Wednesday, October 19, 2005
RITUAL PAIN part 3
The Apartment has two characters who change, but they both learn essentially the same lesson.
Because change is never easy, and is resisted, it is your job as a storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible. You must back them into a corner and force them to change. Make it as painful as you can. Bring them to the brink of physical or emotional death if you possibly can. Your protagonist will be measured by the size of her struggle, so don’t pull any punches.
Those who believe in reincarnation believe that we die and are reborn until we learn whatever we were sent to learn in life. When we finally attain wisdom, we ascend to a higher plane of existence. We are rewarded.
You don’t need to believe in reincarnation to see this idea played out. Many of us know people who repeat the same mistakes over and over in their lives. They might, for instance, keep dating people who disrespect them. Until they realize that they bring this on themselves, they will never be happy. They will never get their reward.
Groundhog Day is a great example of this concept in story form. Bill Murray is, in a sense, reborn every day. At one point he even tries to kill himself to get out of this cycle, but it doesn’t work. It is only when he starts to focus on things outside of himself, and becomes a better person, that he is able to reap his reward. He then “ascends” and is able to move on to a higher level of existence.
A character always knows what he wants, but hardly ever what he needs. In the end, the character usually gets close to what he wants and chooses the need instead. For example, in Casablanca, Bogart gets the girl—the very thing he’s wanted through the entire story. But he tells her to go with her husband. His need is to get over Ingrid Bergman. When he is holding tightly to his want he is a bitter, selfish man. He even says, “I stick my neck out for no one.” In the end, he risks his neck to assure that the woman he loves can leave with her husband. We know he is a better person. He has grown. He has ascended.
In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon gets the promotion he’s been after from the beginning of the story. But he is done compromising his self-respect, and turns down the job. He has ascended. This act helps him get his real reward, the woman he loves.
In E.T., Elliot wants his friend to stay with him, but helps him get home. He puts the needs of his friend ahead of his own desires. It is painful for him, but it is the right thing to do. Elliot ascends to a better place through suffering ritual pain.
Most viewers of E.T. are unaware that they are watching the transformation of a character from a selfish child to a caring human being, but they do feel it.
Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.
Character transformation and growth is one of the most powerful forms of invisible ink, and you would do well to include it in your work.