Crafting Compelling Character Arcs—Black Widow

This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #007.

In Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, chose to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the universe. Her selflessness won the day, providing the rest of the team with the tool they needed to restore billions of people back to life. While Black Widow’s death scene was a tragic moment in the fourth Avengers film, if we look at it from a thematic viewpoint, we’d see that it was the only possible conclusion for her character’s arc.

In the world of story-telling, in the greatest of contrasts with the real world, every moment in a character’s life is expected to be significant on a thematic level. By the time they reach their end destination, which may at times include their death, it’s nearly a requirement that they complete a profound journey of character development.

While we are almost never provided with such perfect, rounded-off stories in the real world, this is an expectation for our novels, television series, and films. There are some authors who kill characters off indifferently and meaninglessly, but they are the exception, not the rule, and if you choose to do that as a writer, it has to be a very informed and meaningful artistic choice on your part.

For the rest of us, Black Widow’s sacrifice provides us with a perfect example of crafting compelling character arcs in our own writing. What can we learn from the heroic choice that she makes in Avengers: Endgame?

In her second appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Marvel’s The Avengers, Black Widow states that she has ‘red in her ledger that she would like to wipe out,’ a reference to the moral debts that she owes as a former mercenary, undoubtedly killing countless individuals.

Loki replies with the question, “Can you? Can you wipe out that much red?” In that back-and-forth exchange between the two characters, we get the basis on which Black Widow’s character development is based, as well as her core motivation: She wants to make amends for past sins.

A well-developed character arc would provide her with the opportunities to do just that, to show that she is willing to make sacrifices to balance out her moral debts. The corresponding scene in Avengers: Endgame gave us that moment in spades. She wasn’t satisfied with using her life to help others. Rather, when the time came, she made the choice to die so that millions could be saved.

This sacrifice came at the conclusion of an emotional fight scene with her best friend, Hawkeye, who wanted to make the same sacrifice that she was attempting to make. In fact, Black Widow owed her life to him. When he was sent to assassinate her, he saw the good in her and chose to cultivate it instead.

So Black Widow’s death provided her character with both the opportunity to repay the debt to her greatest friend, and the chance to completely wipe the symbolic red from her ledger. She completed a full, perfectly formed character arc, going from an indifferent killer, to a guilty agent filled with regret, and finally to a self-sacrificing hero.

The Writer’s Everything

This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.

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