Most protagonists end up doing the one thing they really aren’t cut out for. Brody is a city cop afraid of the water who has to hunt down the meanest shark in the ocean. Frodo is a simple little hobbit who must stroll right into the center of Mt. Doom with a ring that is poisoning his soul. Indy can’t keep a small golden idol from falling immediately into the hands of his arch-rival, how is he supposed to keep the Nazi’s from getting the ark?
In order for the story to move forward, or even happen at all, protagonists often have to give in and do something that every fiber of their being tells them is wrong, or dangerous, or just plain stupid. As brilliant story-tellers, we have to think of plausible, believable ways in which these heroes choose to set out on such dangerous and ill-fitting assignments.
The tools for the job are The Call to Adventure, and The Refusal of the Call. These terms and the mythic framework in which they belong were popularized by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey, based on the work of Joseph Campbell.
The Call is the point early on in the story when the hero is asked to undertake his or her quest. The Call can take many forms, from a literal call, to a sign from God, a convergence of unlikely events, a request by a dying relative, a murder, a visit from a long-dead business partner late one night, and so on.
When writers miss the opportunity for this moment, heroes appear to spontaneously jump on board the Adventure Train, leaving the audience in a fog. Why is this character doing this? What’s in it for them? What’s at stake? Why does the hero care?
Take as example a movie that should serve as warning to us all, Hoot. Our protagonist, a fish-out-of-water high-school student, looks out the school bus window and sees a blond boy running barefoot alongside the bus. After a few moments, the boy turns a corner and is gone. Instead of dismissing this mostly uninteresting non-event as he should and reviewing his algebra notes a few more times for the day’s quiz, the protagonist becomes immediately and unreasonably obsessed with this barefoot boy.
There’s no telling. In fact, when reasons are unstated, the default assumption for motivation is usually love at first sight, which led reviewer Richard Roper to wonder if the movie was “going to go all Brokeback on us”. And unless it’s your intention to write a gay teen romance, you’ve just derailed your entire story and lost your audience. If this event were going to serve as a call, it should be much more clear how this incident is related to the protagonist, and why he would be compelled to seek out the mysterious barefoot boy.
And here’s another problem — the protagonist in Hoot is far too willing to get involved in his own adventure. We’ve also skipped over another vitally important element — the Refusal of the Call. This step is essential for several reasons. It raises the stakes — something even more dire will have to happen to get the protagonist to move. It reveals character — now we know what the hero is really afraid of, or what flaw is holding him or her back. It puts protagonists in the driver’s seat and makes them active, not passive — they are going on the journey, but on their terms. Most importantly, it makes the protagonist’s actions much more plausible, and even garners our sympathies for a flawed hero.
In Jaws, of course Brody is going to go along with the Mayor who insists the girl’s death was a boating accident. That Brody can deal with. But a monster shark? Out of his league. And what has to happen in order for Brody to accept the truth? A young boy is attacked and killed by the shark, virtually in front of his eyes — a horrible death he could have prevented. Now that’s putting the screws to your protagonist. And the amazing result of this incident, a direct result of refusing the call, is not that the audience reviles Brody for failing to save the boy, but that we feel bad he’s burdened with the responsibility for this death, and we understand how it will compell him to chase down and ultimately kill this shark. He has to.
Sometimes it really doesn’t make sense for protagonists to refuse the call. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is an adventurer and archaeologist. We’ve already seen the lengths to which he’s willing to go to recover even relatively obscure artifacts. So when a couple of government suits show up with the key to finding the Lost Ark of the Covenant (The Call), it would be silly, and more importantly fatally inconsistent, for Indy to balk at the idea of going after it.
Yet writer Lawrence Kasdan still manages to accomplish much of what The Refusal of the Call does by placing the refusal of the call on Indy’s ex-girlfriend Marion. She’s got the key to finding the Ark, the headpiece to the staff of Ra, but she refuses to give it to Indy and unwittingly places herself in jeopardy when the Nazi’s show up to take the headpiece. Indy intervenes and Marion and Indy prevail, but Marion’s tavern is burned to the ground. Indy and Marion are now stuck with each other, the stakes have gone up (the Nazi’s will stop at nothing to get the headpiece), Marion’s character and her relationship with Indy has clearly been established, and the plot has been propelled forward. The Refusal of the Call has been honored in a non-formulaic, original way.
The Refusal of the Call doesn’t have to be convoluted, complicated, or drawn out. It just needs enough beats to be effective. In Aliens, James Cameron capably and efficiently used the Call and the Refusal of the Call to great result in perhaps the most difficult story problem of all — getting Ripley to go back to the alien planet.
In the film, Ripley has been made a scape-goat by the company and her flight license has been revoked. Not long after, company rep Burke shows up on her doorstep with a Marine lieutenant, asking her go to back to the very planet where all her troubles began.
The writer (in this case James Cameron) wants Ripley to say yes. She has to go, or there’s no story. But why in the world would Ripley agree to such a thing? If the writer is going to be true to Ripley’s character, she has to say no.
Carter Burke stands in the narrow, dingy corridor with LIEUTENANT GORMAN, Colonial Marine Corps. Young and severe in his officer’s dress-black. The door opens slightly.
Hi, Ripley. This is Lieutenant Gorman of the...
SLAM. Burke buzzes again. Talks to the door...
Ripley we have to talk.
They’ve lost contact with the colony on Acheron.
The door opens. Ripley considers the ramifications of that. She motions them inside.
INT. RIPLEY’S APARTMENT – A LITTLE LATER
Burke and Gorman are seated, nursing coffee. Ripley paces, very tense.
No. There’s no way!
Hear me out...
I was reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned by you guys...and now you want me to go back out there? Forget it.
We SEE that she’s gut scared, covering it with anger.
Burke sees it.
Look, we don’t know what’s going on out there. It may just be a down transmitter. But if it’s not, I want you there...as an advisor. That’s all.
You wouldn’t be going in with the troops. I can guarantee your safety.
These Colonial Marines are some tough hombres, and they’re packing state-of-the-art firepower. Nothing they can’t handle...right, Lieutenant?
We’re trained to deal with these kinds of situations.
But that’s not enough for Ripley who — we all agree — would have to be NUTS to even consider going out there again.
Burke tries another tack — dangles a carrot:
What if I said I could get you reinstated as a flight officer? And that the company has agreed to pick up your contract?
If I go.
If you go.
It’s a second chance, kiddo. And it’ll be the best thing in the world for you to face this fear and beat it. You gotta get back on the horse...
Spare me, Burke. I’ve had my psych evaluation this month.
Burke leans close, a let’s-cut-the-crap intimacy.
Yes, and I’ve read it. You wake up every night, sheets soaking, the same nightmare over and over...
No! The answer is no. Now please go. I’m sorry. Just go, would you.
Burke nods to Gorman who rises with him. He slips a TRANSLUCENT CARD onto the table, heads for the door.
Think about it.
Now our hero has put her foot down. She’s not going that’s that. Not even if they guarantee her saftey, not even if they make her a flight officer and give her a job.
But in order for there to be a movie, Ripley has to agree. What in the world could possibly motivate her to go back out into space? The truth is, there isn’t anything out there that’s as terrible as what she experiences night after night:
Ripley lunges INTO FRAME with an animal outcry. She clutches her chest, breathing hard. Bathed in sweat she lights a cigarette with trembling hands. Do we hear a faint, desolate wind?
TIGHT ON PHONE CONSOLE as Ripley’s hand inserts Burke’s card into a slot. “STAND BY” prints out on the screen and is replaced by Burke’s face, bleary with sleep.
(on video phone)
Yello? Oh, Ripley. Hi...
Burke, just tell me one thing. That you’re going out there to kill them. Not study. Not bring back. Just burn them out...clean...forever.
That’s the plan. My word on it.
CLOSEUP – RIPLEY taking a deep slow breath. It’s time to look the demon in the eye.
All right. I’m in.
She punches off before Burke replies, before she can change her mind.
Our hero has now accepted the call on her own terms, in a plausible, believable way that remains true to her character and garners the audiences’ sympathy. She’ll never be at peace unless she looks “the demon in the eye” — and we want her to be at peace. Going back to the alien world for Ripley is the equivalent of the teenage slasher-movie victim running into the house with the killer, yet because Cameron has so expertly made use of the Call and the Refusal of the Call, we, the audience, are entirely on board and rooting for Ripley.
- Vogler’s work may seem a bit old-fashioned now, but the nomenclature has embedded itself into the lexicon of screenwriting and I suspect many people use it without even realizing its origin. [↩]
- nothing wrong with that — believe me, it would have improved Hoot immeasurably [↩]
- Of course, it’s not until the Midpoint that Brody can actively set his sights on the shark and go after it, but that’s another post [↩]
- James Cameron, Aliens, May 28 1985 [↩]
- See also the finished film, in which small changes to the dialogue make this an even more effective scene. [↩]