4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.In the movie Die Hard, the villain Hans Gruber is involved in a very complex theft, one that he has camouflaged as a terrorist act. All is going well except for one thing: a cop named John McClane. For some reason McClane has set his sights on thwarting Gruber’s plans... and Gruber has no idea why. Gruber spends most of the movie tearing his hair out, trying to figure out why McClane won’t give up. It’s only at the climax of the movie that Gruber figures out what’s really going on: McClane’s wife Holly, going under her maiden name of Gennero, is one of his hostages.
Of course, movie viewers know this from the beginning of the movie. Part of the excitement of the movie comes from wondering when Gruber will figure it out.
Why does this little bit of subterfuge work so well? Why doesn’t it come across as being contrived? Many movies using a ploy like this would fall flat.
The reason is because what McClane appears to be after isn’t what he’s actually after. Many writers would have made McClane’s reason for action a simple matter of a quest for justice — or, to use Igor’s line from the last post, “It’s what I do.” This is a common mistake writers often make; namely, that the hero’s goal is simply to accomplish the plot points of the story.
The writers of Die Hard chose instead to give McClane an unexpected passion: to mend a fractured relationship with his estranged wife. When Holly winds up as a hostage, McClane must rescue her in order to achieve his true goal. McClane’s motivations are now totally believable; the rescue of his estranged wife is a personal goal that all moviegoers could relate to, yet it was big enough and strong enough to explain why he would endure the ridiculously hard challenges he was required to overcome in the movie plot.
This is a useful technique to remember in your own writing. It’s logical to assume that your character’s biggest need is to achieve the goal of the story... but it’s not particularly realistic to do so. Giving your character a need that sends him or her in an unexpected direction also helps with plotting, since accomplishing an easy-to-understand goal can send us into complex situations.
Many of us pursue a course of action in our lives that makes no sense to anybody... maybe not even us. The reason is that what we appear to be after isn’t we’re actually after; a lot of psychoanalysis is focused purely on helping us connect the two. The irony is that even children can understand that, and it's fairly simple to make sure that they do. After all, if Holly is McClane's wife and she's in trouble, he needs to rescue her, doesn't he?
Our characters, when they seem most real, are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us... which brings us to reason #5 in the next post.