“Wallowing in the muck is not the best way to get clean.”
Doug Richardson, writer of Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, and Hostage, shared this quote with me the other day during one of our many chats, and it really hit home, not just for me personally, but also for my characters. No one, neither human nor fictional, can accomplish anything if all they do is complain or wallow in self-pity.
I realize venting and analyzing an issue is human nature. But at some point, we need to stop the verbal vomit and start making a change. As writers, we need to do the same for our characters. Break them. Push them. Force them to the “point of no return.”
Let’s take 127 Hours. What would it take to make you actually root for a character to cut off his arm?
Life or death.
James Franco’s character, Aron Ralston, had no choice. With his arm trapped between a boulder and bedrock, he tried everything possible to free himself. Nothing was working. He made the gut-wrenching decision to sever his arm in order to save his life. I can only imagine how terrifying that choice was, but he had exhausted all other options. To leave his arm intact meant certain death. He had to take the risk despite not knowing how painful the amputation would be, not knowing if he would bleed out or not, and not knowing what his very active life would be like minus his arm, if he were to survive.
The fear of the unknown.
What’s the worst that could happen? He faced a risk of death. But if he didn’t cut it off, he would certainly die – absolutely certain. No ifs, ands or buts.
The point of no return.
Despite this particular film being based upon a true story, every fictional story has a point in which the character has to shut the hell up, stop paying lip service to their problem, and choose to evolve in order to achieve their goals.
Let’s say you have a character who went through a bad breakup. She’s crushed and broken. We can all relate to that feeling. Everyone has had a devastating breakup in his/her life. We want her to feel better. We want her to heal. So we are now rooting for her to find happiness.
In the first half of the film, she whines, complains, cries, and rants to her best friend and to anyone who would listen… even the boy bagging her groceries. That’s understandable. But we like her, so we still are rooting for her to find happiness.
But instead of trying to look within to see how her own choices have led to her string of bad relationships, she lays around in her pajamas, eating ice cream, gaining 20 pounds, which only makes her feel worse about herself, and her crying and moaning continues. Or worse, she starts stalking the ex, or making his life a living hell by intruding in his new relationship. Now, don’t get me wrong, that could certainly make a great thriller, but that’s not the film you set out to write.
Her goal is to find happiness. That’s not the road to happiness I want to be on as either a person or as a reader.
As a writer, I always look at my characters actions in Act II in relation to the goal they are pursuing and ask, “How’s that working for you?”
It’s not. Not one bit. It’s only allowing the character to sit in a wallowing pool of muck. Worse, it’s making her unsympathetic to the audience as well. I now want to put the script down because there’s no way I want to follow this character on her two-hour journey of misery and self-pity.
Instead, give her a moment when she looks in the mirror. I don’t mean a literal scene of her looking in the mirror, but give her a moment in her story where she has to face what is within her that’s stopping her from making the changes necessary to achieve her goal.
This moment often requires a total breaking of the person’s core beliefs. Don’t be afraid to push her to her limits.
I've written before about a wonderful book by actress Ellen Burstyn called Lessons in Becoming Myself where she discusses her belief that God hits you in the head over and over again, harder each time, until you finally learn the lesson. That is true for fictional characters as well.
You need to push them to a breaking point or there is no reason for them to evolve. There needs to be something at stake. Think about your own life. When everything is honkey dory, are you likely to make changes? Not so much.
On the flip side, if everything is miserable in your life, but all you do is wallow in the muck, that's not going to lead to change either. Get out that baseball bat and start smacking your characters.
Most people aren’t going to change unless they absolutely have to. If your character is timid and afraid of confrontation, do you think he would approach his business partners and say, “we need to talk” if business was going great? It’s not until he finds them dipping into the piggy bank, robbing him of his life savings that he is pushed to his limits and grabs them by the throat. Give your characters that moment of despair to force them to change, or at least to look in the mirror.
Hold the mirror up for your characters, then turn the mirror on yourself. What in you as a writer is keeping you from challenging your character to change?
Are you subconsciously judging them? Is there something about them that hits one of your own wounds you aren’t ready to face? Both in life and in writing, judging someone does no good. It’s simply another form of being stuck in the muck.
Your characters will make different choices than you would make as a person. You are not your character. Don't judge them. Let them be flawed and complicated.
Change is scary. Believe me, I know this all too well. But being afraid of what life will look like if you make a different choice than the one you’re making now is never going to get you out of the muck. Ever.
Do what it takes to hit your character on the head over and over until they finally wake up and evolve. That is what is going to allow them to achieve their goal. Not only will the ending be satisfying, but also by challenging the character along the way, you’ll have created a compelling story full of conflict and opportunity for growth.
Writing teaches you about life, and life teaches you about writing. By taking your own life lessons and putting them into words, you’ll make your stories richer. And by taking the lessons we learn as writers when we bring our characters to life, we will make our own lives richer.
I’ve never been satisfied with a film where the main character had zero evolution. It makes me want my $10 back. I’ve also never found people who wallow in the muck very interesting. They aren’t a person I would spend $10 to have lunch with, only to have a salad with a side of self-pity.
Stop wallowing. Stop letting your characters wallow.
If you really want your character to find happiness, set her free. Open the stable and let the beautiful stallion run. It’s your job as the writer to help her do that. As a writer, freeing her will also help you achieve your goal… the goal of writing a story that moves people emotionally.
Evolution. It’s what we all need. That’s true for fact and fiction.