“Oh Captain my captain!”
I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.
It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.
A hero who overcomes what we cannot
The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.
They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.
A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness
I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.
While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).
Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.
A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality
Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.
But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.
Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.
Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.
There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.
And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.
So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.