Over the weekend, I watched Good Will Hunting. No, I’ve never seen the movie before even though it was released in 1997. That was the year I was working 40 hours a week at a garden centre, giving birth to my first child and settling into a new house, so I didn’t watch much of anything.
Throughout the movie, I was waiting for the inevitable. I say inevitable because many of the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve watched the past 20 years have used death to jolt the main character out of their ‘destructive’ daze and into change for the better. I’ve seen it so many times, I can often pick which character will be sacrificed for the good of character development. If it’s a character I’ve invested emotion in, I pull back before the death, knowing it’s coming. If I’m unaware, it feels like a betrayal by the writer.
So while I’m watching Robin Williams (Dr. Sean Maguire) weaken Matt Damon’s (Will Hunting) defences to see what makes him tick, I’m zeroing in on the sacrifice: Morgan O’Malley (played by Casey Affleck), and hate for this lazy writing technique is numbing my senses, not because I’m invested in the character but because I feel it coming and it feels cheap.
Then the story progresses and in many ways, Williams becomes the sacrificial victim as he reveals the hardships in his life to breakdown Damon’s defences. In turn Williams’ character also develops. I see the story unfold and no one had to die. Incredible.
Not really. This was 1997, when lazy writing didn’t use the shock of killing a character close to the main character to trigger the Mirror Moment in every second movie. This movie revealed my true dislike for this tool to change the character into what he’d become at the end.
Don’t confuse this with everyone having to live. They don’t, but this technique has been used so many times the past tens years, the market is saturated with it. It’s a trope that’s been exhausted and effectively rendered useless.
I bet you don’t have to think too long before you come up with a book or movie that uses this trope to move the character into the next, usually final phase of development. The movie I saw last week used it: 28 Days, starring Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen. Bullock walks in and finds her roommate dead of overdose or suicide. Doesn’t matter. This triggers the character . . . you know the rest. The end.
Because this trope has been used so often, I work to keep it out of my stories. There are many ways to launch a character into the next phase. It’s more work, but I’m willing to put in the effort.