The Fine Art of Caring

Someone recently asked me what my vice was. At first the question took me off guard. I mean, I can’t very well tell the guy that I’m an alien overlord on the planet Chogoth and that under my cruel tyranny tens of millions of innocents have died. I tend to like to keep that kind of thing under wraps.

So I hemmed and hawed for a minute before I came up with this gem: “I like watching scathing reviews of bad movies on the internet.” Which has the added bonus of being true.

I’m not sure why I like watching people scream about how bad a movie is. I only know that for me it’s oddly compelling entertainment. But last week, I watched one review in particular that really made me mad.

In this review Matthew Buck AKA Film Brain was lambasting 2012, the disaster epic directed by the famously infamous Roland Emeric.  Now if you haven’t seen this movie, trust me its dumb. It’s fun in its way, but it’s really really DUMB.

However I found myself taking issue with the reviewer over one particular point of criticism. He complained that a film about the destruction of the earth was too focussed on one particular family. Millions of people were dying like rats, but it only seemed to matter if this one family made it out okay.

At first this seems like a legitimate complaint. After all, we see buildings collapsing and cars falling from bridges and all manner of mass destruction, such that by the end of the movie it’s clear that billions are dead. In those kinds of circumstances who cares if one family made it out alive? But from a story perspective at least, I would argue that 2012 gets this one right.

Why? Because we don’t have the capacity to care as much about huge groups of people suffering and dying as we do for individuals. For any kind of disaster to have an impact on us we need to be close to it. The closer we are, the more it affects us.

For instance, several years back a huge tsunami crashed ashore on the rim of the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people died. It was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. But I can tell you that the tornadoes that recently devastated an area of Alabama just a few miles from where I live impacted me emotionally more than the tsunami did. And if my own mother was to die in a car accident, that would affect me most of all.

Why? Because I have a personal connection to her. No, it doesn’t make strictly logical sense to care for one more than you care for thousands, but we aren’t strictly logical beings.

That’s why films like 2012 focus on families and individuals. Because those stories are the ones we care about. We connect to the world on a personal level. And the same is true with all stories. As writers we need to understand that.

All great stories are ultimately about individuals. And since we’re talking movies, I’ll tell you that my favourite example of this in recent memory is Inception. It’s a big budget action flick with mind bending twists and an eclectic cast of characters. But if you boil it all down its a story about one man trying to get home to his kids.

That’s all.

The fate of the world isn’t hanging in the balance. The earth is not being saved from destruction. But one of the reasons that Inception works is because it realizes that personal crisis matters more than global catastrophe.

That doesn’t mean that we writers can’t craft an epic story of global proportions, but we must always, always, always, remember that the personal story, the individual stakes, must matter more than the global stakes.

Give your readers a reason to connect with your protagonist as a person. Make them care about his struggle.  Everything else will fall into place.

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10 responses to “The Fine Art of Caring

  1. Every disaster movie focuses on a small handful of people. Aside from our not being able to become emotionally involved with anonymous masses, they don’t provide the dramatic tension that movies require. The human mind is designed for small-scale connections. Charities know this very well. They may be working to provide relief for crowded refugee camps, but their ads will focus on a very few, up-close faces.

    • Darn, I was gonna mention the thing about charities but it slipped my mind when I was writing the post. Excellent point. Thanks for filling in the gaps of my stupidity. 🙂

  2. Disaster films are fiction. Dopey fiction. It’s possible but not gonna happen except for real local events. We know they will fix it? But do I like the Star Trek space stuff because it is impossible fiction and I want it to be possible?

  3. Does your wife wake in the morning and need your profound thought as much as her coffee? Great post.

  4. That’s a great point on how to connect with readers and/or viewers. Like the way you made the bad movie review relate to writing!

  5. This is probably why I connect to some stories more than others. I’ve read series that I don’t want to end because the writer has made me want to care about the main characters. As a short story writer, I guess I have a bit of a challenge ahead of me.

  6. Haha, reading scathing reviews is a guilty pleasure of mine, too. For some reason, I find snarky, passionate rants very entertaining.

    And good point about connecting to individuals. I totally need someone to root for and care about to want to continue with a book or movie.

  7. Pingback: The Fine Art of Caring (via Albert Berg's Unsanity Files) « journeys toward peace

  8. Great post and good advice!

  9. You seem to be very passionate about the subject.

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