May 8, 2012

Giving Them Grief

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director -

Many of us are familiar with the Five Stages of Grief, said to be the emotions we have to work through whenever we suffer a loss or other devastating blow.  They are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

We don’t always experience them in that order, nor are we necessarily visited by all of them. But this psychological observation is an excellent tool we can use to bring our characters to life.

Each of The Descendants deals with grief in their own way
When we give our hero a challenge, we are essentially taking something important away from them. Whether we kill off their loved one, fire them from a job, or give them a crime to solve, we remove the comfort zone they were previously in.  It becomes their task to deal with it, and different characters will do it in different ways.

We’ve all seen heroes who, when initially approached for help, refuse the call to action. If they don’t believe in the cause – or in themselves – they deny the need to take up arms.  Soon, however, it becomes personal and they have no choice but to act.

During the course of the story, it’s satisfying to experience the same character arc as our protagonist. We identify with their anger and frustration when the villain is getting away with murder. We are right there with the hero, looking for solutions in our own mental bargaining table. We can appreciate how the heroine’s romantic slump causes her to eat a whole pint of Häagen-Dazs in one sitting.

However, in the last stage – acceptance – we discover a distinct difference between real life and fiction.  We’re not content for our heroes merely to accept the situation as it stands. We insist that they overcome.

In The Way, Martin Sheen takes up his late son's pilgrimage
Peter Protagonist can’t merely come to terms with someone stealing his idea and getting rich from it. Peter has to come up with an even better idea and ultimately steal the thunder back from his opponent.

Harriet Heroine cannot just learn to be at peace with college professors who fail her and cause her to drop out. She must rise from the ashes and become a superstar in her field, so she can throw it back in their face, as publicly and humiliatingly as possible.

When a young Bruce Wayne grows up to be a caped crusader who captures his parent’s murderer, that has a nice full circle feel to it. When the career of the tiger lady in Baby Boom goes bust after inheriting a child, we cheer all the more when the baby becomes the reason for her even greater business success. We love poetic justice.

Confronted by trouble, protagonists go the extra mile and turn into conquerors. When it looks like they’ll fail, make them prevail. That’s why we call them heroes.

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