Just Say No: The Importance of the Hero's Reluctance in Storytelling
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 18, 2011
I saw The Thing this past weekend. The prequel/reboot mutation that just arrived in theaters, not the John Carpenter sci-fi horror masterpiece. I did not enjoy it for many reasons. Really, I did not enjoy it for every reason. But what held my ire most was one very simple moment. A moment in the first ten minutes of the film that stands so blatantly as a tone-setting sign post, a Campbellian action so telegraphed that for the scene to play out any other way than the precognition in my mind would be, I thought, impossible. Well, I was wrong. And for the rest of the movie's 103 minute running time, I couldn't figure out why. I still can't.
Because there's no satisfactory explanation for why the film's writer chose to abolish our hero's—Kate Lloyd's, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead—refusal of the call.
Allow me to set up this very brief scene for you. Kate Lloyd is shown to be a capable paleontologist whose speciality is extracting specimens from ice on cold-weather digs. A mysterious man approaches her with an offer: there is a specimen unlike any she has or will ever have the possibility of excavating locked in the ice and it is her unique skill-set that will allow the excavation to succeed. The mysterious benefactor is running short on time and requires her answer immediately: will she stay or will she go?
At this point, though a standard set-up, all is well. There's a bit of mystery. Our hero is shown to be sought after, talented, and respected in her field. During the scene she's shown working on some sort of saber toothed cat, so she isn't wanting for work or desperate. The bones are in her dig site, as no one says.
With all of the above information, it couldn't be any more clear how this scene will play out: Kate will refuse this mysterious man's offer, as she is a strong protagonist with a life of her own. She doesn't need this child's-game mystery, as she is already hard at work, successful, and without any real motivation. She controls her own destiny. So, of course, she will refuse the offer to travel to the bottom of the Earth with little more than her own imagination telling her what's down there.
Except, uh, she doesn't. The mysterious man asks for her immediate answer, and, with barely a pause, Kate accepts. And before we can blink, is on a helicopter. Is in Antarctica. Is attacked by John Carmack's earliest video game proofs of concept circa 1993.
Again, to reiterate, she accepts the call. Without hesitation. Now, this choice makes sense for one reason and one reason only: it gets our hero to Antarctica as quickly as possible so the doodles of a teenaged psychopath can attack her as quickly as possible so we can get to the action as quickly. as. possible.
Of course, what this choice does not allow for is why the hero's refusal of the call is so important in the first place: character development. When the mysterious man asks for Kate's immediate decision, the writer is presented with three distinct options for his hero. (Really, at every character fork, not just this one in particular, the writer is presented with these same three options.)
1. The Affirmative: The hero accepts what lays before her.
2. The Negative: The hero refuses what lays before her.
3. The Compulsion: The hero, though refusing what lays before her now, is later compelled to accept the situation, but with more knowledge and experience than before.
It should be fairly obvious which one of these three is the most interesting, most often used choice. Choice three is the foundation on which interesting characters are built. Luke Skywalker is presented with the opportunity to leave Tatooine, his dream, but refuses when he chooses to go to Alderaan because he's worried he's in trouble with his aunt and uncle. Of course, his aunt and uncle are then killed, leaving "nothing here for [him] now," and he is compelled to leave Tatooine anyway.
Neo is given the opportunity by Morpheus to escape the agents in Neo's office building. But he refuses Morpheus' instructions and is subsequently captured by those very agents. The agents show Neo that Morpheus was indeed speaking the truth and when presented with the opportunity a second time, Neo allows Morpheus to help him escape the Matrix after all.
And in pretty much every action movie, the main character is presented with a problem, but refuses to help, only to have that problem get a little too personal and compel that main character's aid.
So, when Kate hangs there in limbo awaiting her writer's decision, why is it the affirmative? Why are we, the audience, robbed of the character building moments that lead up to her eventual compulsion to act? Why are the scenes of character set-up—not only for Kate, but for the mysterious man, too, showing us the lengths he'll go to have her on his team, setting up his eventual betrayal, showing us that he can't be trusted while developing that Kate is capable, intelligent, and suspicious all along (it's a film about paranoia, after all, isn't it?!)—why are those scenes excised?
As I mentioned, choosing the affirmative does expedite the machinations of the plot considerably. But at what cost? When Kate answers so quickly in the affirmative, we—the audience—see her as rash, fool-hardy, and without foresight. We question her every action and motivation and decision from that point, forward. Perhaps the writer meant us to feel the same paranoia for her decisions as she would later feel for her team in Antarctica. Perhaps, though, she simply chose poorly. And that poor choice led to a distance never recovered between hero and audience. A lack of connection necessary when it's through her eyes that the film is shown. All she had to do was say no.
Just say no.