You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
You can’t change people.
Change comes from within.
People are dumb.
These are all true of us real life humans. Haven’t you ever had a friend that frustrated you because they keep making the same mistake and you give them perfectly good advice and yet they don’t take it? It’s SO frustrating! And you finally surmise that they have to want to change and all the advice and lectures and demonstrations of love from you just aren’t enough to get them to address whatever their core issue is. You can lead a horse to water and you can shove their velvety lips into the water but they just don’t drink it, damn it!!
If you are a parent, you know that feeling VERY intimately. Kids just have to find out for themselves, you say to yourself. Life will teach them the lesson they need to learn. You can’t learn something by intellect alone, you need real experience to see the light. It is a monumentally frustrating because you love your kid so much and you don’t want them to make the same mistakes you did. The last bastion of a loving parent is the magical thinking that somehow all of our acquired wisdom can be bestowed upon our kids so that they don’t have to suffer.
But if you’ve been in one my workshops, you are familiar with the hilarious point-maker that I perform with glee – raise your hand if you have learned a really significant, lasting life lesson without the accompaniment of any fear, pain, tears, or embarrassment. The room plunges into somber acknowledgement. Nobody. It just doesn’t happen.
People want to change when the consequences of their actions or beliefs are more uncomfortable than holding on to their illusions.
Sorry, moms and dads, your kids are going to suffer. Wisdom has to be earned.
Sorry, writers, your characters are going to suffer.
Do you get it? Do you see what I did there?
If you were at my workshop in London, you know that the focus of my classes was using your own personal insights and revelations to fuel your ability to write really great, organic characters.
We did the I Am exercise and we made lists of the things we admire most and loathe the most and fear the most. We became, in other words, tuning forks, so we could gain some clarity about ourselves – about what is important to us.
In doing so, writers can then be in much better emotional and creative alignment with writing characters that are deeply flawed but who will, over the course of a script, find their way back home to who they truly want to be.
That’s all very nice – and very powerful – but the point of today’s blog post is to underscore for you that yes, it is entirely true that people won’t change unless they want to.
Your job is to make your character want to change. Imagine that you are the Wicked Witch of the West, gazing into your crystal ball, watching events unfold and waving your wand over the crystal ball to MAKE them unfold…. You aren’t wicked and hopefully your skin is a much nicer shade than green, but you are the witch or wizard or god behind the curtain in your writing. Or, if you are a parent, in some ways, writing characters with great arcs is wish fulfillment – I TOLD YOU.
At the beginning of the script, your main character must be almost completely unaware of the fact that change is needed in his or her life. So you are going to throw as many apples and flying monkeys at them as you can until they have an epiphany – they MUST change in order to get what they want. And in many cases, once your character has a revelation, what they want changes.
Haven’t you done that – been hell bent on getting the job or the girl or the friendship and then when that failed, suddenly having the realization that you don’t want it anymore? Because you learned something about yourself which causes you to want something different.
Characters are a lot like us. What they will ultimately change, over the course of the story (and you over the course of your life) is that they will come to love and accept themselves. Through the trials and tribulations you put them through. They will want to change, they will drink the water you have led them to. They will have gained wisdom. Until the sequel.