Keeping it Personal
Got it? Okay. Now, imagine that they’ve called you in a panic. They’re crying and screaming over the phone. They are in serious trouble. You ask what’s wrong and they say, quite seriously, that in twenty minutes they are going to die, someone is going to kill them, unless you find them $100,000.
That’s the premise of Run Lola Run, a fantastic German film from 1998 staring Franka Potente (which I watched again last night. Good stuff). The rest of the film is about her trying to accomplish this goal for the man she loves, and we’re right there with her. Why?
Because it’s personal. Her motivations are the most personal you can get. Loved ones in danger. And she will commit crimes and risk her life in order to save him.
When we write, our characters must be motivated by their feelings for the audience to feel anything for them. Even if your story is like Good Will Hunting where he thinks too much and ignores the truth in his situation — seemingly very mind-driven decisions — those thoughts are actual driven by his feelings of inferiority and abandonment. Everything we do comes from our feelings. It’s all personal.
I recently met with a storyteller who had the beginnings of a comic series about war and as I was reading his outline I knew everything in the plot was making sense, it had the potential to be very exciting, and every action was motivated by the characters. But, for some reason it felt flat. Then, it hit me: all of the characters were motivated by ideals and what they each believed to be right or wrong.
I’m not saying that ideals and beliefs are bad. Far from it. In fact, if your characters are motivated by beliefs and ideals then you’re one step away from making it personal, because ideals and beliefs don’t just come from nowhere. They have an origin.
Ideals and beliefs are the result of our mind making sense of how we feel. The origin is from the heart. The reason why this storyteller’s war story felt flat was because he showed me the intellectual results but not the heartfelt origins — the troubling, confusing, overwhelming feelings — that inspired the ideals. Show me that and there’s no problem.
Why do your characters feel the way they do? Where did those feelings come from? How were these ideals and beliefs personal? Family and loved ones are often the result of these questions.
When a character chooses to join a war, it’s not just because they believe in the ideals of the rebellion or the underdog. It doesn’t stop there. it’s because the evil empire murdered his aunt and uncle — the only family he’s ever had — and burned down his house.
And when he decides to join the rebellion, he doesn’t want to be just any soldier, he wants to be a jedi knight. But NOT because he believes in the ideals of the soulful, zen warriors, it’s because his father — who he has not had a relationship with due to being murdered (also by the empire, as far as he knows) — was a jedi knight and maybe by becoming a jedi he can share a connection with the father he never had.
If I’m talking too many movies for you, consider Batman. He’s not trying to “save Gotham” because he believes in Gotham. It’s because his parents were murdered, a result of crime and poverty. There are people who support crime and poverty in Gotham, producing similar results, if not identical results to Bruce’s. THAT is what he is fighting for: preventing the death of his parents from happening to someone else and to bring those who support such results to justice.
What about your own work? Who does your protagonist love? What would happen if you put them in danger? What would happen if the person your protagonist loved did not love them back? What if the protagonist only received loved if they accomplished certain tasks like getting good grades or getting a promotion or killing a rival mafia boss? What if your character had only 20 minutes to save them?
I hope that helps!