Tag Archives: Pirates of the Caribbean

For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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