Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What The Legend of Zelda Taught me About Screenwriting

In Nintendo's successful The Legend of Zelda franchise, the hero, Link, perennially seeks to unite the three aspects of rule: power, wisdom, and courage, represented within a powerful, triangular physical object(s) known as the Triforce. Typically, Link himself personifies courage. The titular Princess Zelda, the epitome of a wise ruler, represents wisdom, and antagonist Ganon, part-time warlord, part-time warthog, embodies power and blunt dominance.

"Want the Master Sword? I'm the guy who can get it for you."

Power, wisdom, and courage. These are not throwaway themes. Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of the Zelda franchise and all-around rock star) was smart enough to expose gamers to concepts both abstract and yet sustainable through well over a dozen iterations of the franchise. What does this have to say about writing solid characters?

The hero needs first courage, and with said courage, undergoes a journey in which the treasure is ultimately a new way of looking at things: experience – wisdom.

How does power fit in? Power, and the desire for power, as we've been told, corrupts. UCLA professor Hal Ackerman states that desire is the story engine: it's what drives the character. But how can we equate desire with power, and the will to dominate?

Well, let's look at some examples.

We have a power-wisdom-courage triumvirate in Frank Darabont's masterful The Shawshank Redemption screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) has limitless hope, despite being locked into two life sentences' worth of a hopeless situation. His fellow inmate and friend, Red (Morgan Freeman), is confident that he himself will be out on parole someday, although he's consumed by self-doubt and fear. What awaits him but despair on the outside? He doesn't know anyone and no one needs him for anything. Despite the certainty of release, he is without hope. And of course, Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton - can we see this guy in a film where he plays someone nice and caring, please?) holds the prison in his iron grip. There's no question as to where the power lies.

Red describes Andy as "[He's] as smart as they come." Andy helps a dozen inmates earn their high school diplomas. Andy opens up a prison library. Andy represents hope. What's more, Andy represents wisdom.

Warden Norton demonstrates power to the extreme, doling out solitary confinement penalties and murder as if it's free ice cream day at the solitary confinement and murder shop. Norton denies Andy the possibility of release, even when confronted with evidence of Andy's innocence. Norton is hopelessness. Norton is power.

While Andy helps and changes others, Red changes, himself. He transitions within the film from a hopeless character ("I don't think I can make it on the outside, Andy") to one brimming with hope (his last line is "I hope," for cryin' out loud). However, the question hanging through the film is whether or not Red will follow in Andy's footsteps, follow Andy's hopeful example.

In prison, Andy confesses to Red that he'd love to live in a little beach town on the Pacific Ocean, and furthermore invites Red to join him there. Red replies, "Pacific Ocean? Scare me to death, something that big." Later, on his way to reunite with Andy, his second to last line in the film is, "I hope the Pacific is as blue as it's been in my dreams."

Red must learn courage. "It's a terrible thing to live in fear," he says. Red ultimately realizes that he's not useless: he has much to offer the world, and the world has much to offer him. However, he must choose between hope and hopelessness: the destiny Andy hopes he'll choose and the one that Norton hopes he'll choose. Red chooses hope and we all cheer. Red (as a hero) internalizes Andy's wisdom and courageously takes the next step. He aspires to wisdom, obtains courage, frees himself in a memorable parole board scene, and lives happily ever after.

In the best stories, a hero uses courage to drive herself through the story. However, she must make a choice: power or wisdom? Power is control, power is expressed in a tangible act. Wisdom is intangible, but it's what the character needs: that new way of looking at things that will enable her to solve her dilemma and the dilemmas of everyone around her. Will she fight to retain the old way of things? Or will she rise above her limitations through experience?

Look at Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass).  Lyra Belacqua, already a courageous young woman, chooses to save the children victimized by the murderous General Oblation Board, rather than become one of them, as she is given the opportunity to do in the first book. She walks away from safety and from power over others in order to save those who cannot save themselves. Her example, in turn, inspires multitudes.

After Lyra rescues a half-dead child and returns him to her allies, the Gyptians, they shrink away in fear of the boy's condition. Lyra's armored bear companion, Iorek, chides them, "Shame on you! Think what this child has done! You might not have more courage, but you should be ashamed to show less."

Much later in the story, Lyra learns a hard lesson that costs her dear: adults can (and often do) lie to obtain what they want. Armed with new experience and wisdom, she resolves to continue onward, into the unknown. Her new wisdom compliments her bravery, and she becomes an even stronger character, and a greater force with which to be reckoned.

Or, look at Pixar's Toy Story (screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow). King-of-the-heap Woody is brave, but he fears losing his position as top toy. He loves the respect and power afforded to him, so when this is unexpectedly threatened, Woody must choose: do everything he can to retain his power over the toy room, or understand that even though things change, he's still treasured. His owner, Andy, ultimately doesn't lose any love for Woody, much as a parent loses no love for a first child once a second one comes along. He isn't being replaced nor abandoned: there's space in his role for two. At first, he risks everything to save his position, but then risks everything to save Buzz, and finally earns even greater respect from his toy box compatriots.

As a final example, look at Willow (screenplay by Bob Dolman). Good-hearted Willow wants to learn magic. When a baby with a powerful destiny lands in his lap, he opts to save her from the dark forces that seek to destroy her. He's full of courage, but his magic could use some work.

"I can't do it. I'm not a sorcerer!" he complains to master sorceress Fin Raziel, who replies, "But you can be."

However, it's not magic or power that defeats Queen Bavmorda at the end of the film: he uses a simple trick. His courage leads him to the final confrontation, and his understanding that the sort of power wielded by his nemesis can only result in self-destruction. He learns that it's not about learning how to use magic: it's about learning that magic must be used responsibly, and that you don't even need it to save yourself and those for whom you care. It's after learning this that Raziel presents him with a book of magic and sends him on his way. He's ready.

In summation, courage, experience, and understanding lead to wisdom. Armed with wisdom, the character can solve the internal dilemma and then save the external one. A protagonist knows (or should know) when to let go of power in order to gain something greater. An antagonist wants it all, and doesn't know when to let go.

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