Character goals and goal obstacles in the craft of storytelling make up the core of any narrative and form the basic webbing of its structure, so let’s analyse these story elements in The Revenant.
Character goals and obstacles are clearly important in The Revenant, but let’s be clear, because of all the technical guile that director Iñárritu creates, this film is not a screenwriter’s film. The majority of its craft is within and therefore concerns the directing – framing, camera angles and movement, colour pallette etc., and the narrative is pretty much left to its own devices. It’s basically a revenge story about a man who is left for dead after watching his son being murdered and has to overcome various obstacles to hunt down the people responsible and exact that revenge.
The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree and then, once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
We’re sure you’ve heard that previous saying before, but the fact is that many writers don’t throw enough stones at their protagonists, making it easy for them to achieve their goals. Numerous reasons exist for this – maybe they love their characters too much and don’t want to hurt them – but we believe the main reason is because many writers don’t have the confidence to really push their characters into corners where it’s almost impossible to skillfully write them a journey out again. Yet, to make your story tense, exciting and original, that’s exactly what you have to do as a writer. So don’t forget, the writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree and then, once they are up there, throw rocks at them.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut
An overall goal for your protagonist to accomplish by the end of the story is the most crucial element in creating conflict (more on that in an upcoming post) and keeping your reader hooked to your story and turning its pages. Humans are curious animals, and if you can set up the goal to tap into that curiosity, you’re onto a winner. Yet aside from this, this throughline is what you hang your story on – what is your character willing to do, or not do, to accomplish this character goal, and what does that say about him or her, as well as the thematic message you’re trying to communicate?
Glass’s (DiCaprio) goal in The Revenant is very straight forward – he simply has to trek back to civilisation and find Fitzgerald (Hardy) to take revenge on him for murdering his son. As character goals go, this is overly simple, but the more you analyse this in other films, the more you’ll discover that the most successful stories contain simple character goals.
Now all you have to do is present your protagonist with obstacles that ‘attempt’ to stop them achieving their goal, but not just any obstacle – they must make life impossibly difficult for the protagonist (this element of writing is more complicated than described here, but that’s for another post). Glass is beginning his journey from the lowest point possible: almost dead with crippling injuries and half buried in the freezing ground. The best he can do is claw his way out of his makeshift grave and crawl across the forest floor, all the time knowing that if the Ree find him, he’ll be in his grave proper. This reveals much about his character – his will to survive is all-encompassing, forcing him to ignore the immense pain torturing his entire body. And that’s the point of a goal obstacle – to force the protagonist into a decision that reveals something about their character.
In a normal narrative the antagonist usually presents the obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, but The Revenant is a survivalist story, so it is nature and its environment that initially presents obstacles for Glass to conquer – the terrain, its savagery, the Winter cold and the brutality of mankind, represented in part here by the marauding Ree. All of these elements throw obstacles in the way that make it difficult for Glass to achieve his goal.
So the next time you’re considering writing a screenplay, or any form of fiction for that matter, make sure you give your protagonist a clear goal and make it almost impossible for him or her to achieve it.