The maturation of a story’s protagonist—as “growth” eventuated through the progression of the narrative—provides a source of dynamism that can keep a film from being static, or falling flat for lack of character development. At the same time, a good screenwriter is careful not to overdo it, lest a character’s internal transition occur too quickly in terms of the story to be believable. In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof—played by Matthew McConaughey—“turns on a dime” in his attitude toward gays. The flip is hardly believable. The question is why.
When a physician informs Ron that he has AIDS—beyond being HIV positive—the rodeo enthusiast and electrician by trade reacts vehemently against the implication that he had contracted the disease from sex with another man. Even from that point, he refers to a gay man as Tinkerbell. The implication is that Ron is severely prejudiced against homosexuality, and his context being that of rodeos in Texas makes this interior state very believable.
Yet without giving the viewer a sense of sufficient story time having elapsed, Ron latterly chokes Tucker, one of his rodeo friends in a grocery store for refusing to shake hands with Ron’s business partner, the cross-dressing, AIDs infected Rayon, played by Jared Leto. Even for Ron to have lost his strong prejudice is hard to fathom, as he could have worked with, and even come to like Rayon without losing his distaste for homosexuality; for Ron to violently force Tucker to shake Rayon’s hand is apt to strike the viewer as sheer artifice on the part of the screenwriter and director. It is as though Ron were a Janus-like fictive caricature rather than a character based on an actual person.
Taken to an extreme, a character’s quick “about face” can leave the viewer wondering where the antagonist went. Indeed, the distinction between a protagonist and an antagonist can become confused, infecting even the structural integrity of the narrative itself. In the 2014 film Godzilla, Godzilla loses all his monster lore built up through preceding films to become—all of a sudden—the savoir of San Francisco. What had been a fight between Godzilla and two other dinosaurs is all of a sudden Godzilla protecting the city and its human inhabitants from the radiation-eating male and female animals invented in this film-version. The switch from antagonist to protagonist simply is not believable, and the story itself suffers as a consequence.
Fortunately, remedies exist. Using story-time rather than short-circuiting can be part of the mix. Lincoln says in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, “time is a great thickener of things.” A montage can give the viewer a sense not only of time passing, but of a character undergoing maturating learning as, for instance, from sustained suffering in the process. Signs of an interior change vital to the narrative can begin in the montage, or otherwise patently as the story resumes. Staggered thusly (like a recurring, subtle melody in the string section of an orchestra) and so only gradually anticipated by the viewer, when the change finally manifests full-blown as vital to the story, the realized “growth” or change is credible. This credibility can actually contribute to the suspension of disbelief that is so vital to the believability of the story and thus its constructed world and characters.