Everyone loves lists, and if you’re like me, you like to try to systematize things and find internal, sometimes hidden connections between them. For years now, I have been gathering data on different systems and theories of how stories work, what their elements are, whether they can be boiled down to a few categories or patterns. How should we organize them? Based on genre? On plot? On the type or age of the hero? On the level and type of language? On the ‘shape’ of the story (ascent, descent, etc.)?
Various academics, writers, and teachers of writing have worked out systems and schemes for all of these, and I want to explore the connections and similarities between them. If you know what kind of story you are writing, what its typical elements are, you stand a better chance of finding a compelling and creative way to bend or break the rules of that form.
Part of me dreams of a grand synthesis of all of these systems, even though I have come to suspect it is both impossible and undesirable, since excessive simplification reduces the utility of such systems for writers. (But I will try to make as many coherent links as I can. Thank me later!) What I propose to do here, and in a series of short, useful posts to follow, is to deal with these different approaches as they may be applied by writers. Today’s topic is HOPES and FEARS.
HOPES & FEARS: The Roots of Character
Most good stories begin with character, not plot. Who is your hero, and why do we care about what he or she wants? Interesting answers to those questions make for compelling stories. So how does one create a compelling main character?
Aaron Sorkin has a neat formula for how character relates to plot. For Sorkin, it’s all about the character’s INTENTION—what do they want? what is their goal?—and what are the OBSTACLES that stand in the way of achieving those goals? That gives you both your CHARACTER and your PLOT, which consists of what actions the character has to take (is willing or unwilling to take) to overcome those obstacles. All that’s left is whether the person succeeds or not, and what that means for the character, which gives you your ENDING.
So, what sorts of things do humans want? We want to get certain things (fame, wealth, love, respect) and avoid certain other things (pain, humiliation, injury, death). It would be useful to have a list, wouldn’t it, of basic human desires? And of the opposite – what we fear the most, particularly what we fear LOSING – since they are two sides of the same coin.
Of course, there's no better time to talk about fear than on Hallowe’en, and last October 31st I heard a great radio interview with Dave Alexander of the horror magazine and website Rue Morgue about the five basic human fears. Drawing on psychological research, he cited these as:
- Extinction (Death)
- Loss of Autonomy
(Notice that these proceed through a hierarchy from basic survival to social survival, similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)
Alexander discussed these in the context of what a good horror story can do to push our psychological buttons. But, of course, for each of these basic fears, there must be a corresponding basic HOPE or DESIRE, which—attention writers!—will furnish the goal for the main character of ANY STORY in ANY GENRE. After all, the hero of any story must be animated by a particular goal, one linked to a hope or desire that all humans share. Often this is pushed to an extreme that forces your hero to confront certain moral dilemmas: how far is he or she (and – by extension – we, the audience) willing to go to pursue these goals?
So I’ve expanded the list and paired each BASIC FEAR with a HOPE, and also a DISTORTED FORM that these Hopes and Desires may take when characters are pushed to their limits. (Where relevant, I have included literary or film references to illuminate the examples. More of these to follow.)
You’ll notice that for each BASIC FEAR, I’ve expanded the category of Hopes and Desires quite a bit, and generally divided it into two. This is because while mastery, wealth and status are all goals upon which our Ego or sense of self depend, for the purposes of writers it is worth separating them out, since the kind of hero whose goal is material WEALTH is going to be quite a different character from the hero whose goal is athletic excellence (MASTERY) or political power and influence (STATUS).
And, of course, these goals may change or shift over the course of a story. So, for example, early in his life Howard Hughes might have been motivated by curiosity, a desire for accomplishment or mastery (Goal 5). However, later in life, he was overtaken by an obsession that led to a distorted form of Goals 1 & 2, which actually detracted from his ability to achieve Goal 5. Indeed, his distorted pursuit of health, safety, a long life, actually diminished his status and esteem among the wider world, bringing about a kind of living Ego-death.
Many sports stories are underdog stories, also animated by Goal 5 (mastery, accomplishment, status). However, other underdog stories may be animated by Goal 3 – autonomy – such as stories that deal with handicapped or differently abled characters (Forrest Gump, Children of a Lesser God, Mask, The Elephant Man, etc.).
Your hero may have multiple goals, or multiple reasons for pursuing the same goal. Surely Charles Foster Kane is motivated by status and power in 'Citizen Kane' (Goals 3, 5), and yet as he achieves these, he feels increasingly isolated from those he loves (Fear 4), such that his final word – “Rosebud” – expresses (indirectly, cryptically) his unsatisfied hunger for the integrity and security of the family (Goal 4) and childhood which were violently torn away from him.
Pick a favourite story, think about the hero and his/her goal, and see where it fits on this table. Think about the hero of the story you are trying to tell. What goal or desire animates your hero? How might that goal become distorted, perverted, or turn into an obsession that is dangerous to the hero? Or how might it change as your hero gets closer to achieving it, or maybe does achieve it, like Howard Hughes or Charles Foster Kane, before the story is over?—in keeping with the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it.” Is it a purely positive goal, or is it the flip-side of a neurotic fear – something traumatic he/she is running away from, as much as something optimistic and forward-looking that they are running toward?
Again, interesting answers to these questions will create compelling stories. And, as Sorkin tells us, knowing them will give you not just your main character but – substantially – your plot as well.
Can you think of any interesting examples of how this scheme of basic hopes & fears can be used either to analyze stories you love or to create incredible new stories? Share them below, or reach out to me on Twitter @PDWalter.
For Part 2 of this ongoing series, click here: 'Following the Plot'.