Great movies are focused. Anyone watching “The Shawshank Redemption” will find it easy to recognize its theme of hope and perseverance. That’s because every scene and character stays focused on the hero’s dilemma.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. So there are several ways he can respond to this dilemma:
- Accept being imprisoned for the rest of his life
- Allow his imprisonment to destroy him
Since those are the hero’s choices, guess what? Those choices are represented by the other characters in the story.
First, there’s the hero’s friend, Red, who’s accepted that he’ll be imprisoned for life and has no plans or hope to get out. Second, there’s another prisoner who does get out and later commits suicide because he can’t handle being free and out of prison.
What happens if the other characters don’t reflect the hero’s dilemma? Then you risk winding up with irrelevant characters who dilute your story’s focus. Bad movies do this all the time with pointless characters who distract from the story rather then help it.
Watch the 1972 movie “Deliverance” to see this principle in action. The hero goes on a river rafting trip with three other men when they’re attacked by hillbillies. The hero’s friend kills one of the hillbillies but another one escapes. Now they’re faced with what to do with the dead body. So the choices are as follows:
- Pretend that they know nothing about the dead hillbilly and bury the body so nobody will find it
- Go to the police and admit they killed a hillbilly
- Find the remaining hillbilly and kill him to make sure he can’t tell the police
Not surprisingly, the hero has three friends who represent these three choices. One of the hero’s friends wants to hide the dead hillbilly’s body and get out of the area as soon as possible.
Another of the hero’s friends wants to talk to the police and admit what happened.
The other hero’s friend wants to find and kill the remaining hillbilly to make sure no one knows of the dead hillbilly that they buried.
Rather than have the hero wrestle with his choices in his mind, it’s much stronger and more visual to have the hero wrestle with these choices by arguing and fighting with his friends to decide what they should all do.
When the other characters around your hero represent the hero’s choices, those other characters suddenly take on a new purpose and meaning. They’re no longer existing solely for the convenience of the plot, but act as another voice tugging at the hero to choose a specific direction.
Watch any good movie and you can find characters surrounding the hero who represent different choices the hero can make. In “Star Wars,” Luke could be selfish like Hans Solo, or he can be altruistic and help the rebellion like Princess Leia. He could also simply worry and whine like C3PO.
Make your other characters reflections of your hero and you’ll find your story becomes much stronger and more focused as a result.