Storyteller’s Rulebook #83: Sometimes Winning Isn’t EnoughMatt Bird
I’ve talked before about how helpful it is to start a character off with a false goal, then gradually have them discover their true goal. Usually, this happens when heroes fail utterly halfway through, making it clear to them that the only way out of their misery is to better understand what their true goal should be. But it can be even more satisfying to have your character succeed beyond their wildest dreams, only to realize that it’s an empty feeling, and so they have to set their sights on something greater.
This is a trickier proposition. In most stories, morality (what is the right thing to do?) and ethics (how do I do this thing right?) are aligned: Immoral characters tend to be unethical too, and vice versa. In such stories, learning to do it better is the same thing as becoming a better person.
But movies like How to Train Your Dragon create a more ironic learning curve. When the movie begins, all Hiccup wants, and all the audience wants to see him do, is to become a great dragon fighter and earn the praise of his tribe, which seems impossible. Amazingly, he achieves the impossible rather quickly by studying the dragons and figuring out how they tick, but in doing so he also comes to realize that they’re not actually evil…This results in deliciously ironic scenes halfway through where he is finally showered with all the praise that he’s ever wanted. He wants to be happy, and the audience wants to be happy for him… but it’s not happening. He’s grown and we’ve grown. The rewards he earns through his superior work ethic aren’t satisfying, because both Hiccup and the audience have had their moral horizons expanded.
Most storytellers simply dangle a prize in front in front of the audience like a cat toy, making us want to see a certain outcome at the beginning, then yanking it away over and over again until they finally gratify us at the end. And that’s fine. But great storytellers can make us reconsider our values and grow along with the hero.
Okay folks! That’s it! As much as I love this movie, I am sick of it! Next week: actual adult movies! Very adult! Porn week! Well, okay, maybe I won’t go that far…