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FFC #92 - Whiplash, and character motivations

Posted May 29th, 2022 at 12:38 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #92

My brother considers himself to be learned in the realm of movies. He watches films purely for how well they are done, regardless of their content. I'm a bit of the opposite, preferring to watch for content, and being much more lenient if a film wasn't made perfectly, but was still enjoyable. However, as a writer, I also enjoy breaking movies down, particularly in the story area, and seeing where they succeeded and failed.

Last night, my brother roped the family into watching Whiplash, the movie Damien Chazelle reportedly made so he could make enough money to make La La Land. Now, the movie was good. Really good. No question about it. However, I felt fairly disconnected from the main character while watching, and I believe that came down to how the story handled character motivations.

This isn't a review of Whiplash, and I'm not going to spoil the movie. I will recap the main conflict though, both because it's critical to what I have to say, and because it can easily be found in any introductory blurb about the movie.

Whiplash is about 19-year-old Andrew, who wants to become the best jazz drummer in the nation/world. His musical instructor, Fletcher, shares his goal, but to help him reach it, takes an approach to instruction which quickly crosses the line and becomes outright cruel. There's lots of scenes where Andrew's hands are bleeding from drumming, for instance.

That's all I'm going to say about the movie in terms of plot. What I want to talk about is Andrew's motivations for becoming the best drummer.

In a story, it's important to introduce why your character needs to fulfil his goal. This comes down to personal stakes: the character is somehow incomplete without this goal. He will either become a better person by reaching it, or will become a worse one by failing to reach it. If nothing else, the potential for positive change will at least be there, if not the immediate change itself.

Back to the movie. Andrew is introduced as a very one-dimensional hero. He wants to become the best drummer, and there's lots of scenes showing how dedicated he is to this dream. But there's nothing showing why.

First off, Andrew does seem to be in a position where he could change for the better. He doesn't feel like he belongs at the school he's in. He struggles with asking out the girl he likes. Most of his family seem to consider his choice of musical career as unimportant.

But all of these things are on the side, and only vaguely suggest what Andrew's motivations might be. If anything, as he goes deeper and deeper into becoming the best drummer at any cost, I increasingly got the feeling that he was destroying himself, not becoming better.

But this was the crux of the problem: Andrew's introduction is fine: a character who wants to be the best drummer? Great. We don't know why yet, but neither do we need to. But once Fletcher starts his dubious teaching methods, and you see Andrew continuing to stick with drumming despite literally running his hands raw, you have to ask why is he doing this. And the answer just isn't there.

I can understand having a dream, but if we're going to see a character persevere quite literally through his own blood, sweat, and tears, then we've got to know why. That was my recurring question while watching the movie: why? Why is he putting himself through this? Why is he willing to put up with Fletcher, to work with him even?

The answers weren't there. They were hinted at, perhaps, but in a movie like this, where the character is going through something almost akin to military boot camp, and can easily just walk away, you need more than vague hints.

For me, the lack of character motivation for Andrew created a disconnect. I didn't understand this character, and that prevented me from completely sympathizing with him.

Generally, you want your reader to be able to project themselves onto the main character, at least at some level. This spawns sympathy for that character.

I couldn't do that with Andrew. Because there was a central part of him which was a mystery, I couldn't put myself in his shoes. I couldn't really understand where he was coming from because, well, it was never explained.

Now again, the movie was great. Lots of language, but I'd still highly recommend it. But for me, the lack of character motivations really stood out, an obvious flaw in an otherwise masterful movie. Did it destroy the movie? No. But it did have the effect (at least for me) of painting Andrew as misguided and obsessed. And that's not generally how you want your main character painted.

This is why character motivations are important, and why I felt the need to expound on this movie after having seen it.

~TGRF.

Dilmir Update: I've done a much-needed rework of the last part of the story, making the climax and buildup far better. I still need to finish outlining it, and making a few tweaks elsewhere. Once done, I'll be able to resume writing. Things are progressing slowly, but I'd put the release date around mid-late June.
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