When I was a child I played with Lego. I enjoyed making complex creations like cars and space stations. But I wasn’t a good planner and inevitably I would get 90% finished before noticing some deep flaw in the structure that had to be fixed. My creation was 90% finished but in order to complete that last 10% I’d have to backtrack and dismantle the creation to the point of 50% completion and then rebuild in the optimal way. Depending on how late in the day it was when I hit this point I would have to chose: Accept a 90% complete creation or spend the time to destroy it to make it better.
This is the basis for my theory of storytelling called “The Philosophical Deconstruction of the Self”.
You see, I never WANTED to deconstruct my 90% complete Lego creations but deep down I knew I would be settling if I didn’t. And that is how you introduce a relatable protagonist. You don’t give us an idol… flawless in every way. You give us a human who is 90% complete. You give us Woody from Toy Story… Perfectly charming except that he has ownership issues over his kid Andy. You give us Mr Incredible. Someone who is living day to day doing what he’s told but longs to relive the glory days. Everything would be fine but for that 10% that can’t let go of some inner flaw.
The reason these flaws are so relatable and watchable is because we all know they’re trapped in a similar situation to my Lego creations. They are stuck at 90% and in order to get to 100% they’re going to have to deconstruct their lives. In story this means a total explosion of the status quo that always promises a wonderful ride.
In the film “The Peaceful Warrior” the protagonist Dan is an athlete that has to go on a quite literal philosophical deconstruction of the self when he meets a Zen master named Socrates. The film shows the protagonist is at 90% by showing him partying and over drinking and having reckless sex. Eventually Dan has an accident (and in the visuals literally deconstructs himself) and through recovery, faces his shadow self. He lets go of the shadow self and eventually recovers to full 100% and wins the athletic contest.
This deconstruction of the self is everywhere in popular film. In Toy Story woody has to break down his possessive nature in order to find a higher status as friend and equal to Buzz and all the other toys. In Big Hero 6 Hiro has to break down his emotional loss of his brother in order to become the hero the city really needs. In How To Train Your Dragon Hiccup has to break free of the ideology of his tribe and construct a higher self in peace with dragons and his father.
This is such a captivating process because all of us are facing this problem. There is something wrong in all our lives. We are holding on to a grudge, a pipe dream, a loss, a fear or something that is holding us at 90%. We are all afraid to pick up the Lego creation of our Ego and dismantle it to build it up to 100%. It’s what we know we must do but we have to face all the shadows and dragons and demons of our inner psyche. It is the most scary place in the world to go.
And that is why we go to the movies or watch TV or read books or play narrative heavy video games. It is a trial run. It is like a guided tour of our inner world. It gives us catharsis without having to have trauma. This deconstruction of the self is scary business and story is our guide.
This is what movies really sell. They sell therapy on a mass scale. They help us through our problems and give us an outlet. How many places are there in society where it’s socially acceptable to cry? Therapist’s offices, funerals and Movie Theaters.
Thanks for reading