Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Give Them a Big Hole to Fill

How do you make heroes sympathetic when they’re well-off and getting much wealthier? This is a problem in movies like The Big Short, as well as and shows like “Mad Men” and the later seasons of “Breaking Bad”.

A writer’s first instinct is always the same: Make them nicer. It’s okay that this guy is getting filthy rich, because he saves cats! But the audience will reject this outright. Nobody is nice enough to deserve a million dollars, much less a billion (as the real guys netted). In fact, it drives me crazy when a movie implies that someone “earned” a million dollar check by doing the right thing, in movies such as Erin Brockovich.

No, you need another trick. As always, you need to show that they “need” the money. When we discussed “Breaking Bad”, we looked at how they solved the problem
  • His real reason was that, long ago, he got kicked-out of a start-up company that made its other founders into billionaires. Now it all made sense: what kind of man isn’t content to be a millionaire? One who feels that he was cheated out of billions, and that the billionaires who did it are still mocking him.
The Big Short doesn’t resort to this trick, but it does a more generalized version of it: One way to justify greed is to give your “heroes” a big hole to fill. In this movie, one of the three sets of heroes is just motivated by money, but they’re sort of the comic relief. The two big heroes are “Mark Baum” and Michael Burry.

Mark Baum in the movie’s pseudonym for Steve Eisman. Out of respect for his privacy (he is, after all, a billionaire now) they renamed him and also fictionalized the nature of his great tragedy: In real life, his baby son died in an accident with the nanny, but in the movie they changed that into a brother who committed suicide.

Why create a new tragedy to replace the old (especially when every other aspect of Eisman’s life and personality is very much not-fictionalized)? Because the character needs a big hole to fill. He can’t forgive himself for not being there for his brother (aka son) and he’s transmuted that self-loathing into a loathing of his own profession, and now he’s determined to find an outlet for his rage: betting against everyone around him. Since the loathing is bottomless, his need is bottomless, and so we manage to sympathize with him even as he collects wealth that is bottomless.

Of course, this is even more true of Michael Burry, who has a literal hole to fill: an empty eye socket, left over from childhood cancer. Burry (who let them use his real name) blames this for all of his problems in life that have left him unable to communicate with anyone, hiding from the world in small office, surrounded by number that only he can understand, listening to heavy metal on large earphones. As it turns out, he’s wrong, (as we find out in the book but not the movie, Asperger’s, not his glass eye, is to blame for his state) but the confusion between the two is ideal for storytelling purposes, because it turns a metaphorical hole (a mental condition) into a literal one.


K.M. Weiland said...

Really love your blog and the unique insights and sensibilities you bring to story analysis. However, I'd like to make two suggestions if I could:

1. Would it be possible to add a Subscribe to Posts option? It would be awesome to receive notifications in my inbox whenever you post something new.

2. I have a really hard time with the black background on the site. After reading any of your posts for a length of time, I find myself half-blinded. :p

Anyway, thanks for the good work and please keep it up!

Matt Bird said...

I'm glad you like it!

1. I didn't know that I had to set that up on my end. I'll look into it.
2. Back when I set up the blog in 2009, the whole white-on-black thing was very hip, but I realize that it's quite unpopular these days. Here's a quick fix: add /?m=1 after my url and you'll switch to the mobile version which is white on black.

I will have a more permanent fix for both of these when I finally relaunch the site, which has been delayed due to forces outside my control for sometime. Updates soon!

K.M. Weiland said...

1. I use my email marketing provider Campaign Monitor to set up my RSS email feed. But if it's still around, Feedburner is a great free option.

2. Slick trick! Thanks for sharing.