by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The Starz Network’s most recent hit, American Gods, explores the idea that the gods of ancient times still exist, but have been weakened as people’s beliefs have become fixated on new gods – the cultural concepts that we have come to worship.
Author David Foster Wallace once said that we all worship something. Communicating what your character worships, either explicitly or implicitly, gives us insight into her or his values, passions, desires, and even weaknesses. The themes of our stories often attempt to reconcile the worthiness of what the character worships. We all know that certain things should not be worshiped without consequence, because of the experiential truths we have lived in our own lives. When characters worship those things our culture has determined as unworthy, we expect an appropriate lesson to occur.
Here are four things that your character might worship, as well as the likely outcome of their devotion.
Almost every ancient religious tradition had something to say about the worship of money – mostly in the form of cautions and warnings. We all know that money can’t buy happiness, but we also all struggle with often feeling like maybe it actually can. At the very least, we know that money can buy things that make us happy, either in the short term or long term. The complex nature of our relationship with money always makes this a topic worthy of our storytelling. In watching characters struggle with their own relationships with finances, we process our own.
Showtime’s Billions takes a modern lens on wealth, influence, and corruption. Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Casino have presented greed and the worship of money as being detrimental to happiness and security, while also being the reward for ambition and entrepreneurial success. The comedy classic, Brewster’s Millions, reminds us that money can be both a blessing and a curse, as well as the central plot device for moving a character through an inner journey of self-discovery.
Much of life is finding balance between the pleasures we enjoy and the obligations we must endure. Many of us work hard five days a week so that we might have two days to ourselves, seeking out our own enjoyments. As with money, pleasures can be both positive and negative in our journeys, which makes them perfect tools for crafting struggles for our characters. There’s certainly nothing wrong with pleasure itself. It’s when pleasure becomes so selfish that it becomes harmful to others that it’s destructive. Characters that pursue pleasure as the first and only priority in life are characters ripe for life lessons.
In About a Boy, we meet a protagonist that has every pleasure a person could want, but when a child enters his world, he recognizes that nothing compares to the love that can be found in friends and family. Sometimes these pleasures can become addictions or even psychotic behaviors, as in Leaving Las Vegas and American Psycho. Even in light-hearted films such as Arthur and Get Him to the Greek, we find hedonists whose love of selfish pleasures hurts others, leading to comedic redemption.
The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution drastically changed the way that people saw the world. Science and technology became gods elevated above many of the values that humans held for millennia. Like so many other areas of life, when not placed in the proper balance, these powerful tools can drive us to forget about ideas that are equally — if not more — important.
The archetype of the mad scientist embodies the caution characters should have about worshipping science and technology. We see this with Doctor Finkelstein in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Will Rodman in Rise of The Planet of the Apes, Henry Wu in Jurassic Park, and most of the villains in the Spiderman franchise.
Perhaps the most common of all the gods in the cinematic universe (as well as actual life), we tend to worship ourselves more than anything or anyone else. There are times in life when it is important to put ourselves first. As the FAA instructions before every flight emphasize, you should secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. However, when we put ourselves first exclusively, life becomes somewhat meaningless. Anyone who has achieved any sense of maturity has recognized that one of the greatest experiences we can have is putting someone else and their needs ahead of our own, sometimes even to the point of great sacrifice.
In the classic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character has been self-centered throughout the story, but is impacted by Ingrid Bergman, who he eventually ceases his own self-worship for and offers a very tangible salvation. The Hunger Games and Gran Torino tell similar stories of characters that move from a form of self-worship to self-sacrifice. Jack Nicholson has played a number of characters whose arc involves dealing with self-worship, including his performances in As Good as it Gets, About Schmidt, and Something’s Gotta Give. Bill Murray seems to appreciate this theme as well, with similar turns in Groundhog Day, Scrooged, and St. Vincent.
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 Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. 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 site, tellingabetterstory.com.