Writing Resilient Characters

Reading the Industrial Scripts newsletter this week (which is brilliant – you should definitely sign up) there was a link to an article by Lyndsay Doran in the New York Times (read it here) where she had researched the emotional components of successful movies and the qualities audiences most value in a character. One such quality was ‘accomplishment’, but not how we might think:

“The accomplishment the audience values most is not when the heroine saves the day or the hero defeats his opponent. Instead the accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”

This set me thinking about the hero I’m working with in my feature script. I realized that his problem is he doesn’t know who his enemy is until the end of Act 2.

However, in Training Day and The Recruit the enemy is also revealed late in the story, although having been there all along. This is what John Truby in his Anatomy of Story calls the fake-ally opponent

‘…the fake-ally opponent is one of the most complex and fascinating characters in a story because he is usually torn by a dilemma.’

But the problem still remains: if our heroes don’t know who their enemies are how do they fight against them and show that all important empathy-inducing resilience?

Take 127 Hours (screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy). Here is a hero who shows incredible resilience in the harrowing few minutes of the Climax. The story up to this point is the character figuring out how to battle and overcome his enemy whilst analyzing how he managed to get in such a terrible predicament. Gradually, after attempting to blame his mother, his moral revelation comes and he blames himself (character arc). But all the way from the Act 1 Turning Point until the Climax this hero knows his enemy – the rock.

So, back to my story, how does my character show resilience throughout if he doesn’t know who his enemy is until the end of Act 2 ? For this we have to come back to Truby and his theories on threefold opposition. Truby teaches our heroes should be facing opposition from all three corners of the ring (with our hero in the other corner). So, even if the main antagonist is hidden there are two more antagonistic forces in play.

Take the 2005 movie North Country (screenplay by Michael Seitzman) where the female protagonist is fighting against sexual harassment in the work place. Opposition is flying at her from all angles. First and foremost from her male co-workers; secondly from the patriarchal management system; then from her Father (also one of her co-workers) and lastly (perhaps most surprisingly) from her female workmates. The resilience she shows is immense.

How resilient is your hero?

What do you think?

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