Have you ever had that feeling as though every single day of your life were exactly the same? That there wasn’t anything exciting happening in your day-to-day, and every new dawn was yet another twenty-four hours of the same routines and habits?
Well, isn’t that really the reality for most of us?
Living the same routines however, is incredibly different from living the same day over and over. And it’s this kind of repetition—similar to what I talked about in The Shawshank Redemption—that makes a movie like Groundhog Day just so incredibly entertaining to watch.
But it isn’t really the living-the-same-day-over-and-over-again element that makes Groundhog Day a great movie, but the struggle that Phil (played by Bill Murray) goes through in order to change. And it’s that struggle that makes Phil a very compelling and resonant character. In fact Groundhog Day is a movie I consider to be one of the bets examples of how to plot and create character change.
GREAT CHARACTERS DON’T CHANGE OVERNIGHT
Just like it takes you nearly forever to change your day-to-day routines, the characters in your story are allergic to change. Change is usually followed by pain and discomfort. That’s why they—and we—often avoid it. If we’re comfortable where we currently are, we would obviously want things to remain the same.
It takes tremendous effort to change. It takes dedication, passion, hard work, and perseverance. And those things don’t come naturally to most people. Which is why it takes Bill Murray forever to escape having to live the same day over and over again.
For example, the first thirty minutes of the film show Phil Connors to be a very cynical man. And so when he realizes that he’s living the same day over and over, it becomes utterly characteristic of him to think pessimistically of his situation. It isn’t until after we find him drinking at a bowling alley with two locals that he suddenly thinks about the “perks” to living the same day repeatedly.
He asks his new friends, “What if there were no tomorrow?”
“No tomorrow. That would mean no consequences. There will be no hangovers. We could do whatever we wanted!”
“That’s true. We could do whatever we wanted,” Phil repeats.
And so the next couple of scenes we see Phil goofing off and abusing his new-found “freedom” by over-eating, picking up girls, slacking off, and even stealing.
He gets nearly everything he wants—all except one.
MEMORABLE CHARACTERS ARE THOSE THAT ARE DRIVEN INTO A CORNER
The one thing that Phil Connors was never able to acquire while he was still a jerk, was Rita.
Now, logically, this may or may not make sense. He has the greatest resource in the world to sweep Rita off her feet. So why shouldn’t he be able to, right?
That’s because allowing that just wouldn’t be in keeping with the movie’s theme.
Phil is able to get her to swoon. Sure. But he eventually fails because the affection he shows her is superficial. His motives are selfish.
And so he gets slapped a couple dozen times, each attempt bringing further and further from his main goal: Rita. Each failure tears him up. Breaks him down. Brings him closer and closer towards a pit of despair, up until he eventually decides to try and kill himself.
Brian McDonald has a perfect chapter on this in his book Invisible Ink (read my notes & highlights). In it, he discusses characters’ personal hells. He says that when you place your characters in a specific kind of situation or tragedy—one suited only for them—and have them emerge victorious, only then do you create a memorable, resonant character.
If you noticed during the first half of the movie, Phil tells Rita and Larry again and again how much he hates Punxsutawney, and how quickly he wants to get out of there once their gig is through. It’s the last place he wants to be—his personal hell.
And now he’s stuck there. He’s been stuck there for years!
What’s worse, he can’t figure out a way to get out.
So long as Phil remains as stubborn as he is about changing, he will never escape that hell.
Therefore, when it comes to your own stories, always make your characters’ trials and challenges as personal as they can be. Focus on one or two aspects of their characters, and start throwing punches. Don’t hold back. The harder you hit, the more engaged your audience will be.
I mean, isn’t that exactly why you rooted for Rocky? Isn’t that why you can’t help but scream for Goku to get up and fight? Because despite these guy getting bludgeoned over and over again, they still manage to hold on, and march on. We, as the audience, can’t help but admire characters like that.
Now, whether you want your character to win or lose is another question.
What matters most, though, is that you give them a helluva hard time. Build up your protagonist’s problems to a boiling point. Drive them to a literal point of no return—a fork in the road where they now have to make a choice. Will they change, or will they remain the same?
The exact moment when they’re forced to make that choice? That’s your Story’s climax.
TALL MOUNTAINS ARE WHAT MAKE A RESONANT CHARACTER
The taller the mountain, the greater the hike that your character faces. What makes Phil Connors such a memorable and resonant character is the simple fact that he’s come a very long way to being who he is at the end of the film.
Remember, he wasn’t just a little bit of a tool, he was a complete jerk—nearly impossible to talk to or be around. He made fun of everything Rita did. He insulted Larry on-the-clock. He was pretentious, egotistical, and downright rude.
But the minute you see how much he’s changed at the end, you can’t help but feel happy for him.
Because we know just how much effort it took for him to change.
From experience, we, as human beings, know just how hard it is to sustain that effort. And so we rejoice when we see that someone as bad a Phil can turn his life around. We rejoice because somehow we, too, are suddenly hopeful that we, too, can change.
Now, your Story may not end on the same high note, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as resonant. If the theme you want to tell in your Story revolves around the fact that people can’t change, or that they have no idea what they’re doing, it can still feel equally powerful as long as we’re able to see that your protagonists really tried climbing that mountain.
Maybe in the end, they decide that that wasn’t the mountain they wanted to climb. Maybe they decided to give up because it got too tough. As long as the theme you’re trying to portray for your audience is consistent, it doesn’t really matter whether your protagonist wins or not. You’re Story can still be just as memorable.
Stories like Chinatown end at an incredibly low point, yet that ending still shook me to the core—so much so that it’s become a story that’s so difficult to forget.
The idea of having your characters that go through hell and back isn’t new. We have had that concept down from the very beginning—so much so that one of our earliest known stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has a certain chapter wherein Gilgamesh himself journeys into the land of the dead and emerges with new knowledge and wisdom.
Nearly every epic tale follows this pattern. Your character must die in order for her to emerge more powerful, more memorable, and more admirable.
If you want to create a resonant character, don’t be afraid to throw them into the lion’s den.
Just remember that the monster he faces there must be made specifically for him. If he hates snakes, throw him into a tomb full of them. If he hates sharks, toss him into the water. If she hates creepy aliens, trap her on a spaceship full of those things. If he’s a coward, thrown him into the front lines of a war against a time-bending alien race.
If he’s a pretentious cynic that hates people and only cares about himself, trap him in a small town until he learns to love and appreciate all the people around him.