Character Arc Study: Dwight K. Schrute, The Office
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Welcome to my first post in what will be a whole series of posts on character arcs in popular film, television, and video games! The point of these posts will be to dig into popular characters and study how they grow and change throughout their time on screen/in game. I’ll examine each character through the following lenses:
What kind of arc do they go through? Is it a growth arc? A redemption arc? A negative arc? You get the idea.
What is the lie that the character believes in the beginning of their arc that is preventing them from reaching their full potential?
What are the key turning points in their arc?
Why does this character arc work in the narrative?
For this post, I’ll be examining the ever-bizarre Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office. We first meet Dwight in the pilot episode of The Office. He is presented immediately as Jim’s annoying deskmate, singing The Little Drummer Boy (clearly nowhere near Christmas time) and sucking up to Michael Scott. His conflict with Jim (and lack of patience for the prankster’s antics) is clear from the start as well, between his concerns of “piercing an organ” on the pencil barrier Jim places between their desks, and his lack of amusement at his stapler being placed in Jello. This is the Dwight we see for a good portion of the show - his obsession with (and often interesting interpretation of) safety protocols, his borderline hero-worship of Michael Scott, and his dedication to his dream job of working for Dunder Mifflin. TYPE OF ARC As far as character arcs go, Dwight’s is fairly slow and tame. He doesn’t pull a Prince Zuko and go from Main Baddie to Hero, nor does he go full Anakin and go the other way around. The kind of arc Dwight follows throughout the run of The Office is a growth arc. His defining traits don’t go away - in fact, some grow stronger over time - but the character gains depth, going from an annoying caricature of the person you would NEVER want to sit next to in an office to a really beloved character with many redeeming qualities who we are happy to see victorious in the end. THE LIE I believe that Dwight’s Lie in the beginning of the series relates to his self-worth. His corporate ass-kissing is the most obvious expression of this, but I believe his defensiveness in the presence of Jim relates to this as well. It’s classic behavior of someone who feels threatened, in this case, by a younger and more charismatic salesman. In his early relationship with Angela we also see this eagerness to please, for example, when Angela challenges his masculinity and he immediately risks his job to meet with Jan and ask her to promote him to Michael’s position. All of these behaviors are the actions of a man desperate to prove himself worthy. KEY TURNING POINTS The first turning point I see in Dwight’s path from his defensive, low-self-confidence beginnings is his blossoming friendship with Pam. Beginning when he has a concussion and helps her set up her off-brand iPod, Dwight and Pam become strong friends (though Dwight often has a funny way of showing it) through the rest of the series. In fact, we frequently see moments of growth for Dwight through his interactions of Pam. For example, he secretly gives her the key to defeating his evil landlord persona in their conflict regarding office conditions, and he only prevents the “Doomsday Device” from sending the email to Robert California after Pam visits him at his farm - “pobody’s nerfect,” after all. Dwight’s rollercoaster relationship with Angela is also a good marker of the ups and downs of his character arc. I honestly would argue that their relationship is pretty toxic, though it seems to end happily enough. In their initial relationship, Angela is cold and controlling, and Dwight literally kills her cat (uhhh, as a lover of cats, this would be a LIFELONG DEALBREAKER for me). When Angela has an affair with Dwight while engaged to Andy, I’d argue this is still a low self-esteem act for Dwight. Angela has been assigning his worth to him for so long that he continues chasing her long after it is healthy to do so. Their weird sex contract puts the relationship on slightly more even footing (weirdly enough), and the viewer finally sees Angela pine for Dwight for the first time. However, Dwight doesn’t really turn the corner here until Angela marries the Senator. Here, Dwight believes their relationship is finished for good. (Of course, we know it’s not, but there is a good chunk of time where Dwight doesn’t know that). It is in this time of “getting over” Angela that Dwight really blossoms into the character he is at the end of the series. Other great moments of growth for Dwight are when Michael leaves, his experience running a team in Tallahassee, and his realization that Jim actually cares about him when Jim physically prevents him from getting fired (by tackling him before he can go into the presentation where the firing would occur). The final turning point, I believe, is in the final season, when Dwight has the opportunity to choose a new salesman, and in reviewing all his old friends for the job, he finds he has outgrown them. All these moments add up in the end, resulting in a strong, self-assured (though still incredibly quirky) man who is not a dogmatic nightmare manager, but genuinely seems to be a good fit for the job. Throughout the series we see Dwight go from an entertaining character I would never want to meet in real life to a person I could see myself not hating as a manager. WHY DOES IT WORK? I think this is a great example of an arc that is incredibly subtle. Dwight is nearly as bizarre in the final episode as he was on day one. He still loves his beets, his bears, and his Battlestar Galactica, he has just learned to chill out a little bit. He’s the picture of a man who has learned to grow into himself rather than continually trying to prove himself to those around him - a lesson many of us could learn from Mister Schrute for sure.