Character vs. Self

The most interesting stories involve a character struggling with some internal flaw or mistake that’s haunting the hero. The least interesting stories are when the hero battles somebody else just for the sake of special effects and blowing things up.

If you saw the movie “Battle: Los Angeles,” aliens are invading the Earth and the Marines have to stop them. Beyond interesting special effects, the story was too flat and simple. Aliens = bad guys therefore all humans are good guys who must kill the aliens.

Now look at a similar alien invasion movie in “District 9,” which is based on an actual event that involved forced eviction of blacks from a desirable chunk of land called District Six. In “District 9,” the aliens are the good guys and the humans are the bad guys, but not all humans are bad because the hero is one of the few good guys.

What makes “District 9” fascinating and “Battle: Los Angeles” boring is that “District 9” involves a hero battling the people who he once was a part of as their leader. (If you haven’t seen “District 9” yet, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this post.)

In “District 9,” the hero starts out as the leader of a human organization designed to evict the aliens from their slums and move them to a new area. The humans are arrogant, rude, and malicious when dealing with the aliens, and the hero is part of it.

Through an accident, the hero gradually finds himself changing into an alien, so suddenly he’s faced with dealing with the feeling of having humans treat him like a second-class citizen who can be bullied, tortured, and killed with impunity. In a sense, the hero of “District 9” must now battle his old way of life.

In the beginning, the hero is just as arrogant as the rest of the humans, but through his experience of transforming into an alien, he sees life from their point of view as he’s being hunted down by gangs and the government. Now he has to overcome his initial disgust with the aliens to becoming one of them.

“The King’s Speech” is another movie where the hero must battle himself. In this story, the king has a stuttering problem and must learn to trust the odd teaching methods of a speech therapist. There is no single villain in “The King’s Speech” to oppose the hero, but a variety of obstacles. However, his major villain is his own stuttering problem.

When a hero has to battle against his own character flaw or past mistake, the best way to dramatize this internal battle is to force the hero to make a moral decision. In “District 9,” the hero must decide whether to side with the humans or the aliens, so he learns to save the aliens instead of oppressing them.

In “The King’s Speech,” the hero must decide whether he’s going to conquer his stuttering problem so he can give a live speech over the radio. His choice is simple. Either don’t do it and let down an entire nation looking for a strong leader to help them deal with Nazi Germany, or face up to his fears and trust himself that he can succeed while putting himself on the line to do it.

In both cases, it’s not an easy choice to make and the heroes make the only possible choice they could make, but there’s always the possibility of them not doing so, which provides the tension and suspense.

An internal character struggle is interesting because we want to know what the character does and what the outcome may be. In “The Godfather,” Al Pacino gradually learns to take over the godfather role in leading the organized crime family, yet the outcome remains in doubt until the very end when Al Pacino firmly makes his decision on what he’s going to do.

Think of a flaw your hero needs to overcome and then think of a touch decision your hero must face that will visually demonstrate what the hero will do to battle his internal flaw. Will he conquer his flaw like “The King’s Speech” or will he succumb to his flaws like “The Godfather”?

This final outcome is what we want to know and this is what makes an internal conflict more interesting emotionally to watch than any amount of explosions and special effects.

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