Friday, November 21, 2008

Lord of Obstacles

I've always had a fondness for the Hindu god Ganesha.

He's not a god of war or the harvest or fertility. He's his own god, a kind of deity without portfolio. He fits in where he's needed -- a kind of generous, humorous personality that understands human nature. Plus, he's got an elephant head, anywhere from 2 to 16 arms, and he rides around on a rat.

Ganesha is the son of Shiva, who created the universe in Hindu mythology. Shiva's a bit more lively than our Judeo-Christian god. He didn't state the universe into existence. He danced it into existence. There are numerous myths around how he came to have a son. One is that Ganesha was born of his laughter.

And Ganesha couldn't quite stop laughing soon enough. He loves to tease, and in fact made fun of his dad and his dancing. The end result? He dances the arts and music into existence. In some myths, Shiva chopped off his human head out of anger at this impertinence. Ganesha's mom had to make do with an elephant head in a pinch. If that's not a recipe for character sympathy, I don't know what is.

Ganesha is a trickster. He likes to play. He's the god of obstacles. He both places them and removes them. He brings about change. You can pray to Ganesha if you want to make things move smoothly. But Ganesha might just stick an obstacle in your path if it's going to teach you something in the long run.

By all rights, that should make Ganesha the god of screenwriting.

Ganesha knows something about what makes an obstacle effective. He knows what draws us on is often the same thing that draws us astray. It's important to remember this when you're struggling to make your character compelling and complex. There's a simplicity at the base of all complexity. Ganesha knows it.

I wrote in my previous post about trying to get a little girl into a car in time to hear a conversation the whole script hinged on. There didn't seem to be a way without pulling back on the conflict and forcing the characters to back down on their misbehaviors. I teased myself that perhaps they were all learning something -- getting past their problems. But I knew it wouldn't work. I got the square block halfway into the round hole, then spent the afternoon trying to extricate it.

A good obstacle forces you to think. It forces you to admit something important. The story isn't about you. It's not there to make things easy on you. It's there, primarily, to help you learn. That's why we write, even if we've got visions of first-look deals dancing in our heads.

And you realize at some point that your character can be lead astray quite easily. And that 'astray' is often exactly where you want to be. You can trick your character. You can force them to confront things they'd never look at. You can force them to grow.

There's something fascinating here, like watching a parrot figure out how to get a nut out of a tube, or a toddler figure out how to use a doorknob. Something greater than you planned on comes out of nowhere. And writing is worthwhile again.

Always remember your character's goal. Always remember their in-the-moment context. And always remember their problem -- even when it seems to be working against you. And remember that there might just be a fat guy with an elephant head giggling just above your head at that very moment.

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