CRAFT MATTERS: The Importance of Good Character in Characters

Chasing Mavericks PosterThis week I’ve been thinking a lot about character because I saw two movies that prompted the internal debate. The first movie was Chasing Mavericks and the second was Jobs.

First, let me say I love inspirational stories. And if they’re based on a true story, even better. I love books, movies, TV, news feeds–any story, really, about leaders–whether they’re business leaders, sports figures, celebrities, or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me as long as they’re leaders. I’m naturally drawn to them. I want to know what makes a good leader tick. I want to see how they live their life and the influence they’ve had on the people they touch. It’s important to me. I’m not sure why, but it is.

This is what led me to these two movies in the first place. And it’s interesting that for some reason I saw them at the same time because now that I look back, there’s no reason I should have seen them both this week. I rented Chasing Mavericks on Sunday. I kind of get in renting moods and will rent several movies to watch at once. So Sunday was one of those days for me. I’d wanted to see Chasing when it came out, but being the mother of three teenage boys, I was kind of afraid so I’d put it off.

chasing-mavericks-stillYou see, Chasing Mavericks is the true story of Jay Moriarty, a fifteen-year-old kid who wanted to surf Mavericks–these mythical big, I mean, huge waves. Thirty-five-foot waves. The equivalent of five story buildings. People died surfing waves this big. So, anyway, to say the least, I was a little afraid to watch the movie. But for some reason, I remembered on Sunday that I’d wanted to see it and I went out and rented it.

My husband is a Mac guy and an artist. So he’s always been drawn to Apple. And I’ve got to say, I’ve always found Steve Jobs fascinating. I’d seen his later talks televised and found him charismatic. So when the movie came out, I decided I had to see it. I wanted to figure this guy out. My husband and I went to see the movie about Steve Jobs on Tuesday.

The contrast between these two real-life men and their lives couldn’t have been bigger. Or have had a bigger impact on me. At the end of each story, I was wrecked. One in a good way, the other not so good.

The main characters were Jay Moriarty in Chasing Mavericks and, well, Steve Jobs in Jobs.Jobs Movie Poster

I walked away from Chasing inspired, even though I cried at the end. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the movie or if you don’t know anything about Jay Moriarty’s life. But I adored this story. It was so inspiring to me. It reminded me what it means to be human. It showed me the power of a life well-lived to touch and inspire others. It also reinforced my personal belief that passion and determination will get you what you want in life. Ultimately, Chasing Mavericks is a coming of age story about human triumph under the harshest circumstances.

And, honestly, you could say that Jobs is about the same thing–a coming of age story about human triumph under the harshest circumstances. One man was conquering giants in the form of Mavericks and the other’s giants came in the form of reigning human intellect and capacity to innovate new technology and run a corporation.

However, I hated the Jobs movie. And I don’t use that word very often. I’m what I like to call a “tolerant” reader/movie-goer when it comes to story. I’ll go wherever you want to take me without too many questions. And I often find lots to love about a story. However, I walked out of the movie theater on Tuesday discouraged and feeling like I’d been trampled on.

So I got to thinking about why. Why did the story of Steve Jobs’ life so wreck me–in a bad way–when the story of Jay Moriarty’s life had inspired me? Both faced really bad things in their lives. Both had defining moments–those crossroad experiences where they could have chosen one path over another. Both strove for heroic accomplishments and influenced people in their lives.

So what was the difference for me?

The reason boiled down to character. Good character.

I mean, not well-crafted character like we like to think about and muse over as authors, but those pillar qualities of character that make-up good human beings–human beings we think are exemplary and inspiring.

Jobs MovieSee, Steve Jobs alienated those around him. For lack of a better word, he was an asshole. He walked away from life-long friends time and again. When he was at a crossroads where he could have chosen to love someone and help a friend, he walked away–ignored them, because Apple (the vision) was more important to him than the people. Some might say that’s because he was a visionary, a genius, an important man. Look at what he created. Yeah. I see what he left behind. And I don’t much like it. Sure. I adore my iPod. But the wreckage he left behind. No. I hate seeing that. At one point someone tells Steve in the movie that he’s his own worst enemy and it was true.

Then I look at Jay Moriarty’s life and see what he left behind. Steve Jobs’ legacy was a company and products–and, no, the Jobs movie doesn’t portray the end of his life. So he might have changed. Steve Jobs might have had a Come-to-Jesus moment. I don’t know. All I know is the decisions he made time and again were harsh and alienating. Jay Moriarty’s legacy was the people he loved and left behind–the lives he touched. He was kind. Even to the guy who bullied him most of his life. He smiled. He chose to stand by friends even when they’d betrayed him. He faced his fears with courage, he didn’t ignore them or pretend they weren’t there. When his mentor and the father figure in his life faced a life-crushing experience, Jay went out of his way to search for him, to make sure he was okay, to push him, and help him rally–to offer him someone to lean on. Frosty asks at one point, which of the four pillars is supposed to help me get through this life-shattering experience. And Jay says to him–the fifth pillar, me. OMG! Yes. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about people. Yes, people are mortal. And depending on your faith journey, you may believe any range of things about the human soul. But I believe that people matter. What you do to them matters. Here and beyond.

So when I think about story and character–the characters I want to populate my fiction and the character I want to dominate my life and the lives of my own boys–I want to live like Jay lived and I want to inspire others to live just like he lived. Good character matters. It inspires. And, yes, we all have Steve Jobs living inside of us–the potential for mean, alienating behavior where we choose goals and visions over people–however, that doesn’t need to define us or our lives or our journey. I want to reach for the good, the loving, and the inspiring. And that’s what I want the characters in my stories to reach for, too. I want them to embody good character, because in the end, good character does matter.

I believe it with my whole heart.

So what do you think? And have you seen examples in real life and in fiction of good character? Share them with me.

CRAFT MATTERS: Lessons from The Way, Way Back–Heart & Arc

The Way, Way BackI had heard nothing about this movie when I stepped into the theater. A friend wanted to go and I was up for a night out. I ended up absolutely loving The Way, Way Back. It felt like the perfect story. So I tried to figure out why I loved this story so much and it came down to two things for me: Heart & Arc.

First off, the writer made us care about the protagonist right away by giving us a male father figure who was picking on him. We immediately had empathy for Duncan, the protagonist. And as the story began to unfold, we saw that he was a good kid who cares about others & clearly cares about his mom and dad, who have divorced and are pursuing other relationships.

AP FILM REVIEW THE WAY WAY BACK A ENTDuncan’s awkwardly shy. What 14-year-old isn’t? He walks with his shoulders hunched and his chin down. Self-esteem isn’t his strong suit at the beginning of the movie. And is it any wonder why? His mom and dad recently divorced, and both are pushing their son off, making him feel like he’s not wanted. Duncan doesn’t belong, even among his own family.

The Way Way Back Owen

So he starts to wander away during the day, go explore town. He’s encouraged, at his first meeting with Owen, the true hero of this movie, to break out of the mold, disregard patterns, and find his own way while playing a game of PAC Man. And that’s what this coming of age movie is all about–a young boy who has been beaten up by life gaining the strength and courage he needs to stand up and find his own way.

The family or community Duncan discovers when he gets away from his summer house is wonderfully quirky and they accept him just as he is, but they also challenge him to grow, to move out of his comfort zone, to take chances, and to become a man. These characters bring the comedic relief in this heart-wrenching tale. Owen and his band of employees are hilarious. They’re an island of misfits themselves–adults who never grew up; a virtual colony of lost boys amid an aging water park.The Way Way Back Characters 3

The Way, Way Back is an amazing story of heart and growth and healing. It shows us what happens when a character is unwilling to change (the mom’s boyfriend) and what possibilities lay ahead when you’re willing to grow and change (Owen & Duncan & Duncan’s mom).

It was a simple story really–a boy who must adjust to the break-up of his family. But it had so much heart and soul that it became a living breathing intricately interwoven morality tale in an age where kids can often suffer the most from broken marriages.

The Way Way Back On A ScaleWhat I learned best from this movie is the importance of heart–touching those emotional heart strings, telling a story that matters to people and giving them characters who matter to them–and the necessity for your characters to arc. Just about every one of the characters in this story had a growth arc–except the antagonist. There’s a lesson buried in there for writers. Don’t consign your secondary characters to emotional ground zero, where they have nowhere to go. Let them grow. Let them arc. Your story will be richer for it. And your readers will care about all of them, not just the protagonist. And that will bring them back for your next story and your next.

If you have not seen it, do. You won’t be sorry!

Did you see The Way, Way Back? What did you love about it? If not, what other movies out there have impacted you and made you feel like you’d just experienced the perfect story?