a journalist, a book buyer, a script reader and a Collections Processor with the Writers Guild Foundation Library and Archive.