In order to engage an audience, characters should go through an inner journey and be shaped by the events that happen in the story so that they are different by the end. This is a character arc, and makes characters more believable and relatable to the audience. Television is the best format for character arcs, as it enables this journey to spread out over several seasons (as opposed to around two hours in film). Here are 10 of the greatest character arcs that have graced our television screens, with not all of these characters becoming better people by the end.
10. Ben Linus – Lost
The character development in Lost is often overlooked due to the sci-fi elements and the mystery behind the show. It is a show that was not without its flaws, but it featured some fantastic characters who go through some major inner journeys over the six seasons. Arguably the greatest character arc was that of Ben Linus. He begins as an antagonist in the second and third season as he was the leader of the Others, and he is the master of manipulation. After his allies are destroyed, he becomes involved with the survivors and is an uneasy ally to them, although his motives remained unclear (this is what kept it intriguing). His flaws and deep insecurities were soon revealed, and by the final season he has gone from being the puppeteer to the puppet, and manipulated by many of the people that he once controlled.
9. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel
Wesley first graced our screens in Buffy the Vampire Hunter during season 3 as a replacement for Giles as Buffy’s Watcher. He begins as a pompous and completely useless character with no backbone, and he commands no respect. He was originally only supposed to last a few episodes, however, the writers enjoyed his curious humor and decided to keep him. He was consequently written into Angel, and stunned audiences when he turned up as a self-proclaimed “rogue demon hunter” complete with a motorbike, leather jacket and gruff appearance. He still possessed many of the same wimpy traits, but in time he grows and overcomes his cowardice (even taking a bullet for one of his own). He has to deal with plenty of personal loss on his path, but continues to kick butt and prove himself to be a true leader, warrior and hero, all the way to an honorable death.
8. Ellis Carver – The Wire
Ellis Carver begins The Wire as an arrogant, smug narcotics detective who is teamed with the brutish Thomas “Herc” Hauk. Together, they do not go by the book and rub many the wrong way by their “banging heads” approach. After becoming angered by the way he is treated by his superiors, Carver leaves for a DEU sergeant posting in the Western district under Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin. After some initial struggles, he soon turns over a new leaf under Bunny’s guidance and becomes a mature, upstanding officer who actually cares about his work. As Detective Daniels (a previous critic) puts it, “Ellis has come a long way.” At the end, he climbs the ranks to become promoted to Lieutenant by Daniels (a character he seemingly becomes). In comparison, his former colleague and friend Herc is in stark contrast and abandons all morality and is dismissed from the force.
7. Peggy Olson – Mad Men
Some character arcs can be truly inspiring, and this is certainly the case for Mad Men’s Peggy Olson. When we first meet Peggy, she is an insecure and awkward young woman who starts her new job as secretary for Don Draper at Sterling Cooper. She is mocked for her appearance and is very innocent, but her potential is clear. She learns fast and is soon promoted to junior copywriter, and season two sees a big transformation as she cuts her hair and steps away from her previous lifestyle. Her career continues to blossom as she becomes a founding member of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and soon becomes second-in-command. She also grows as a person whilst this occurs, seeing her develop into an empowered, confident and proud woman. This is particularly powerful due to the era in which the series is set and how dominant the men are in the show.
6. Hank Schrader – Breaking Bad
Of course, most of the focus from the utterly gripping series Breaking Bad is on the characterization of chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White (more on him later), but his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, also has a phenomenal character arc. Hank is a DEA agent, but he begins the show seeing Walter as a pathetic and spineless family man, and therefore never suspects him. Hank is arrogant and loud-mouthed, but soon the actions of Walter shake Hank to his core, as he is nearly murdered and witnesses his team blown up by a C4 charge. For a while he is unable to walk and becomes despondent, before becoming obsessive over bringing down “Heisenberg.” Gradually, the tables turn and Hank becomes a heroic character, and Walter a villain. Hank’s earth-shattering realization is a fantastic moment in television history, and his transformation over the entire series was brilliantly crafted and portrayed.
5. Dr. John Carter – ER
ER saw many characters come and go throughout the 15 seasons. The writers did a fantastic job of creating in-depth and interesting characters, all shaped by what they saw in the hospital and in their personal life. Dr. John Carter is arguably the overall main character, and he is heavily present through the first 12 seasons, before becoming a recurring character in the final season. He begins as a nervous and unsure medical student from a privileged background, but his compassion is clear. He develops his confidence and does whatever it takes for his patients, but then enters a dark period after surviving a stabbing, seeing him become addicted to drugs. Deaths take their toll on Carter, and he goes to the Congo to work in an AIDS clinic before returning to open his own clinic for the underprivileged. An enormous arc, Carter becomes a likeable and very sympathetic character.
4. Ruth Fisher – Six Feet Under
Alan Ball’s brilliant Six Feet Under features a host of fascinating characters who all go through a never-ending series of traumas. This, and the fact that the Fisher family runs a funeral home, makes it a depressing and morbid show, but equally gripping. Due to these traumatic events, the characters all undergo huge inner journeys and are different people by the end. Arguably, the biggest and most intriguing transformation is that of Ruth Fisher, the mother to Nate, David and Claire, who becomes widowed in the first episode. Initially, Ruth is a matriarch and trapped in the maternal role (although disconnected from her children). She bottles her emotions and is unhappy with her life, resentful of her free-spirited sister. She soon finds her voice and begins to live, and this is largely through the connection she finds with Claire. It is a touching arc, brilliantly played by Frances Conroy.
3. Jackson Teller – Sons of Anarchy
Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy does what many fantastic television shows have done in recent times, and that is to utilize the morally ambiguous role of antiheroes. The motorcycle club are a bunch of outlaws that murder, sell guns and generally live outside the law. The club’s president, Clay Morrow, is particularly devious and would fit the role of secondary antagonist. He is also stepfather to the main character, Jackson Teller, who finds himself doubting the club’s immorality and illegal behavior (causing friction with Clay), yet he is extremely loyal and the club is all he knows. He becomes determined to move the club in a new direction as the series unfolds, but he becomes more and more like his stepfather in the process. After some brutal incidents, Jackson tragically becomes cold, callous and extremely violent, making it difficult to root for the character which was so likeable initially.
2. Jaime Lannister – Game of Thrones
There are some brilliant character arcs in the immensely popular Game of Thrones series (an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novels). Perhaps the most intriguing is Ser Jaime Lannister’s, who is the Queen’s twin brother, with whom he has an incestuous relationship and fathered all three of her children. He is also nicknamed “Kingslayer,” as he killed the previous king whom he was sworn to protect. He begins the show as a an arrogant and selfish villain, seeing him push Bran out of a tower window after Bran saw Jaime having sex with his sister. During his travels with Brienne, we discover more about his past and the reasons for killing the king. He then has his hand removed, taking away his ability (and identity) as one of the best swordsmen in Westeros. He loses his arrogance and selfishness, and rebuilds himself to become a sympathetic and likeable character.
1. Walter White – Breaking Bad
The character of Walter White in Breaking Bad is one of the most discussed of all time. This is because he has such a shocking, disturbing and entirely fascinating arc, which was masterfully created by Vince Gilligan and perfectly portrayed by Bryan Cranston. Over the series, Walter slips seamlessly through protagonist, antihero, tragic-hero and antagonist roles, and this is managed without it seeming over the top. He begins as a pushover, a coward and a chemistry teacher that also works at a car wash to supplement his income. After being diagnosed with cancer and accompanying Hank on a ride along, he decides to use his expertise as a chemistry teacher to enter the drug trade. This marks the beginning of his stunning (character and visual) transformation into “Heisenberg,” and before long he becomes a menacing, obsessive, scheming and immoral villain. The chilling “I am the one who knocks” quote epitomizes his horrifying evolution.