"Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water." - Kurt Vonnegut
It was English poet, John Donne that famously said, “No man is an island.” Even in this day and age, our main goal in society is to connect with others. Hence the emergence of social media. In fact, haven’t we heard somewhere before that the reason why young people these days are so into social media is because of the fact that we feel disconnected to someone, somehow. And most of the time, that disconnect is between our own family members.
That’s why creating a connection between the reader and your characters is utterly important. It’s one of the main reasons why people read a book or go to the movies. More than just mere entertainment and escapism, each and every one of us is looking for an experience.
That’s what the best stories offer. That’s what the best stories deliver.
And the best way to give your audience such an experience is by creating characters and character motivations that they can relate to, characters they can understand and empathize with.
The best way to do that is to…
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS AN OBJECT OF DESIRE
Now, a glass of water might seem like a trivial goal, but given the right character motivation and setting (say, a pilot that’s crash-landed in the middle of the dessert), and you can give any desire enough power and substance to drive an entire story.
Why should your characters want something?
Because we, all of us, are each pursuing some personal goal or dream. We all want something from this life. Therefore, it’s incredibly easy for us to relate when we see other people chasing after their wants and dreams.
There is nothing more powerful in a Story than having a lead character desperately pursuing something. The reader of viewer cannot help but attach himself to that character because he has objects of desire too.
That’s why it’s incredibly important to establish your character’s wants, her motivations, at the beginning of your story. A character without any goals or aspirations will always come out weaker to your audience.
Why? It’s simple.
Because even though we ourselves tend to be passive and indecisive, we don’t really like or appreciate that quality in others. How annoyed would you get when either your friend, spouse, or date, deliberately chooses not to decide on a restaurant? Not because they want you to choose, or are giving you the opportunity to, but because they’re too lazy to pick one out themselves. And they do this every time you decide to go out.
It’s a real mood killer. Wouldn’t you then feel like, or prefer, to just head home?
Parents nag when they feel like their teenagers are too indecisive about their futures. Even teenagers can feel frustration when they don’t know what they want, or what they’re going to take up in college.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, discovered that the biggest deciding factor that helped him and his people survive was purpose, a sense of significance. Prisoners without a sense of purpose, immediately lost their will to live. None of them lasted. In his book, he says that more than pleasure, more than pain, it is meaning that drives one to succeed.
Similarly, Dan Pink, in his book Drive, cites certain studies that prove that what motivates employees to do perform well is intrinsic motivation. Money and rewards can only get one so far. What really motivates and inspires people to do their best is a sense of purpose. For employees to drive themselves to step up, they need to feel as though what they’re doing has meaning.
That’s character motivation.
That is also what makes today’s movie-in-discussion so powerful.
THE POWER OF PURSUIT
One of the most emotionally moving beginnings I’ve seen by far comes from the movie Gattaca. It’s the beginning that drives the rest of the movie to extreme heights of tension and emotion. It’s the beginning that immediately captures your attention.
Why? Because it’s all about chasing your dreams.
Now, the first scene in the movie actually sets up the world that our hero, Vincent, lives in. It sets the mood, introduces the genre of the film, and reveals who our main character is. It also reveals certain curiosities about Vincent that are later revealed in the movie, and makes us ask certain questions, like…
Why did “Jerome” (Vincent) vacuum his keyboard, and then consequently scatter skin shavings into it? Didn’t his director just mention how clean he leaves his desk? Didn’t he just respond, “Cleanliness is next to godliness?” Yet, he’s deliberately planting hairs into a brush, and scattering dirt into his keyboard?
Strange, I know.
The first scene, up to the discovery of the murder at the office, sets up the story world.
It’s the second scene, however, that grabs us as a viewer. After the dead body is discovered, the film goes into a flashback, one where Vincent narrates the story of his birth, up until his present situation.
What happens in this flashback scene?
We discover that from birth, Vincent was predicted to have 60% probability for a neurological condition, 89% probability for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), 99% probability of heart disorder, and a life expectancy of 30.2 years.
We discover that the world that Vincent lives in is one where science has advanced to the point that babies are genetically engineered. They are now able to eliminate diseases and disorders from the moment of conception. People are now able to decide on their child’s hair and eye color even before getting pregnant.
We discover that society has strong prejudice against children like Vincent, children whose conception and delivery were normal and natural. These children, they’ve even started calling “de-gene-nerates” as a way to establish their inferiority in society.
We discover that it’s Vincent’s dream to become an astronaut, and that achieving such a dream, for his situation, is impossible.
So early on, we know what Vincent’s main desire is. We understand his character, and we can relate because we each have similar dreams that we aspire to. So right away, character motivation, as well as his object of desire is established. The problem is…
DESIRE ISN’T ENOUGH TO GRAB HOLD OF AN AUDIENCE
Anyone can desire anything. But if that object of desire comes too easy to your character—if you make it too easy for your character to get what he wants—your story still falls flat.
This is where CONFLICT enters story.
Conflict is the force that directly pushes against your character’s desires. Without conflict, stories fail to catch an audience’s attention. Without conflict, there’s no reason for moviegoers to finish your movie. There’s no reason for readers to read your book from cover to cover.
Why? Because that’s just not how life works.
We know for a fact that it nothing ever comes easy to anyone. We know for a fact that nobody gets what they want without some kind of trade, some kind of sacrifice. Everything comes at a price.
The same goes with storytelling. For your story to resonate with audiences, for it to stand a chance of giving your raving fans and readers, it has to have conflict that puts your character to the ultimate test.
It’s not enough to setup just any kind of conflict, either. The conflict your character will plow through has to be a direct attack
against his or her desire.
That’s why Gattaca is such a great watch. The conflict that Vincent stands up against is the world and society itself. Given the odds, Vincent has absolutely no chance of ever going into space. Society deems it impossible, laughable even.
So what does it take for Vincent to get what he wants? He has to completely alter his identity. He has to assume the identity of a winning athlete despite his heart disorder. He has to be perfect in his knowledge and expertise despite his ADD, despite his supposed neurological condition. Throughout the movie he is constantly tested as the police search the premises for the murderer. Worst of all, his DNA was retrieved within the building, and so he’s now become the number one suspect in the investigation.
The entire setup creates tremendous tension throughout the film just because the odds are greatly stacked against him. It’s just Vincent, all alone, against the world.
HIGH STAKES AND STRONG TENSION WOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE WITHOUT…
The proper setup.
It’s the flashback at the beginning of the movie that sets up the entire story. Without it, the whole thing could easily fall apart.
Why? Because that flashback was the very thing that the audience needed to get to know Vincent’s character. That flashback is what made audiences begin to root for Vincent. It’s what made them relate to him, empathize with him. Why? Because Vincent wants something we’ve all wanted for ourselves: to live a life where we’ve fulfilled our greatest dream.
That’s why establishing character motivation, as well as the world around him is important at the beginning of every story. It’s what reels people in and makes them care. And the last thing you want is an audience that doesn’t care. They won’t stick around. They won’t see why they have to.
The purpose of every first act (the first 1/3 of your story) is to form who your character is, and the world around him. It’s the setup that determines whether audience will continue on reading or watching. It’s the beginning setup that either hooks them in, or not.
And so, two things to remember when it comes to beginnings…
Establish what it is your character wants. What is his deepest desire? What is his greatest goal, his biggest dream? What does your character want? And to add to that, also think about what your character needs. Want and need are two very different things. Your character might want is the girl of his dreams, but then what he might need is to remember who he was before, when he used to serve a purpose bigger than himself (this, by the way, is the setup of Casablanca).
Let your character experience hell before you think of giving them what they want. Nothing in life ever comes easy. Besides, it’s often our struggles that make us appreciate our successes more. The moment when we finally achieve something meaningful after much sacrifice and hard work, that’s the moment when we truly feel alive, isn’t it? So give your character’s wants and needs more meaning by making him struggle to achieve them.