WP2

Maxwell Jones
11 min readOct 26, 2020

When the captivating stories on my TV glued my eyes to the screen as a kid, all I was aware of was how much I loved it — so much so that when I became of age to understand that I could make a movie with my parent’s camcorder, I, quite unsuccessfully, tried my hardest in making films like the ones I felt so moved by. The ability to speak, relate, and empathize through fiction on screen has always intrigued me; as I became so invested in the characters on screen, feeling for them at their worst moments and mourning their deaths and falls, I realized the truth that these films spoke. As I recognized the thematic messages that were delivered in these stories through the choices of our characters, I realized the truth in these films is not objective, but rather, valid and applicable lessons within the contexts of our heroes’ lives. This recognition made me realize I can write an emotionally compelling story, so long as I am speaking my own truth. Whether that be the demise of a good man to pure evil in Breaking Bad, a hero breaking his only moral code in The Dark Knight, an “evil” man seeing the world in a new light in Red Dead Redemption 2, or the strength of love and empathy in Paddington, all these films that have true and honest statements about our world that are told through the highs and lows of our characters. These 4 scripts have defined me as a writer, and set the bar for the stories I want to tell, and taught me how I believe I can most effectively tell them.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight influenced my identity as a writer by teaching me perhaps the most important dynamic between a hero and a villain. The villain’s job is not to act evil and stand in the way of the protagonist like Many MCU movies would have you think, but instead, to test the hero’s weaknesses in every way imaginable, and in effect, change their perspective on life. In The Dark Knight, the Joker does this by using Batman’s only moral code against him; he turns the hero’s honorable pledge to not kill into a weakness. Joker always stays one step ahead of Batman because of the pressure he puts on him by exploiting this weakness. He knows Batman cannot kill, and uses chaos and violence to show how Batman’s world view is not right, and when tested to the fullest, is not enough to save the people Joker puts in danger. As Joker keeps killing more and more people, he shows that Batman’s moral code is not enough, and in this context, a weakness costing innocent lives. By making the only way to stop the Joker killing him, the Joker makes it that so he wins no matter what; in order to stop Batman, he must break his code and change his view on the world by killing him, and if he doesn’t, the Joker will keep killing people and Batman will fail, showing him his code that is meant to save lives ends up taking more than it saves.

The Joker showed me that in any story, real or fictional, the most compelling and transformative growth can only occur when our weaknesses are exposed head-on, and the only way a strength’s weaknesses can be brought to light is when it is attacked and beaten by a stronger force. In order to tell a compelling story of growth, which most stories attempt to do, the villain cannot only be a physical force standing in the way of the hero’s goal, but rather, a weight on their shoulders that exposes the shortcomings of their world view and puts pressure on them to change. This message is true in this story because we see how Batman’s ideology hurts him and those around him when the Joker challenges it, and it is true in life because our most transformative experiences often take on our greatest weaknesses, insecurities, and fears, exposing what is wrong and must change within ourselves. The Dark Knight instilled a standard for the quality and difficulty of the struggle my characters must go through in order to experience their most believable and compelling change, and reminds me that in my real life, my most enlightening changes occur from situations that test my strengths and expose my weaknesses, forcing me to consider a new perspective.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)

Red Dead Redemption 2, though it’s a video game and not a movie, managed to teach me one of the most important lessons about characters in stories and people in real life. Too often, people are defined at their worst moments; in the midst of “cancel culture”, growth is often unconsidered, and reactionary definitions of people’s entire character are defined on their worst moments and mistakes. Arthur Morgan, the protagonist of Red Dead Redemption 2, is a perfect example of a good man that has been led astray, and acts in evil ways because of reasons beyond the “evilness” of their soul.

We see in the beginning of the story that Arthur is extremely loyal to the Van Der Linde gang, a group of misfits led by Dutch Van der Linde that consider themselves family. He is so loyal to Dutch and his gang that he despises any members that even consider leaving the gang or living a life beyond it, making him Dutch’s most loyal and reliable man. As the government begins to close in on the criminal activity of the Van der Linde gang, however, we see the gradual demise of Dutch, a man that once so successfully painted the picture of a leader that cares about his people is revealed to be a paranoid, selfish man who cares more about preserving the outlaw lifestyle that the gang has allowed him to live than the people in it. Arthur’s devout loyalty, which at the beginning of the game appears to be a weakness, becomes his greatest strength because of where his loyalty lies — unlike Dutch, he is not loyal to the lifestyle and philosophy of being a criminal; he is loyal to the gang because they are his family, resulting in — the beginning of the game — his loyalty to Dutch, who he believes cares for the gang more than anything. As Dutch becomes increasingly concerned for himself and with the preservation of the criminal lifestyle, however, putting the needs and safety of the actual members of the gang second, Arthur begins to realize what he is fighting for when committing these acts of violence, theft, and ruthlessness; he was never acting in the interest of his family, but in the interest of Dutch. As soon as the wellbeing of the gang became a burden for Dutch, they took a backseat to his actual goals. Upon this realization, Arthur changes his course of action; instead of being loyal to Dutch, whom he believed was loyal to the gang, he becomes focused on saving the members that are innocent, and in a final act of courage, sacrifices himself so they can get away from the law and Dutch.

Though basic in premise, the arc of Arthur Morgan showed me that most often, “evil” people do not have evil intentions; people justify their actions often for a greater cause, which is what Arthur was taught to do by Dutch from the time he was a child. Red Dead Redemption 2 showed me that the most compelling growth in a character is an extreme one that shifts their entire world view, in this case Arthur realizing the man he had considered a father figure was selfish, and through immense pressure revealed he cared more about his own wishes than the safety of those he called family. Even the most terrible people are not born terrible; there is a story that has led everyone where they are, and factors and perspectives that have caused them to justify their actions based on some internal philosophy. Arthur’s internal philosophy was a distrust for society, who before he had discovered the gang, only treated him terribly: his mother died when he was young, his son and wife were killed by white supremacists, and his father beat him his entire life. The gang was the only sense of security Arthur had, the only place he felt he belonged, and his mentality that he must protect it and Dutch at all costs justified (in his mind) the evil actions he committed throughout the story.

This lesson has made me realize that there is humanity in everyone and that in a story, any character, despite how evil they may be, can be humanized. This idea that there is a journey to explain how everyone has gotten where they are has broadened my horizons for the stories I can tell, and in my real life lets me empathize with anyone, even those who I despise or completely disagree with.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is another story that showed me that the most compelling growth in a character is an extreme one, but in a different way than Red Dead Redemption 2 showed me. Rather than take a man with a misled and small perspective on the world and show him the light to turn him good, the show’s creator Vince Gilligan does exactly the opposite in this story. Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, appears to be a good, “Mr. Chips” kind of guy in the beginning of the story, yet something is clearly missing from his life. He is emasculated constantly, whether it be by his wife, his friend that runs the company he helped build, or his DEA agent brother-in-law. He is a high school chemistry teacher despite being an exceptional chemist capable of much more than teaching highschool kids. He feels as if he has made no important, impactful, or significant decisions in his life. Walt’s flaw is that he lacks initiative: he’s let other people steer the course of his life for his entire life.

This is until he is diagnosed with a late stage of lung cancer. Suddenly, he is on the last leg of life and will be gone soon. Consistent with the theme of the rest of his life, he is being told by everyone else what the best decision is for him to make. Even though the solutions people are offering him are good ones, like his friend offering to pay for his entire treatment and get some of the best care there is, Walt sees this diagnosis as his last chance to take initiative and make his own decisions. This leads him to start cooking meth to pay for his treatment and leave his family with money when he’s gone. Through this path, a man that once based all his decisions on what the people around him thought, becomes drunk on his own power, initiative, and capabilities when he makes decisions for himself and refuses to care about others. Through this power-driven intoxicant, we see Walt transform from a passive, brittle man to a powerful, ruthless, and maniacally genius one. Though he loses everything he thought he loved in the process, he gains power, and holds onto it until his last moments, where he leaves this life not in regret, but happy with the journey he took.

Breaking Bad showed me a different perspective of extreme character growth than Red Dead Redemption 2 — one that takes a man that appears good through his actions in the beginning only to realize the true evil he has within him by the end. What both these stories showed me as a writer, though, is that a real person or a fictional character cannot always be judged on the external components of their character. If Walt’s character was judged on his external makeup, he would appear to be a good man: a highschool chemistry teacher that has a disabled son and loving wife that lives in suburban Albuquerque, New Mexico. But when you strip all of that away, and judge Walt from the inside out — which is what his new profession allows the audience to do — we find a deeply insecure man, one that craves power over others from the oppression he’s endured his entire life so much so that he becomes evil in his pursuit of it, putting anything and anyone second to the expansion of his drug empire. The reason this growth is so important to me is that it shows me the internal struggle of a character always says more about them than their external makeup. Just because a character I write may start off as a passive, decent, and harmless man does not mean through the right events that reveal the truth of their character they can turn out to be ruthless, selfish, and powerful. Breaking Bad showed me that any character change is achievable, and also showed me that our true capabilities can only be unlocked when we take the initiative to explore them. The theme in this story is true because the audience believes Walter’s transformation through observation of his weakness in the beginning and his strength at the end, and also because who we truly are is only revealed through our exploration of ourselves and our willingness to act on our instincts.

Paddington 2 (2017)

Paddington 2 is a film that takes a different approach to the character development of the hero; Paddington the bear is a lovable, sweet, and naive character that has what many would call a “small-minded” view on the world; to put it simply, he believes that if we are kind and nice, the world will be right. Paddington sticks with this philosophy on life throughout the entire film, refusing to define people by their worst moments and choosing to see the best in people.

Contrary to the popular belief that characters must experience growth to be compelling, Paddington showed me that another way to create an endearing and relatable character is to have one that so strongly believes in his perspective on life that he manages to change the characters around him. In Paddington’s approach to life, he refuses to dislike or wish ill on anyone, and simply sees the best in people and is so “kind and nice” that he literally makes the world around him “right.”

As a writer, Paddington showed me that emotion can be derived from more than change, but also, through love and faith. When Paddington is arrested for a crime he did not commit and is locked away with a bunch of real criminals, he does not judge them for their crimes or treat them differently than anyone else outside of prison. He treats them politely and sees the good in them, and in the process befriends the deadliest criminal in the prison and turns the prison into a happy home where the prisoners live in harmony. Though this is, to say the least, a bit hyperbolic, the underlying message carries so much weight with me. Paddington’s loving and hopeful approach to life shows me that when an individual has gained a perspective on life derived from love, hope, and faith, no matter how much people or situations try and convince you otherwise, that truth will radiate through your existence and affect those around you. The honesty in the writing of Paddington’s character takes a perspective so genuine and truthful that it does not need change to be captivating, endearing, and emotional, because we see how this honest message can change the others around Paddington for the better.

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