If you start with great characters, even if they’re fascinatingly complex—especially if they’re fascinatingly complex—then they’re going to be resistant to change and unwilling to put themselves in danger. Beware of the “character piece,” in which we watch heroes drift from scene to scene, encountering characters who define them but don’t challenge them.
Our challenges tell us who we really are. What we feel and believe is ephemeral. We see ourselves one way and the world sees us another way, and who’s to say who is right? We don’t know who we really are until we hit a wall. Trying to define yourself or your characters outside of a major challenge is a slippery business.
Up in the Air is a classic example of a good-but-not-great character piece. It’s about a rootless efficiency expert who is only happy when he’s on an airplane. That’s an interesting character, but the situations he encounters (having to compete with a young colleague, falling for a married woman) never seriously challenge that core characterization. The movie is more about defining the character than redefining him. His character is an unstoppable force that never meets an immovable object, so the story never grabs us.
But it can be equally risky to start with a plot and add your characters later. Let’s say you want to start with an alien invasion. Great. But who deals with it? Who’s the character? What is the character’s relationship to the plot? If you spend a lot of time coming up with a cool situation before you pair it with one character’s journey, then you could end up in big trouble all over again.
H.G. Wells’s novella The War of the Worlds features one hell of an interesting situation, and it keeps getting adapted (for radio, for television, for the movies) over and over: Martians attack Earth and shoot death rays at us, but they are ironically defeated by their lack of immunity to Earth viruses. Unfortunately, every adaptation of this story has lacked memorable characters.
In the 2005 movie version, Tom Cruise was an aimless divorced dad trying to redeem himself and protect his kids. Okay, but what does that have to do with aliens getting defeated by a virus? Nothing. The character arc and the plot never intersect. War of the Worlds is a big self-sufficient plot that doesn’t leave room for any characters.
Great stories have characters and plots that can’t thrive without each other. In the book and movie Silence of the Lambs, FBI agent Clarice Starling is a great character, but she isn’t interesting enough for us to just follow her around at FBI camp. She wouldn’t generate enough conflict simply by getting to know herself. If the opportunity to interview serial killer Hannibal Lecter hadn’t come along, there would be no story.
By the same token, there would have been no story if another less conflicted agent had been sent to interview Lecter. He only agrees to help solve the case because he finds Clarice so compelling. This plot was necessary to spark this character, and this character was necessary to spark this plot.
The key is to let Hegel be your guide: Thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. Your hero’s personality is the thesis, and the intimidating opportunity that arrives is the antithesis to that. What new synthesis will be created in the wake of this confrontation? When the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, a story is born.
The hero must affect the events and the events must affect the hero. That’s the first test of a great story idea. The hero of Up in the Air is a thesis who never meets his antithesis. He is a character who is defined but not redefined by the plot. The alien invasion in War of the Worlds simply collapses on its own. It is a plot unaffected by the characters. In Silence of the Lambs, however, the plot and the character combust in a volatile reaction.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, she obliterates it.
NO. she doesn’t permanently transform the situation: We sense that he’ll keep doing it. Everything sets back to zero for both of them. But yes, she is very much transformed, though she almost convinces herself it never happened.
YES. At first he lashes out when his friend implores him not to, and gets himself sent to the gallows, but at the end he not only triumphs but negotiates help for his people.
YES. He pretends to have reverted to normal at the end, but we don’t buy it.
The Bourne Identity
YES. They shut down the program because of him. He now knows who he is, and who he wants to be (which is totally different)
YES. Transform the situation: Only slightly. Annie talks Lillian into going ahead with the wedding, but we’re not sure if she was really needed, or, for that matter, if she herself wasn’t really the problem in the first place. Transform the hero: She decides to be less depressed, more active, date new guy, let go of friend.
YES. Yes and yes. He solves the crime, gets Evelyn killed, and feels personally destroyed.
YES. Transform situation: He brings down the mob. Transform the hero: He finally finds a relationship he won’t abandon for the job, but it’s with Lefty, not his wife. In the end, he seems to have reverted to a normal life, but it’s dubious.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Transform the situation: he destroys the Pizzeria, banishing the whites from the neighborhood. Transform the hero: It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t seem so on the surface, but we suspect it has. He spends the night with Tina and Hector, which seems like a bit of a personal breakthrough.
NO. she chooses not to transform the situation at all, but it does transform her.
YES and yes.
YES. Again, it transforms Gerard more than Kimble.
YES. In the commentary, Peele says that Chris turns a corner when he tries to rescue Georgina, symbolically finally saving his mom. He certainly transforms the situation.
YES. He brings his loop to an end and makes the whole town happy. He is personally totally transformed
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. He transforms his whole civilization and himself.
In a Lonely Place
YES. Transform the situation: he pushes Laurel too far and out of his life. Transform the hero: “I lived a while while she loved me, I died when she left me.”
YES. He can’t go back to his comfortable life at the end.
YES. Very much so.
YES. He finds out what family really means and matures.
YES. Very much so.
YES. each one does.
YES. Transform situation: He doesn’t really change Jack, but he changes Maya. Transform self: Yes, he has huge breakthroughs
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. She finds and kills Bill. The lambs have stopped screaming.
YES. Transform situation: He blows up the death star, transform hero: he’s a hero now and gets a medal to prove it.
YES. he finally tells Norma the truth about his situation, and it kills him.