There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Cho Chang are at a café in the wizarding town of Hogsmeade. Harry, of course, has a crush on Cho and is hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. As they sit together at the table he starts to tell himself that he should reach out and hold her hand.
A few more minutes passed in total silence, Harry drinking his coffee so fast that he would soon need a fresh cup.... Cho's hand was lying on the table beside her coffee, and Harry was feeling a mounting pressure to take hold of it. Just do it, he told himself, as a fount of mingled panic and excitement surged up inside his chest. Just reach out and grab it. . . Amazing how much more difficult it was to extend his arm twelve inches and touch her hand than to snatch a speeding Snitch from midair... But just as he moved his hand forward, Cho took hers off the table.
Seeing or reading about a character’s awkward discomfort often gets a visceral reaction from the audience. Seeing smiling faces has a chance to make you feel happy and frowns could possibly make you sad, but watching someone squirm in a socially painful situation seems guaranteed to turn your own insides as well.
This is because most of us who read about Harry’s internal struggle are immediately brought back to similar moments in our own life. All of us who have dated can share experiences of such times where we felt paralyzed between the excitement of potential success and the horror of potential rejection. Whether to hold a hand, or put an arm around the shoulders, or to lean in for a kiss, we’ve all been there, and this evocative scene immediately taps into those personal emotions.
Of course there are other stories that go as far away from these relatable moments of ordinary life as possible. They don’t dwell on typical social dramas, they project amazing power fantasies instead!
Consider the scene near the end of the first Matrix film where Neo and Trinity storm the building that Morpheus is being held captive in. Clad in black leather, hair slicked back, shades permanently affixed to their faces they stride past the security checkpoint like they own the place.
A team of heavily armored guards rush out to meet them with shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. Guns are whipped out, techno music kicks into high gear, and we are treated to a scene of exorbitant action! Neo and Trinity are flipping off of walls, rubble and smoke fills the air, baddies drop like dominos. This is not a duel between evenly matched forces, it is a scene of total domination!
The whole thing is entirely over-the-top and absolutely nothing like real life. Of course no one could relate to a scene like this!
Except that yeah, I totally did.
I mean, no, never in my life have I ever been a situation remotely like this, but long before I saw this scene I had already been rehearsing moments just like it in my head. And I’m far from the only one.
This scene landed so powerfully with audiences because it tapped into the power fantasies that each of us hold in our private moments. We love to imagine a problem that calls for a new hero to enter, us. We arrive on one the scene looking the very epitome of cool, and then cut the baddies down left and right with our ridiculously overpowered arsenal.
The scene in The Matrix might ring entirely false in the “real world,” but it is very, very true in the imagined one. Some scenes can be relatable in how they capture the nuances of ordinary life, and some in how they capture the nuances of deepest desire.
Somewhere In Between)
The painfully awkward and the power fantasy. Must a story choose one style of relatability over the other? Is it possible to be both grounded and fantastic?
The 2011 film Moneyball is a sports film that feels far more true-to-life than most other sports films. It is about the business of baseball, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of managers trying to synergize the perfect roster. It is about budgets and algorithms.
Thus it is a very grounded take on the sport and it is filled with all manner of down-to-earth, understated, totally relatable scenes. Take for example when the film develops the relationship between the main character and his daughter. They are both in a guitar store and he is trying to coax her to play a little song for him. She’s nervous because they’re in public, but with a little encouragement she recites a few simple lines from a song.
It’s one of very few scenes in the entire film that the main character shows strong emotion, nearly brought to tears at the delight of seeing his daughter just doing what she loves. It’s a moment both small and large, both mundane and fantastic.
Furthermore, the entire film is all about that main character trying to make something of substance by very simple, deliberate means. Each scene by itself seems of little consequence, advancing goals by only the tiniest of margins, immediately relatable to the slow march we perceive in our own lives. But by the end of the film something truly special comes to fruition, immediately relatable to the hope we each have that our slow and steady march is leading to somewhere grand. Both the mundanity of real life and the fantasy of our deepest desires are fully represented.
In my current story I have been trying to take the opposite approach to Moneyball. Rather than adding mundane moments until they become a fantasy, I have begun with a fantasy setting tried to fill it with mundane moments.
I showed this last time where the two main character discussed conspiracies while chopping firewood and where the main character’s moment of boldness was just to grab a paper without being seen by another. Important things are happening, but they’re intentionally being couched in basic moments of life.
Of course as things continue the fantastic will win out, but hopefully even then it will be in a way that remains relatable to our private fantasies. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of The Favored Son to see how I pursue that goal.