Crafting Compelling Character Arcs—Black Widow

In Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, chose to make the ultimate sacrifice 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 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 arc.

In the world of storytelling, in the greatest of contrasts with the real world, every moment in a character’s life is meant 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 seldom provided with such perfect, rounded-off stories in the real world, this is an expectation for our novels, television series, and films. Some authors kill characters off indifferently and meaninglessly, but they are the exception, not the rule. If you choose to do this 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 a perfect example of crafting compelling character arcs in our 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 these two characters, we get the foundation 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 gives us that moment in spades. She isn’t satisfied with using her life to help others. Rather, when the time comes, she makes the choice to die so that millions can be saved.

This sacrifice comes at the conclusion of an emotional fight scene with her best friend, Hawkeye, who wants to make the same sacrifice that she is attempting to make. Black Widow owes 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 provides her character with the opportunity to repay the debt to her greatest friend, as well as the chance to completely wipe the symbolic red from her ledger. She completes 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.

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