Weakness, need, and desire

Part of being a decent editor, I think, is being a decent writer. Like a doctor knows the human body, I need to know the parts of story in order to diagnose and treat its maladies. One of the best books in this regard is John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.

A couple things about this book threw me off when I first opened it. He has a somewhat dry tone and is often dogmatic in his assertions. What he says is the way it is and there’s nothing to do about it. Being something of a creative, I still buck at that view (or at least the phrasing of it), but looking at stories through the theoretical lens that he outlines is truly enlightening.

Second, it’s technically a book for screenwriters. But no matter what medium the storyteller uses, a story is a story. The principles are there no matter what form the narrative takes. It’s kind of like physics, but subjective and messy and with less math.

I kept going back to one particular part: the beginning steps of creating a compelling character. Truby asserts that a good, complex, memorable character has psychological and moral weaknesses that hurt him and the people around him. This creates a need; i.e. the character needs to overcome his shortcomings. This informs his desire, which is a short-term, external goal that will help to fulfill his need.

Most theories of story that I’ve read assert that the story ends where it began to show just how much the character has changed over the story. If he hasn’t, then maybe the stakes weren’t high enough, or there wasn’t enough tension, or there wasn’t much of a conflict at all. But if the character starts out with a weakness that will directly impede his progress towards his goal, it’s automatically a more interesting story than if he could walk calmly from point A to point B.

I think this resonates so much with us because — I mean, do I need to say it? — we’ve all changed. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve come home from college or boot camp and looked around and seen how everything is exactly the same. We know at least one guy who’s been working the same job since 16 and doesn’t aspire to anything greater. We’ve measured ourselves against these static standards and realized that when we weren’t looking, we became a different person. It’s a strange moment. Empowering, yet humbling.

The bottom line is, make your main character a shitty person (but not so shitty that the audience wants him to fail) and make him suffer. This is the start of a good story.