MAKE YOUR HERO SUFFER MIGHTILY
Or What The Movie, Train To Busan, Can Teach You About Character Writing
I taught for three years after I got my Diploma in Education. As a physics teacher entrusted with the task of inspiring the minds of the next generation, I was fired up with enthusiasm. My ass was lit with the flame of noble aspirations. Two years and three months later, the bonfire of my enthusiasm dimmed to a faint ember. To summarize the sordid history in two words — I quit. I was sans a job. Unemployed. I was a man cast adrift in the ocean without a horizon of employment in my sight. If I were a character in a story, one might say that I was at the lowest point of my story arc.
However, things can always get worse. Where storytelling differs from real life is this. Things can always get worse. And as writers and storytellers, there is no better way to get your audience invested in the hero, than to make him suffer mightily. As did the hit Korean zombie movie Train to Busan.
An Asian Movie that Married Character with Zombie Storytelling
Train to Busan came out in 2016 and was a monster hit. It used genre to explore some very universal themes. How far should one go to survive? How much of your humanity are you willing to sacrifice so you can live? Those themes were perfectly captured in the story arc of the main character Seok Woo, a divorced workaholic, who began the movie with a selfish attitude, and even advises his daughter to only think of herself during life and death situations, but by the end of the movie, Seok Woo commits the ultimate sacrifice and commits to what has been said in the Bible.
That there is no death more noble than the man who is willing to lay down his life for others.
Piling Problem After Problem On Your Hero
As if fending off vicious flesh-eating zombies was not enough, Seok Woo had to contend with the following.
Being trapped under the wreck of a train.
Fleeing from a herd of crazed zombies within the confines of a train.
Fleeing hundreds of crazed soldier zombies at a train station.
Losing his friends one by one.
Saving his daughter from a vicious zombie.
Being sane enough to deliver his final words to his daughter before the virus consumes his mind.
Well known story consultant Robert McKee talks about subjecting your hero to the limits of a negative human experience. Whenever you think you have subjected your hero to the lowest point, consider how you can bring him even lower. McKee calls this exercise the negation of the negation, a phrase every writer should toss into a conversation casually to give your writing art a sheen of gravitas. When you negate the negation, you deliver considerable audience investment in your hero. Something every writer should strive to do. But why is this so? Why is subjecting your hero to trauma, before you deliver redemption make for such a riveting viewing experience for an audience?
Story in a way is a manual for life. In the comfort of the theatre, we sit in the cool dark, absorbing narratives but at the same time, imbibing lessons on how to navigate through the complexities of human relationships. We like to affirm for ourselves what is good in the human heart. Seeing the worst that can happen to a human and seeing how that human survives, keeps us grounded, centered, and attuned to what is right, and what we must and should do to ensure our humanity remains unsullied. That is why as writers and storytellers, our creative minds conjure all kinds of problems to hurl at our heroes because we, just like our audience, wish to see how the human spirit overcomes and survives. We, just like our audience, are inspired by our heroes.
TAKEAWAY FOR A WRITER
Subject your hero through the crucible of fire. Bring him down low, beaten and as close as you can to the edge of defeat. Keep redemption as far away as possible until the last possible second of an angel’s breath.
Only have the hero earn his redemption after he has suffered mightily.