June's Theme: Character
Anyone who has ever watched a movie or read a book has a pretty good idea of what the character journey looks like. A character starts in a place of longing. They are pulled out of their safe world. They go on an emotional or physical journey to new worlds. They face an antagonistic force that pulls everything away from them. And then, when they are at their lowest, they learn from the lessons of the journey, rally to defeat the antagonist, and grow and change into a better version of themselves. Or something like that.
This is the same story from Toy Story to Scott Pilgrim to Jesus to Bridesmaids.
We understand that in order to get to a place of change, a character must first face obstacles and crisis. When a character is stuck in their ways, it takes the pulling apart of their safe lives in order for them to see the world in a different way.
But why is it so hard for us to recognize the character journey when we’re the character on the journey? Why do we lose sight of this when we face obstacles and crisis in our own lives? Why can’t we see obstacles as what they actually are? An opportunity to define our story.
Crisis always reveals a person’s true character. If you really want to get to know someone, build a piece of Ikea furniture with them or try navigating the New York City subway together.
Obstacles bring out our fears and flaws. They make us reevaluate our wants and needs. They force us to change. No one ever became great by staying in their comfort zone. How boring would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones turned down the opportunity to look for the ark because he didn’t wanna take time away from his teaching?
As writers, we’re basically playing god. And not a benevolent one. A real twisted, sadistic god. Because we need characters to change and the more difficult we can make their obstacles, the more they’ll change. If I need to get a character from emotional point A to emotional point B, I ask myself, “What obstacles should I put in their way to get them there?”
Great characters are defined by their choices, not their circumstances. So are you.
Hopefully as humans, we are constantly growing and learning and challenging ourselves. And just like for our characters, growth comes from how we react to difficult situations. Without conflict there is no story, there is no growth, there is no arc. Without conflict, a character journey isn’t an arc, it’s just a flat line.
Another example for those of you who are parents: How do you get your kids to learn? You can teach them something over and over again, but what they really remember is what they experience. Do you remember your parents telling you to not play with matches or do you remember that time you burnt your finger?
One of the hardest things about being a parent is letting your kids get hurt. Physically, when they are kids, you have to let them fall off the bike in order to learn how to ride. And emotionally, when they are teenagers, you have to let their hearts get broken in order to learn how to love. In order to learn and change, we have to face adversity. Otherwise it’s all theory.
In 2017 I wrote and produced a movie called This World Alone (find it in a film festival near you!) and the main theme in that film is exactly what we’re talking about here. In a post-apocalyptic world, two mother figures raise their daughter, Sam, with opposing world-views. Sam’s biological mother, Connie, raises Sam as a survivor, cautioning that the world is driven by “only the strong survive,” whereas their family friend, Willow, raises Sam to protect nature and see the world as filled with light. But it’s not until Sam is forced to leave their safe compound and go out into the world that these world-views are put to the test. It’s not until she faces conflict that she learns what she really believes.
I know that there are very real obstacles that are much deeper and more difficult in life than what we see in the movies. I don’t mean to make light of sickness, death, or suffering by making the comparison. But, those things will come for us no matter what. No matter how much we cocoon ourselves off, we can’t avoid conflict. But, maybe we can start to look at them a little differently: Not as circumstances that define us, but as opportunities to be defined by our choices.
Around the site this month, you’ll find more articles exploring great characters in genre film and what you can learn from them to build your character (wink, wink).