***** THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE 2015 FILM ROOM *****
Yelling at a TV screen is pretty normal for me. You know a story has me hooked when I’m shouting what I think about character’s life choices. This has occurred several times throughout the history of my life and includes, but is not limited to, Aliens, any horror film ever, and the TV show The Bachelor. The most recent example was with last year’s film, Room.
I’d heard it was well liked by critics, and specifically Brie Larson’s performance as Ma was getting a lot of attention. I had no idea how invested I would become in the film’s outcome. When all was said and done, I put it on the top of my list for favorite film of the year.
There were so many elements that went into making this film engaging, and as a writer I found the writing to be wonderful. I became especially interested in the character of “Ma,” and what makes her character interesting and appealing from a writer’s perspective. Hopefully the principles will help you in your own writing as well.
- She’s Likable
Nothing makes a character more likable than self-sacrifice. Ma’s whole world is one of self-sacrifice.
The story revolves around Joy (Ma), who was kidnapped at a young age and forced to live in a man’s shed as his sex slave. Pretty harrowing stuff. Early on in her imprisonment she becomes pregnant with her son, Jack.
The film begins with Jack as a five year old boy, and “room” has been the only reality that Jack has ever known.
It would be easy to lose hope in such a life situation. Ma does no such thing. She keeps spirits up by telling Jack that “room” is the only reality. She makes “room” a fun and magical place for him (and for herself as well).
Immediately the audience likes her and is on her side. We want her to succeed because her self-sacrifice makes her a character worth investing in. This is a principle that screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder calls “save the cat.” If you show your hero “saving a cat” or doing something to help another person, it makes them worthy of our attention.
One of the reasons that Ma is such an engaging character to me, is because she has devoted her life to the well-being of her son, Jack, and we love her for it.
- She’s a Contradiction
At about the halfway mark of the film, Jack and Ma escape from “room,” and move into the world. As they try and adjust to their new life, Ma begins to understand the life she has missed out on, and that perhaps living in “room” has wrecked any chance Jack could have for a normal life.
For the first half of the film we have seen her as Jack sees her; a pillar of strength, hope, and love. The second half of the film we see another side of her. She feels like she missed out on life. She doubts. She’s feels guilt over how she raised Jack.
She is now even more relatable, because she becomes obviously imperfect in our eyes. She’s no longer simply a pillar of strength, but also frail and weak.
She has become a contradiction.
She becomes a more authentic person to us, because all people are inherent contradictions. Whether you want to admit it or not YOU are an inherent contradiction. We all say we believe a certain way, and our actions don’t completely line up with that.
Characters that are written as contradictions are more interesting to us, because it reflects reality.
- She’s Imperfect
As the film moves toward its final act, Ma becomes overwhelmed with potential guilt that she has irrevocably destroyed her son Jack. She attempts suicide, and spends a great deal of time in a psych ward to recover. In the meantime, Jack lives with her mom and step-dad.
We love her for her strength, but she becomes a whole and complete person in her weakness.
We all have flaws that we have to identify and grow through. Part of the reason why we even tell stories is to help us become more comfortable with our own imperfections, and to give us hope that we can grow.
If we aren’t willing to show our flaws, then we won’t grow. The same is true with our characters. If we aren’t willing to show them weak, the beauty of their growth will be missed. We need to show that growth, because ultimately story is about transformation.
The temptation when writing a character is to go one way or the other; we either want to inspire or identify with the character. They become a shiny, perfect person to set an example for all of humankind, or they are so broken that we no longer wish to journey with them as an audience.
What makes Ma such an engaging character is that she walks the fine line between both. She is equal parts inspirational and broken. Her love for her son is real and beautiful. So is her guilt, shame, and heartbreak.
As people we are the same. Let’s infuse an emotional reality in our characters, because I promise you, they will be that much more memorable and engaging.