August 28, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: Emotionally Investable Characters

During my first screenwriting class, our professor started off the session by asking us what we thought were components of a good story. One girl replied by saying that a good story had to have three things: a beginning, middle, and an end.

Our professor agreed but also responded by telling us a story about a turkey sandwich. It went something like this: "One day, I was working on a pilot for a TV show when I felt a strong craving for a turkey sandwich. So I went in my garage, turned the key-- and the engine thankfully started without any problem. I drove to the store, bought the sandwich, and drove back home. When I got back, I ate my sandwich."

Bored, yet? I sure was. The class was already over two hours long, and I admittedly spaced out until she pointed out that the story she told HAD a beginning, middle, and end, yet it wasn't a GOOD story because of two major problems: 1.) It had no conflict, and 2.) We weren't emotionally invested enough in her (as the protagonist) so we couldn't care less what happened to her.

Now, I won't go into conflict since I figure that most of you already know what it is. (If you don't, it's basically the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist--ie: the problems presented throughout the protagonist's journey that prevents him/her from easily reaching his/her goals.)

No, what I really want to focus on this Writing Club Wednesday is how vital an emotionally investable character is to the story. This seems like a no-brainer, I know, but as a writer who previously wandered and got lost in the dreaded forests of the Mary Sue in many of her early novels, this really struck a chord with me.

My professor also went onto say that a good, emotionally investable protagonist needs these three, basic things:

1.) Flaws, but not so many that the character isn't worthy of a journey. The character shouldn't be a total hero but he/she shouldn't be a total villain, either. After all, the audience (or in this case, the reader) is investing time and money into this character. Why would he/she invest so much if your main character was a total turd?

2.) Relentlessness. In some way or another, the protagonist needs to keep trying to succeed, no matter how (un)successful they are or whatever gets in the way. Think of Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Would you be invested in his character if he just sat on the top floor of the tower and let the terrorists take over the building? No, you really wouldn't. Especially since he'd be hiding while everyone else's lives are in danger. We care about his character because he tries despite the really bad odds. He keeps attacking, even though there are many times during the story where all hope seems lost. And we're there with him every little skirmish along the way.

3.) An emotional void that he/she might not even know exists. The plot of a story should not only be a series of events but an emotional journey in which the protagonist goes from one lower, emotional plane (in which the MC lacks something on an emotional level, such as love) to a higher one, where that need is hopefully fulfilled or even surpassed. When the MC solves his/her problem, it should be BECAUSE they are more "emotionally evolved" in the end (rather than "growing up" as a result of the ending). And it's the emotional journey he/she takes along the way that makes us really invested in these characters as much as what actually happens in the world.

The best example of this that I can think of right now is Harry Potter. Harry, as an orphan with abusive relatives, has an emotional void in the sense that he wants people to care that he exists and respect him (which is why getting whisked off into the wizarding world where everyone not only wants to know him but wants to be friends with him is literally the BestThingEver.) What he doesn't really know in the beginning is that what he really needs in the end isn't fame/recognition/respect but love, which he wasn't able to get through his upbringing but, over the course of the books, gets through his friends, dead parents, godfather, professors, etc...all who allow him to reach a much higher emotional level than Voldemort (who never "grew out" of the basic desire to be respected/recognized/famous/etc). This higher emotional level that Harry achieves is what it allows him to defeat Voldemort in a sort of cause-and-effect relationship.

This emotional component is also what keeps us invested in Harry's journey. I don't know about you but whenever I hear someone talk about Harry Potter, he/she talks about the characters that influenced Harry throughout his emotional journey (ie: the characters that died, the relationships between characters, etc.) more than they do about the spells, magic, what have you. People love the ending for Harry Potter so much because of the emotional depth, because they witnessed Harry's emotional growth by meeting all the people that changed him for the better, and thus feel like they were there with him every step of the way. And that is true emotional investment at its finest.

What are some more characteristics of an emotionally investable character? Do you agree with the ones I listed above? If not, what are some other ones that would work better?


Post a Comment

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Blogger Templates