Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #98: ...But Don’t Play Favorites

Yesterday, we talked about the need to have polarized protagonists. The trick is that you have to avoid the goofus and gallant problem, wherein one does everything wrong and the other does everything right, like on The Mentalist, where poor Robin Tunney has to be proven wrong week after week by Simon Baker.

In Star Wars, Luke and Han are bi-polar opposites. So which one are we supposed to like? We don’t choose--we like them both equally. And how could we do otherwise? They represent the split halves of the human psyche, so to denigrate one and elevate the other would be to deny half of our own humanity.On “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, Sokka, Katara and Aang are tri-polar opposites (once again: id, ego, and super-ego, although they sometimes trade those roles back and forth). They all disagree constantly, but the resolution of the plots rarely proves that one was right and the others were wrong. When they get trapped in the Cave of the Two Lovers, each uses his own methods to escape: Aang: “Just like the legend says, we let love lead the way.” Sokka: “Really? We let huge ferocious beasts lead our way.”

When you can create two or more personalities, each of whom has a radically polarized point of view, and yet still allow each point of view to be equally valid, then you’ve made a huge breakthrough. You have discovered the ability to be not just all-powerful but also all-loving, like a good god should be. The dichotomy (or trichotomy) you’ve created will be a perpetual motion machine, churning out honest dilemmas and genuine conflict for as long as your story lasts. 

But if you simply have a goofus and a gallant, your story will be inert, your dilemmas will be no-brainers, and your finale will be a foregone conclusion.

5 comments:

j.s. said...

Today's entry puts me in mind of a great scene in the early episodes of BREAKING BAD. There's a family meeting where five people including Walt sit down to discuss his treatment options. They pass around a "talking pillow" and let him know what they're thinking, offering advice about what they might do in his shoes. They all have radically different takes on his situation. And the beauty of the way it's written is that every single one of them is, to some degree, right. And Walt still has to decide for himself, because that's what protagonists do.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, I love that scene. It would have been so much easier to just write the "everybody gives Walt good advice but he won't take it" version.

Anonymous said...

Someone loves The Last Airbender, right? Of course I mean the Nickelodeon series, not the movie.

:-)

Beth said...

You make a good point about the Last Airbender cartoon - which was brilliant! Too bad the writers of the Last Airbender movie didn't keep those same character dynamics.

Anonymous said...

Someone wrote the Last Airbender movie? I thought it was all CGI and improv. Actually, improv would've been better....