While a superficial understanding of story principles makes for a great YouTube video, it does nothing but further the confusion that can exist over effective character development. The greater the level of accuracy on the part of the writer, the greater the experience for the audience.
As with the article last week regarding why Everything Is Not a Hero’s Journey, there also exists a certain group of people that seem to think many popular Protagonists are really just carbon-copies of one another. To them, every central character in a story is simply another evolution of Gilgamesh.
Now, to a certain extent, they are right.
Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) in Star Wars fulfill the role of the classic Archetypal Protagonist; that is, they are the ones who are pursuing the successful resolution of the story’s primary goal. In this purely objective context they do resemble each other. But where their similarity breaks down is in the deeper investigation of what is really going on inside of them personally.
Many central characters find themselves faced against apparently insurmountable odds. Many grow to a point where they fundamentally have to change the way they see the world (though this is not always the case). And many find emotional relief from their personal issues at the end of a story—many reach a catharsis where they overcome that which held them back.
When using the above as touch points for examining a story, sure, it looks like every Protagonist is the same. Both Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars easily fit into these generalized observations regarding story. But that’s just it—they lack specificity. Not only are these concepts of story useless to a writer in figuring out exactly what to do with their story, they also prove to be ultimately detrimental because of their blatant inaccuracies.
Constructing a story—a meaningful story—is a hard and demanding process. There can be no room for best guesses or gross generalities.
Both The Matrix and Star Wars, while similar at face value, really are quite different. One concerned itself with faith, the other with trust.
What Motivates a Character
Every Main Character comes to a story ripe with personal baggage. Whether it be some deep psychological issue from when they were a child, or something that just happened to them yesterday, this personal issue—or problem—is what motivates them to participate in the larger entity that is a story.
In The Matrix, Thomas Andersen (Neo) suffers from a preponderance of disbelief, both in himself and in the world around him. When asked by Morpehus to climb out on the ledge in order to escape Agent Smith, Thomas doesn’t get very far before turning around. “I can’t do this, ” he claims as he cowers back inside. It is this idea that he is so unpersuadable, both inside and outside of the Matrix, that sits at the heart of Neo’s personal struggle.
In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker consistently gets into trouble because of his relentless need to test himself. When R2 goes missing, he leaps at the chance to prove his mettle and promptly gets his ass handed to him by the local natives. This flaw haunts him at every turn. In earlier drafts, there was even a sci-fi take on the classic 50’s drag race, complete with the requisite scene of Luke pushing his dragster beyond the limits of safety in order to test his abilities against his fellow desert delinquents. This drive to test himself at every turn was Luke’s major personal problem.
Clearly these two characters are coming from two different places.
Luke never had a problem believing in the Force; he was on-board with the whole thing from the moment he lost his aunt and uncle. Likewise, Neo didn’t create problems because he felt this need to test himself all the time; if left to his own devices he probably would have still been there camped out in front of his computer screen.
They both were motivated by two distinct and separate problems.
Why does this matter?
A Solution For Every Problem
Different problems require different solutions. You wouldn’t use masking-tape to hold together soap bubbles anymore than you would use a hammer to make a sandwich. Each problem defines its own appropriate solution and nothing less will than that one particular solution will resolve it.
Disbelief requires faith as a solution. Test requires trust.
Thomas Andersen eventually grows to a point where he can begin believing that he is, indeed, Neo. Faith resolves his issues. Luke eventually grows to a point where he is willing to let go. Trusting in the Force resolves his issues. Both characters managed to resolve their individual problems by using the correct solution for the issues that plagued them.
Now, at first glance, faith may seem an awful lot like trust. Couldn’t you argue that Neo was really trusting Morpheus when he decides not to run from Agent Smith? And couldn’t you say that Luke started believing in the Force when he turned off his targeting computer? Not really.
Neo would not be the superhero he was at the end of the first film if he simply trusted in Morpheus. There was no way he was going to be able to stop those bullets until he truly believed that he could. Similarly, we already established that Luke believed in the Force—he even had an argument with Han about it back when he was first training on the Milennium Falcon. Luke needed to simply trust in this otherworldly “force” for the torpedoes to hit their mark.
Why then is it so important to delineate the exact nature of the problem in a story?
The Problem Defines the Story
The Main Character’s problem represents the finest level of granularity from which one can appreciate the true meaning of a story. That’s why an exploration of it can so often seem like splitting hairs. It is important though to make this distinction, because there is so much more that is built on top of the problem, so much more that relies on the accurate understanding of it, that to get it wrong would only cause greater problems in the story at large.
The Main Character’s problem is intimately tied to the problems suffered by all the characters in a story. It’s why this particular Main Character is even in the story in the first place; and it is the answer to the question Why now? so often referred to in story meetings. If for some reason these two problems are at odds (the external and internal), the Main Character may seem out of place, or worse, inconsequential to the resolution of the story.
In addition, there will be a discrepancy between the kinds of goals in stories with dissimilar problems. Problems of belief will naturally lead to goals focused on accomplishing some insurmountable task. Problems of trust organically lend themselves to goals more focused on simply doing something. Like the distinction between faith and trust, the distinction between acquiring something and doing something is a very important one.
This is why Luke would not have fit into the story that was The Matrix, and why Neo would have had a hard time finding a home amongst the inhabitants of Star Wars. Each particular story goal required a different central character, a different vessel for the meaning of the story.
The Right Man (or Woman) For the Job
The goal of The Matrix was to gain control over the software program, to bend it to the will of the humans. Simply fighting Agent Smith and his well-dressed friends was not enough (as evidenced by Morpheus’ years of trying). Neo was the lynch-pin for the successful achievement of that goal because the one thing that would allow them to gain that control—unwavering belief—was an important factor of Neo’s character development.
Luke, as described above, had no problem with believing. Trying to replace Neo with Luke would have broken the logic of the story structure and diminished any appreciable meaning.
In Star Wars there was no attempt to gain control over the Empire or the tyrannical systems they employed. Instead, there was only the will to find a competent way to fight them. That was the goal of the story. And like Neo, Luke was the key to the successful achievement of that story goal because learning to trust was a crucial part of his individual character development. The only way for the Rebels to successfully fight against the Empire was to trust in something other than themselves.
Neo trusted Morpheus from the very first IM he received. To swap him for Luke would have destroyed that story’s meaning and shortened the film to about thirteen minutes. These two characters are simply not interchangeable.
The Need for Clarity in Storytelling
Not every story is the same. There are tens of thousands of different meaningful story structures, each with its own unique perspective on why things are the way they are. And because each unique story structure requires a specific kind of central character, it follows that there are just as many variations of Main Character.
The Matrix was trying to prove how having more faith can lead to greater happiness, while Star Wars was trying to prove that trusting in something other than yourself is the way to go. While looking at them through the lens of the Hero’s Journey they might seem the same, the truth is that they carry two very distinct and separate messages. This is yet another reason why the Hero’s Journey is a failed device for appreciating the meaning of a story.
By definition, everything in a meaningful story is connected. Character flows through plot which flows through theme and finally closes the circle through genre. The machine that is a well-told story is a delicate balance of passionate storytelling and solid logical story-structure. To be inaccurate on even the smallest of matters is to invite failure in the construction of the story at large and a breakdown in the communication of the message the Author hopes to send.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
When it comes to Genre, both Star Wars and The Matrix are the same. Genre here refers to the alignment of each throughline with its corresponding Domain, not the commonly accepted use of genre that uses labels like romantic-comedy or sci-fi action flick. Genre in a Dramatica sense describes the overall feeling of a story and within this context, yes, both films are similar.
Both have Main Characters in the Universe Domain (Luke as the outcast farm boy, Neo as the One destined to save them all). Both have Objective Stories in the Physics Domain (Star Wars has light-sword battles and interstellar dogfights, The Matrix has kung-fu and bullet-dodging). Both have Impact Characters in the Mind Domain (Obi-Wan with his steadfast belief in the Force, Morpheus with his unwavering belief in the power of the human mind). And finally both have Relationship Stories in the Psychology Domain (both feature mentor/mentee relationships wherein the mentor is trying to manipulate the mentee into thinking of the world around them in a different light).
But that’s where the similarities between the two stories cease.
Star Wars has a Main Character Problem of Test and an Objective Story Goal of Doing. The Matrix has a Main Character Problem of Disbelief and an Objective Story Goal of Obtaining. Right there, it is easy to see how Luke and Neo are not the same characters and therefore cannot be easily interchanged. You can’t have a Main Character with a Problem of Disbelief in a story about Doing. The two just don’t go together.
This extends throughout the storyform. The Objective Story Consequences are different: Failure to fight the Empire will lead the Rebels to living a life under oppression (Objective Story Consequence of Being), while failure to gain control over the Matrix will allow the machines to continue transforming humans into batteries (Objective Story Consequence of Becoming).
Even the individual thematic Issues the two of them face will be different: Luke struggles with the apparent realities of the world around him and his tendency toward delusions, both good and bad, about himself and others (Main Character Issue of Fantasy), while Neo struggles with his preconceptions of the world he inhabits and his willingness to reevaluate them (Main Character Issue of Openness).
The differences keep piling up so high that eventually the argument that both are really simply extensions of the monomythic hero begin to appear ridiculous at best. Stories are complicated yet sophisticated beasts, they deserve as much then in our understanding of them.