How can there possibly be a difference between these two characters? They’re both heroes. They both refuse the “Call to Adventure”. And they both emerge from their respective ordeals transformed into the great savior they were destined to be. Aren’t all heroes essentially the same?
Many would lead you to believe that you can reduce any successful story down to the idea of a mythical hero leaving his or her world, entering the “special” or new world, and returning to home transformed. Having firmly established last year that Not Everything Is a Hero’s Journey, the time has come to focus the attention on characters that seemingly deal with the same thematic material.
Both Mr. Andersen and Sarah have some pretty big shoes to fill. One is destined to become the savior of an enslaved people, the other a mother to a future savior. Both films spend an awful lot of time discussing the merits of both fate and destiny and how these things affect and guide the decisions of their respective heroes. Messiahs have a lot to consider when the world’s fate rests in their hands.
Clearly Mr. Andersen and Sarah are on the same mythical journey.
Subject Matter and Stories
Yet, Subject matter is not the stuff of stories, problems and the attempts to resolve them are. Fate and destiny are not problematic in either The Terminator or The Matrix, they’re icing on the actual cake of story. Take the references to these concepts out, and their individual stories would still mean the same. With that in mind, an accurate analysis of these two characters and the differences between them requires and in-depth exploration into what is really troubling them.
In other words, what is their problem?
Calgon, Take Me Away!
When we first meet our future mother of the resistance, even before we meet the scary stalker in the gray-green overcoat, Sarah has a major problem all her own. It’s Friday night and her date has canceled. That crush of disappointment written all over her face says everything we need to know about her—Sarah is the stereotypical woman waiting to be pursued, waiting for someone to lift her off her feet and take her away from the doldrums of a life spent waitressing.
Granted, this is an extremely simple and cliched character (this is the guy who wrote Avatar after all) and isn’t about to break any new dramatic ground, but nevertheless it is what she is all about. Sarah Connor is someone who doesn’t think much of herself, an attitude that will become key in understanding the difference between her and Neo. While it is simply painted, the implication is that Sarah’s “gee shucks, that’s the way it goes” kind of attitude is what is keeping her from finding true love and ultimately, happiness.
Contrast this with Mr. Andersen (Neo’s namesake before his transformation). What is his problem? We know from his boss Mr. Rhinehart that he has a problem with authority, that he believes he is special and that the rules don’t apply to him. Later we learn that he has a secret hacker identity - “Neo” - that he hides behind late at night when he engages in almost every computer crime they have a law for.
Mr. Andersen doesn’t have an attitude problem like Sarah, though it may appear that way to everyone around him. Instead, the real source of his troubles can be traced to this feeling he has of being stuck between two worlds. In short, Mr. Andersen feels trapped. As Morpheus tells him, it is this sense that there is something more, some other world, that brought Mr. Andersen to see him in the first place.
Hardly the kind of character who sits around on a Friday night waiting for someone to find them.
Different Approaches to Solving Problems
Mr. Andersen solves his issues of being trapped by hacking into the Matrix. Sarah solves her issues by doing what? By doing nothing? At first glance, it might seem like that, but what is really happening is that she is attempting to solve her issues of feeling lonely by changing herself. Internally.
Some characters, like Luke Skywalker, William Wallace, Malcom Crowe, Woody, Po, Ree Dolly and Nina Sayers try to fix their own personal problems by doing something. Other characters, like William Munny, Rick Blaine, Ryan Bingham, Amelie Poulain and Hamlet try to fix their own personal problems by being something. Not all “heroes” are created equal. While both types can certainly both do and be throughout the course of the story, Main Characters will always prefer one over the other. Why? Because they think that approach will solve their personal problem.
Mr. Andersen feels trapped and thus, thinks it requires some external activity to fix. Sarah, on the other hand, feels unworthy which leads her to think that it requires some internal rearranging to fix. I’ll put on some different clothes, put a smile on my face, and go see a movie. She is not passive, she responds to the problem by being something different.
The problem, of course, is that they’re both looking in the wrong place.
A Reason for Change
Main Characters spend a lot of time working the side effects of their problems rather than the problems themselves. The reason? They can’t see their real problem, they’re blind to it. That is why a story introduces an Influence Character into the Main Character’s universe, to shine a light on the issues they’ve been avoiding and hopefully inspire them to try something new.
Neo has Morpheus (Trinity too, to a lesser extent). Sarah has Kyle Reese. All manage to influence their Main Characters into finally accepting their destiny, but they do it in two completely different ways.
Morpheus does it through sheer force of will. A staunch and steadfast supporter, Morpheus is always there, refusing to back down from the notion that Mr. Andersen is the chosen one. This rigid attitude is enough to challenge Mr. Andersen to reevaluate how stuck he really is.
But couldn’t the same be said about Kyle? Not really. He certainly refuses to back down from the idea that Sarah is the future leader, but it isn’t his attitude that influences her to change, it’s the fact the he really is from the future! If it was Morpheus in there instead telling Sarah to free her mind, she would have laughed and told the bespectacled one that she is already hard at work on that. She was already working things out internally, to suggest that she do more would have had little to no effect on her.
Instead, she needed that outside influence, that look at how the external world really is for her to finally “man up.”
The Direction of Character Development
In addition to suffering different kinds of problems, and being influenced by different forces challenging them to change, both Sarah and Neo grew in completely different directions.
Before Neo could stare down those flying bullets, he needed to get over the back-and-forth, am-I-or-aren’t-I the One conversation that dominated his every thought. His visit to see the Oracle wasn’t really about fate and whether he was going to knock that vase over, instead it was an opportunity for him to set clear in his mind that he is not the One. Only then could he finally see his skepticism for what it truly was—something that was holding him back.
Before Sarah could make that Terminator pancake she needed to begin taking the initiative. Instead of humbly accepting her role as befuddled waitress, she needed to grab Reese by the collar and scream, “On your feet, soldier!” That wasn’t simply a tense action sequence, that was an opportunity for Sarah to witness the positive results of taking action. Only then could she lead the legless stalker into the hydraulic press and slam that red button down. And only then could she take the initiative to finally run from her problems.
Emotional State at the End of a Story
And finally, the greatest difference between these two “heroes” can be found in their emotional standing at the end of their story. At the end of The Matrix Neo walks confidently amongst the great unwashed, a slight smile on his face, acknowledging to us and to himself that he is over that feeling of separateness he once felt. Neo is in a good place.
Contrast this with Sarah at the end of The Terminator and that distant look on her face captured forever in the Polaroid snapshot. Reese, commenting on the shot, even goes so far as to say “You seemed just a little sad. I always wondered what you were thinking at that moment.”
She was thinking that things aren’t better for her, regardless of the love she found. The weight of her new role weighs heavily on her and only supplants the angst she began the film with.
Compared to The Matrix and its all-out triumphant ending, The Terminator is a story of Personal Tragedy. The killing machine may have been stopped, but only with a great emotional cost paid by the story’s Main Character. Like Unforgiven, The Silence of the Lambs, District 9 and The Prestige, The Terminator leaves its central character over-burdened with a heavy does of angst.
Just another reason why Sarah Connor is dramatically different from Neo.
The Proof is in the Problem
Neo had to free his mind. Sarah had to assume her position as the mother of the Future. Neo had to stop worrying about whether or not he was the One. Sarah had to start taking action to save herself and those she loved. Neo ended things on an up-note. Sarah was headed South, both physically and emotionally.
No matter how one slices it, the true problems affecting Neo and Sarah couldn’t be more different. Beyond their similar discussions involving fate and follwing one’s destiny, these characters face inequities that find their place in worlds far more disparate than simply “Old” and “Special”. When faced with characters at polar ends of the dramatic spectrum, it becomes difficult to maintain the assertion that the Hero’s Journey, or any aberration thereof, is an accurate and compelling understanding of the real fabric of a story.
Neo and Sarah Connor are different because their stories—the structures of their stories—are radically different.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
Within the context of Dramatica, the differences between Sarah and Neo couldn’t be more clear. Neo is a Situation character while Sarah is a Fixed Attitude character. Their issues and problems lie in completely different areas of the dramatic mind.
Because their Influence Character resides in the Domain opposite from them, Morpheus can be found in Fixed Attitude (which clearly fits), and Reese can be found in Situation. This is why the fact that he is truly from the future has such an impact on Sarah’s justifications. When one is internally fixed, it requires an externally fixed viewpoint to break one free.
Because both stories have Overall Throughlines in Activity, one will have a Main Character Growth of Stop, the other Start. Neo is a Stop character—he has to stop considering whether he is or isn’t the chosen One. Sarah, on the other hand, has to Start taking action, begin taking the initiative. Neo has the chip on his shoulder, Sarah has the hole in her heart (more ways than one).
And finally their individual Story Judgments are different. Neo ends up Good, while Sarah ends up Bad.
Again, with only this simple barebones analysis it is clear to see how the Dramatica perspective on the meaning of a story is vastly superior to the Hero’s Journey or any variation thereof. There is so much more going on in a story then simply entering a Special World and Returning Home with an Elixir. The Dramatica theory accurately and precisely describes the real meaning behind a story.