by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In the classic story by Goethe, the character Faust makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for knowledge. The idea of a Faustian Bargain — sometimes called a Faustian Pact — has long been a trope of storytelling, where the willingness to abandon one’s principles or eternal value for worldly benefit underscores our unquenchable thirst for power. While selling one’s soul to the devil has made a great literal plotline for countless stories, the basic concept of an exchange or trade based on limitless desire also holds plentiful variations and metaphoric possibilities.
Here are five Faustian Bargains your character might make in order to get what they want in your story.
1. Exchanging opportunity for pride
Pride has kept almost everyone from something they truly desired in life. It’s a universal experience. Our characters will likely make the same mistakes. Pride may keep us from the apologies that make a relationship possible, the humility that often accompanies hard work, or the risks that could embarrass us in a vulnerable moment. In order for a character to succeed, they will likely need an opportunity. In many stories, the character’s pride will be what prevents them from taking advantage of that opportunity, setting up a lesson that may take the entire narrative to learn — if they ever learn it at all. In Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy exchanges the potential to one day become president for the pride that would be lost in readily admitting a life-altering mistake.
2. Exchanging dignity for survival
Some exchanges are the result of impossible circumstances. They occur when a character feels like they have no other options. In the most extreme cases, a character may feel they even have to sacrifice the dignity of their body for their own survival or the survival of someone they love, as with Fantine’s character in Les Misérables. In other stories, a character’s dignity may be sacrificed for survival in a toxic workplace, as with Andy’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Where traditional Faustian Bargains usually involve an exchange that takes advantage of a character’s greed, this exchange occurs as a result of the character’s desperation.
3. Exchanging oneself for another
In a similar selfless exchange, a character may sacrifice him or herself for another. This might involve sacrificing one’s opportunity so that another might have it. It might also involve the laying down of one’s life for the good of others. In The Iron Giant, the kind-hearted mechanical character offers up his own existence in the final moments of the story to save those that he has come to care about. Exchanging one’s self for another is the greatest act of love a character can demonstrate. It must be used sparingly and only in circumstances that have been properly set up throughout the course of the story, often beginning with moments where the character has acted selfishly.
4. Exchanging power for greed
The desire to have more than we need is common across cultures and throughout history. This desire has been the downfall of many individuals, both real and fictional. Sometimes, our lust for more consumes us to the point where we are willing to give up our own agency and ability to control our own journey. Our ultimate power comes in our ability to make choices and have some degree of say in our own destiny. When an individual gives that up, feeding their own greed, redemption becomes extremely difficult. The Wolf of Wall Street and There will be Blood both highlight characters who eventually trade their own power and agency for the possibility of having more money than they could ever spend. In both cases, it leads to their destruction.
5. Exchanging everything for hope
With the character of Faust, trading his soul symbolized trading all he has and will ever have. While Faust’s trade was driven out of his own narcissism, exchanges where a character offers up all they have can also be driven out of the noble motivation of hope. Coming to the bargaining table with everything one has and could ever have is risky. It creates stakes that will keep the audience on the edge of their seat. In the final moments of Casablanca, Rick exchanges all he has to protect a woman he loves and her husband from the Nazis. In his parting words to her, we find the hope that he has received in exchange – a hope that has replaced the cynicism that he carried throughout the story until she re-entered his life.
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.