Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #118: Limit Your Hero's Perspective

Apes Week Continues!I’ve said before that a hero can’t succeed by doing what anybody would do. But wait-- Don’t we want our heroes to be relatable, and their actions to be logical? Yes, but you can’t take that too far. A character who is too logical becomes generic.
Don’t just ladle on the over-motivation and close off alternate routes until your character is forced to do exactly what you want them to do. Instead, give them just the right amount of motivation, and then let them choose to go the extra step, based on their specific psychology and circumstances. The trick is to allow your hero to have reactions that are surprising but still understandable. 

If we understand how circumstances have limited the hero’s perspective, then it is possible to remain intensely sympathetic to them, even if we know that we would react differently.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it would have been easy to over-motivate Caesar the ape. He could have been expelled from his human home as a result of a false accusation, or an irrational prejudice, but no: he genuinely freaked out and acted overly violent. More importantly, once he’s in state custody, as bad as the conditions are (compared to the human life he used to live) it would have been easy to make his keepers more broadly villainous, instead of merely callous.
As I was watching it, I briefly misinterpreted what was happening. I thought that when the keepers showed Franco the nicely-furnished monkey playroom, and then put Caesar into his concrete cell, that this was a dastardly bait and switch. I was relieved when I realized that this wasn’t the case: Caesar did indeed get to spend a lot of time in the playroom, and Franco was in fact aware that Caesar would have to sleep in the cell at night.The decision not to overplay the villainy of the keepers is key, because it keeps the focus on the delicate Franco/Caesar relationship, rather than allowing an outside force to barge in and tip the balance.
Since Caesar’s banishment was his own fault, and Franco did everything in his power to stop it, and the keepers aren’t overly evil, then Caesar’s feeling of isolation and betrayal is all the more tragic and universal. Though he has a genius IQ, it doesn’t stop him from feeling a child’s illogical sense of betrayal when he discovers that the world is unfair and not everyone will treat him as well as his parental guardians did.We can see that Caesar’s sense of betrayal is unfounded, but we understand his limited perspective (and remember feeling the same way as children) so we intensely sympathize, far more than if Caesar had suffered a more exaggerated betrayal.

1 comment:

j.s. said...

For me this rule goes hand in hand with the one about the nature of real dramatic conflict: a good vs. a good or choice between two equally unappealing bads. Just about everyone in this film is making tough choices and doing what they think best in difficult circumstances.