Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Story from character

As of this morning I still didn't know what I was going to do with my third period class. I'm starting them on short stories, and yesterday I had them do character biographies. I already talked to them about plot-centric stories when I had them look to the world around them for examples of conflict, so now I wanted to show them how to develop story out of character.

But I had no idea how I was going to do that. The morning kept rolling on and I still had no plan at all.

Then, right at the end of second period, it hit me, and what hit me was cool enough that I thought I'd share it with all of you, not because it's this miraculous idea, but because I found a really simple way to explain it.

I drew this chart:

I don't know if you can see that because it came out a lot tinier than I anticipated, but it's a chart showing Shrek, Finding Nemo, Superbad, and Transformers. It lists the character, their big problem, and their story goal.

Here's what that's about. See, each of these characters operates in one of two ways. Either they have a problem they want to overcome so they develop a goal accordingly, or they have a goal and decide to overcome their problem to get at it.

For example, Shrek is perfectly okay hanging out in his swamp. He has no goal until people suddenly show up in his swamp, but when his life is turned upside down he has to go save a princess to get what he wants.

Marlin from Finding Nemo, on the other hand, has no desire to solve his problem - fear of the world outside his tiny part of the ocean. Alas, he has to find his son, and this forces him to confront his problem.

Superbad is about nerds who, like Marlin, must confront their problem if they want to achieve their goal of getting beer and sex.

These three films also do an excellent job of demonstrating how to get the most conflict. What's the worst thing that could happen to Shrek? People. A donkey that won't shut the fuck up. What's the worst thing that could happen to Marlin? He has to go into the big ocean. What's the most difficult thing that could happen to these nerdy guys in Superbad? They have to pretend to be cool.

Tranformers, on the other hand. Well.

Sam - it took the class like five full minutes to remember his name, although we never did remember anybody in Superbad except McLovin so I guess that's not necessarily an indicator - anyway, Sam's biggest weakness, the kids said, is women. So I said, does he have to confront his awkwardness with women to save the day? Well no.

However, his problem is that he encounters robots and these robots want him to get the cube. Or something. I don't know; I was only able to watch this movie for 15 minutes before I couldn't take it anymore and I only used it as an example because I figured the kids had all seen it. It was more of an example of what not to do, really, which sucks since it also made a shitload of money so it just proves that none of this story theory matters if your movie has giant robots and firm tits.

So after all that this is going to seem pretty obvious, and it's certainly not an original statement, but I'm going to say it anyway. A character needs a problem to overcome to achieve their goal. Which ever one comes first depends on the story.


  1. Anonymous12:23 AM

    you really should reconsider your kneejerk reaction to Ken Levine. I'll still read your blog.

  2. You also should possibly consider that it might have been a joke.

  3. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Evan and Seth. Superbad. Named after the writers :)

  4. Once Shrek has the princess and is in love and all is right with the world, there's that idiotic misunderstanding where he hears exactly the wrong words and none of the right ones, such that he believes she's insulted him. Then, when he storms off, he conveniently doesn't mention anything about what he overheard, and the misunderstanding contrivance separates them for about 10-15 minutes of screen time.

    Exasperating. That's what happens when the "obstacle" to a character's goal is poorly realized. I can't think of a scene I like less in a movie that I otherwise like.

  5. Transformers made my eyes hurt. And my ears. And my sense of drama.


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.