Character-Driven Living Rooms: Tests, Allies, and Enemies Part II

To avoid becoming repetitive and redundant, book and screen writers employ a variety of methods to make unique the story they want to tell. One way that we’ve observed so far, although haven’t called out by name is “sub-genre.” Tolkien’s The Hobbit is fantasy, Star Wars is space fantasy, and The Matrix is science fiction.

In other words, The Hero’s Journey is the living room in your house. The framework and construction of the living room will always stay the same, but maybe you decorate the room in different ways depending on the time of the year. You add particular elements to the story that are unique to the sub-genre like computers or technology in sci-fi but not fantasy, just like you might add some pumpkins for Halloween and a Christmas tree for Christmas but not vice-versa.

Another re-purpose method is fracturing the over-aching “Hero’s Journey” into smaller archetypal story patterns, each emphasizing a particular element of the journey. Some archetypal story patterns and an example of each include, but are not limited to, The Quest (Gilgamesh), Rags to Riches (The Pursuit of Happyness), Overcoming the Monster (Jaws), Rebirth (The Shawshank Redemption), and The Voyage (Back to the Future).

Going back to the living room analogy, the story patterns are more akin to an interior designer moving around your furniture and accenting various pieces of furniture based on a particular element, e.g. the shape of the room or the lighting. It’s all still contained in the same living room or framework of the monomyth, but for a different effect.

The lines do blur for some of the story patterns and sub-genres. Overcoming the Monster nowadays seems almost exclusively told in the horror sub-genre. The Voyage, better known today, as the Road Trip story pattern could be argued a sub-genre itself. It’s like moving your furniture to make room for your Christmas tree.Story construction is anything but simple and straightforward.

If art imitates life, then the same is true for our own lives.  The settings don’t have to be real in storytelling, but the emotions and the actions of the characters based on their values and motivations must be real and warranted. Also like real life, a character can plan all they want for their goals to come true, but the author is there to throw a wrench into those plans. It reminds me of the difference between plot-driven and character-driven narratives. Does the story focus on detailing the events or the people affected by those events?

As mortal humans limited to the present, only able to access our perception of the present and our fractured memories of the past, we may only find the narrative of our lives by looking back. We cannot see what’s ahead. Storytelling needs to be the same. Authors play God, but readers need to inhabit the flawed, limited perspectives of the characters and experience whatever the world throws at them.

One story I want to highlight today to lead into the progress of my Juicer’s Journey is Little Miss Sunshine, a 2006 movie Wikipedia calls a “comedy-drama road film” (talk about blurred lines). It follows the journey of the Hoover family as they travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California for Olive’s “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant. The film sets up each character and his or her motivations early on in the film, so although they are going on this road trip, the film primarily focuses on the characters working to achieve their goals in the face of the obstacles that arise throughout the film.

I will be spoiling one part of the film, so I apologize for those that have not seen the movie.

We learn early in the film that Dwayne, Olive’s brother, portrayed in a moody  yet heartfelt performance by Paul Dano, has taken a vow of silence. His goal in life is to become a pilot in the military. He surrounds himself with anything that may help him reach that goal and disregards anything in life that does not. He is the most determined one of the family (probably in part because he doesn’t say anything stupid when he opens his mouth, like some other family members). During the road trip, the family has to stop at a hospital (I won’t tell why), but while they are there, Olive is bored and grabs a bunch of the free pamphlets to read in the van. One pamphlet in particular is for vision. So Olive starts testing Dwayne’s vision. As expected, the first test reveals he has 20/20 vision. The next test measures his ability to see color. Among a bunch of red dots, there are smaller green dots in the shape of the letter “A”. Dwayne is unable to see this. His uncle, Frank, reluctantly breaks the news to Dwayne, “You can’t fly jets if you’re colorblind.” Unable to control himself upon hearing this, Dwayne starts thrashing in the back seat until his father pulls over. Dwayne jumps out of the car. Running down the ditch, he breaks his vow of silence screaming and crying. It’s a soul-crushing scene that affects the entire family. But still they press on. Even though Dwayne’s ability to see colors had nothing to do with their primary journey of getting Olive to the pageant on time, it still influenced the characters going forward.

This week my journey has been influenced by personal events. One of my primary motivations for embarking on this journey is my son, Harrison. I talked in a previous post about leading a better and less hypocritical example for him. I was planning to reveal another motivation for this journey in a later post, but my wife said that based on the initial time frame of the blog posting, it wouldn’t be late enough to tell you. After this week’s events, neither of those matter anymore. I wanted to reveal that my familiar motivations were not just Harrison but also a new addition on the way and to be named later. This last week my wife and I found out that we would have to wait a little longer to make such an announcement.

Even though the situation does not interfere with my physical ability to juice and exercise, it will still influence me going forward as wellness is as much emotional as it is physical. In the same vein of plot-driven vs character-driven, I dare not imply that I’m going to use this particular event as motivation to continue to go forward even harder and more determined. I’m not going to trivialize this event in my family’s lives like that. I’m also not going to say that I’m going to quit this journey in light of recent events. This is not a cop-out or a way to garner sympathy. If I’m going to post truthfully to you dear reader, I think it’s important not to sugarcoat this journey as something always positive. This is real life. It’s not simple. It’s not straightforward. It’s not predictable. Like the characters of so many well-told stories, I don’t know how this will affect my journey, but it has affected me as I continue on it.


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