I’ve been watching a lot of older, great films lately. One thing that I am reminded about, when viewing motion picture, is something that I learned in one of my screenwriting classes, and that is that every well developed character in a film needs a backstory. What that means is this…take Will Smith’s character in “The Pursuit of Happyness” for example; We see that he is trying to get a good paying job, and make good money. But why? We quickly learn it is to take care of his young boy. But so what? Why is that? We learn it is because his characters father was not around for him, and he promises himself that he will never do that to his child. He will be there for ‘his’ boy. Now ‘that’ is a compelling motivation. His motivation for success runs deep–beyond the ordinary man. He ‘must’ succeed in order to not only care for himself, but to care for his boy, and to help break the cycle of abuse and abandonment that his spirit carries.
The Backstory of a Character
When a film has no backstory, that is, when the character’s motivation is not clearly established, we generally feel nothing for them. Why do they do what they do? What are they running from or towards? Are they compelled by love, fear, jealousy, hate, or what? In order to have a powerful character in a film we care about, we generally need to see or understand some of the inner compulsion of the character. Without backstory, without the reason ‘why’ they are doing what they do, we generally have no emotional development, and thus–no care for the character.
The greatest films, fueled by the greatest screenplays, have greatly developed characters that we ‘feel’ for. That we either greatly hate, or most often generally love, or can relate to. Without knowing something deep and personal about the character, we typically feel that the character is empty, shallow, and void of depth or meaning. We don’t care about them, and therefore, do not relate strongly to the film. A great character of depth helps create in cinema what we call the ‘suspension of disbelief,’ whereby our conscious mind momentarily forgets the outside world, and relates wholly to the character on screen, considering their pain–our pain, their truth–our truth, and their victory–our victory.
The Force Within Us
When Luke Skywalker conquers the evil Darth Vadar, it is not just Luke we are cheering for, it is for the universal good in us all. “Star Wars” creator George Lucas tapped in to what Joseph Campbell referred to in his book and video “The Power of Myth,” as the classical archetype, which extends across all time, space, lands, and generations. It is the inborn spirit in humanity that years for truth, for love, and for the greater good. Without archetype, without ‘reason’ in our characters, our stories are often flawed, and our sense of wonderment, awe, and compassion is either lost, or worse still–never there to begin with.
Life Imitates Art
I want to ask you to think for some time about your life as a movie script. How many strangers do you see each day that are not developed in your mind? In other words, how many people out there do you encounter that you know nothing about? That you have no backstory for? The reality is, we ‘all’ have a story. We all have a backstory–a reason for why we do what we do–right or wrong. We all have something we are running from, or towards. We all have hopes, dreams, fears, weaknesses, hates, loves, motivations, and things that inspire and compel us. Yet how can we ‘feel’ any care, compassion, or sympathy, let alone any empathy, for those characters in our lives–those ‘strangers,’ when we have no emotional bond compelling us to see them as anything more than just a blip on the screen of our life? What concern will we feel when that stranger is just as another flat, boring, irrelevant character on the screen, that we know nothing about?
I want to remind you that ‘you’ are an undeveloped character to someone, to a stranger–just as I am to many. Those that become ‘famous’ have a two dimensional view of them ‘known’ by many, but even this is not ‘knowing.’ How can you know a person? Just as we know a character. We know where they came from, we know where they are going, we know a bit of their soul and what drives them; their passions, their weaknesses, their loves, their fears, their hopes, and their obsessions.
Strangers–The Undeveloped Characters of Our Life
Unlike the movies, the undeveloped characters–those ‘strangers’ in our life really are developed, they really are deep–we just haven’t heard, seen, or read their stories. And yet how many times do we pass by a stranger, giving not a thought nor care to their life, to their feelings, to their humanity? How many hundreds of thousands of homeless on the streets in Los Angeles and every major city throughout the world have a story–a purpose they are not fulfilling, a dream they yearn to see come true?
We are all human, we all have a spirit, a purpose– a soul. I want to remind you as I also remind myself, that while we can shut off the characters on T.V, or in the movies who we don’t feel anything for, we should think twice before shutting off our feelings, compassion, or interest for those we know nothing about in the real world. Everyone has feelings. People matter, whether you know them well or not, they were once an innocent, helpless child, they were once full of life and hope–they had dreams, and yes, somewhere deep inside, beyond all the unknowing, beyond all the fear, regret, pain, remorse, or hate, beyond all their goals not yet achieved–they still may dream of something magical and magnificent. We all have feelings–we all have a passion, a purpose, yearning to break free.
I dare you today, to go out into the world during your day, and help someone in need. Help someone get their hope back that may have lost it, or their faith in the decency of humanity. It is good to get what we want, to have our goals, and achieve them; there is nothing wrong with that, that is healthy, and necessary. But as we do better and better each day, it is also our responsibility to remember others–to help when we can, to do more. Let’s build better characters not only on the big screen, but in our own lives. And together, we can all watch a life–our life as it unfolds–that we are proud of.