Everyone knows the clever adage about what happens when you assume something about someone. But what of those moments when an Author assumes something about writing? Do they make an ass out of their story as well as themselves?
The Need for Need
Often times, when one reads about story or structure, they come across the juxtaposition of what a Main Character wants versus what he or she truly needs. The implication lies in the idea that, in order to acquire true happiness, the central character must fundamentally change because what they think they need really isn’t what they really need. They lack some key ingredient. Supposedly the purpose of story lies in teaching this character that missing piece.
Thus begins the first trappings of assumption and storytelling.
The word need comes packed with such an abundancy of subjective interpretation that it muddles the full potential of story. Must an Author always argue for the positive effects of change? Making an argument for need suggests as much.
Luke Skywalker needs to let go and use the Force. Mr. Andersen needs to believe that he is Neo. This idea of need assumes a happy and pleasant outcome. But what of Hamlet or Lawrence of Arabia? The great Dane thought too much. Did he need to stop mulling things over and finally take action? Where did that get him?
And what of Lawrence? He refused to accept the inevitable and it led to greater and greater problems for him. Did he thus need to give up and accept the way things are? That was, after all, the only way for him to move forward. And how exactly did that work out for him?
The Call for Learning
Coinciding with this compulsion for want vs. need lies the question What does this character learn? Such a query works nominally for stories like Star Wars or The Matrix where greater understanding leads to positive resolution. However, in the case of masterworks like Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia, the question rings meaningless and borders on the absurd. Hamlet doesn’t learn anything.
But we do.
The Objective View of Story
Stories do not exist as tools for characters to grow and develop, characters grow and develop as parts of an elaborate argument made by the Author to the Audience. This way of thinking of story works in all cases, from Star Wars to Hamlet, from Star Trek to The Godfather. Thus, it doesn’t matter what Luke or Hamlet or Kirk or Michael learn, what matters is that we the Audience fully appreciate what argument the Author makes to us.
Stop testing yourself all the time and start trusting in something else instead and you’ll triumph. Star Wars makes this argument, makes it rather successfully, and Audiences return in droves to learn it again and again. Stop doubting who you are and start believing in yourself and you’ll triumph as well. The Matrix makes this argument and again, found a tremendous audience willing to hear it.
Replace overthinking with what you know to be true and all will end in tragedy. Hamlet argues this inevitable and depressing end, but does so with such sophistication that it repeatedly finds an Audience generation after generation. Lawrence takes the sophistication one step further by contrasting the positive effects of tolerance in the larger sense with the negative aspects of submission within a smaller, more personal perspective.
In every instance, the Author uses character, plot, theme and genre to posit an argument in regards to solving problems.
In Isao Takahata’s 1988 masterpiece Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), Main Character Seita comes to a tragic and heartbreaking end: after failing to adequately take care of his little sister during the waning days of World War II, he simply gives up living and allows himself to waste away.
Up until that moment, ninth-grader Seita works incessantly to keep alive the fantasy of his father returning from sea. This unwaning drive propels him into all sorts of trouble, the least of which involves taking care of his little sister all by himself.
Accepting the end then becomes his only possible solution. He doesn’t need to do this, he just does so because of the influence of his close relationship with his sister.
The argument Takahata makes breaks one’s heart and in the final analysis rests dark and nihilistic. The struggle to persist can only be resolved by accepting the end, resulting in a sad and lonely death.
This is why he felt the need to temper this rather dreadful argument with the bittersweet ghost sequence between Seita and his sister. Without these sparse and otherwise hopeful interludes to counter-balance the inevitability of death portrayed in life, the film would have sat even heavier on the hearts of those in the Audience. By bringing light so quickly after successfully arguing the persistence of dark, Takahata makes a case for something far beyond this existence, elevating the experience beyond mere cartoon.
Stories as Arguments
Stories can be told without need and therefore without the prejudice of positivity. Solutions can turn out to be destructive. In the case of both Hamlet and Lawrence, what they needed to resolve their problems turned out to be something they really didn’t need at all.
Authors should toss aside this notion of what a character wants versus what he or she needs and instead focus on what the Audience ultimately wants and needs: a powerful, effective and meaningful argument. Anything less simply makes…well, you know.