by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
One of the most difficult puzzles a writer must solve involves the relationship between the inner needs and external goal of the protagonist. Some writers pitch stories solely about a character that learns or comes to realize something, not recognizing this is impossible to photograph on film since it occurs inside someone’s head. Other writers pitch stories of characters that risk life and limb to bring back a treasure from the underworld with no internal lessons or realizations along the way.
As a wise man once said, we must restore balance to the force. Good storytelling emphasizes the internal development of a protagonist that results from the external journey he or she experiences. However, before a character can learn or realize anything, we must establish that there is something they need to learn or realize. Here are three places from which to launch your character’s internal journey.
1. THE PLACE OF INEXPERIENCE
Many journeys begin with a character that lacks the skills or maturity to carry out the task they are given. Over the course of the story, the protagonist must face trials that will bring about their growth. They must be trained by those who possess the knowledge they don’t have. The only way to gain the experience they need to complete their external goal is to slay the dragon that stands in their path. The dragon lives inside of them and usually goes by the name Ego. Once slain, the wisdom our protagonist craves is bestowed upon them. They are able to complete the external mission they set out on, but more importantly, they now hold the secret they need should that dragon’s twin brother ever cross their path. While the language involved in explaining these journeys is dramatic and often mythic, the principles apply across genres.
In Real Genius, Mitch is the smartest guy at the school, but he lacks the experience he needs to complete the academic gauntlet ahead of him without losing his mind. Throughout the course of the story, he gains the social skills he lacks to get the girl, survives jealous competitors, and saves the world in the process. Luke Skywalker can only destroy the Death Star when he abandons his ego and need for control in Star Wars: A New Hope. He closes his eyes, uses the force, and is able to save the galaxy. The Karate Kid, Rocky, and Dodgeball are all centered on characters that journey from inexperienced to experienced.
2. THE PLACE OF SELFISHNESS
This journey can be slightly more difficult to execute in that we need to still root for the protagonist, despite their selfishness. This can get tricky. We must show the need for the character to grow in the first act. However, we also must show that this is a character worth getting behind. While challenging, this can be accomplished through humor, charm, or making the protagonist appear simply misunderstood.
In Bruce Almighty, Bruce finally realizes that he wants Grace to be happy more than he wants her back in his life. Only then is he given the chance to reunite with her – once his ego is slain. Bill Murray’s character becomes a better human being when he turns loose his selfishness and realizes life should be shared with others in St. Vincent. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere becomes the best version of himself only after he releases his arrogance and admits his true feelings for Julia Roberts’ character. Field of Dreams, The Descendants, and Dallas Buyers Club all feature characters going on this journey from arrogance or selfishness to humility and love.
3. THE PLACE OF INDEPENDENCE
One of the most common themes in film echoes our deep need for each other. We can’t solve the riddle without help. We can’t win the fight without someone to train us. We can’t be our best selves without others. Many character archetypes exist for this purpose of making our protagonist into the person they need to be. The mentor, the wise old sage, the sidekick, and the lover all are perfect foils for our protagonists’ independence.
Erin Brockovich can’t defeat the evil corporate empire without Albert Finney and Aaron Eckhart. Ben Affleck can’t complete his journey without Jason Lee in Chasing Amy. And even Ferris Bueller can’t have his day off unless Cameron comes and picks him up in his car. Films like Crash focus on our deep need for each other thematically. While The Blind Side, The American President, and Jerry Maguire all focus more directly on this idea. In the end, we all must recognize the important role others play in our lives if we are to accomplish the missions we have been called to.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.