'The autonomous individual, striving to realize himself and prove his worth, has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science and technology. The autonomous individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts, is a breeding call of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations.' --Eric Hoffer

Exploring Limits Through Characters

by Ethan Glover, Tue, Oct 25, 2016 - (Edited) Fri, Feb 09, 2018

Telling a good story that really grips an audience is difficult. But a story that accomplishes that can create an immortal memory in the minds of many.

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I finally got into watching Westworld, a new TV series based on the 1973 movie. I wasn't expecting it to be much more than a distraction. But a scene in the second episode suggests it will be otherwise.

Lee Sizemore says that what make his stories great are that they allow visitors to the park to discover who they are. But to Dr. Robert Ford, that isn't good enough. That kind of thinking is too simple. I would even add that it's boring. People already know who they are. A good story allows people to discover the limits of who they are.

The first two episodes of Westworld suggest that the 'hosts' (androids) within this world are regaining memories they should no longer have. One could even suspect Dr. Ford is doing this in secret. Maybe to discover the limits of the hosts themselves.

The movies, shows and video-games that have always stuck out to me are the ones that not only pull me into a well written, smooth storyline, but the ones who challenge me. Force me to think in way that goes beyond my normal limits.

Given a choice between two bad options, I believe the best choice is no choice. If someone gives you a choice between your wife dying, and your child dying, it's important to recognize that it's not actually your choice. Instead, the technical moral answer is to refuse the choice, put it back in the hands of whoever is forcing it on you, and make an attempt to save both. An attempt resulting in the death of both is not a moral failure, but success. It is the attacker who made the choice to kill both from the beginning, not you who failed to choose between the two.

It's a fine argument. But not exactly practical.

Walking Dead

In the Walking Dead, Rick does everything he can to protect his people. Even at the expense of others. In the world they live in, trust is always the riskiest option. It is literally 'us vs them.' As Jack Donovan puts it:

"Beyond the light of your night fire, there is darkness. They lie just beyond the flicker of your fire, out there in the dark. They could be wild animals, zombies, killer robots, or dragons. They could also be other men."

It doesn't matter who or what is beyond your fire, only that it is 'them.'

And so he must make difficult decisions. He leads his people through dangers and on missions, always forward, always getting stronger. Every new obstacle seems even more impossible than the last. It is a constant pushing of the boundaries. Of the characters going to their limits.

And for the viewer, they're along for the ride. Ricks head shaking. The snot dripping on the ground. Carls arm flinching. The tension in the music. Negans voice goes from sarcastic to angry. He looks Rick dead in the eye and slaps him. "This is it."

You can feel it. Rick is a man who has pushed his limits from killing to protect his group, to killing to make them more comfortable. And here he is again. A choice between everyone dying, and cutting his own sons arm off. No chance in hell of fighting out. (Remember when he bit a guys ear off with his hands tied behind his back?) Finally, he's forced to make that philosophical choice. And he breaks. As we all would.


TV lacks the ability to put you in the driver seat. Video games that allow you to make moral decisions and determine the outcome of the game and the character draw a lot of interest. Even some games that don't give you the choice can have a gripping effect on the audience.

In God of War 2, after Zeus annihilates and kills Kratos, Hades' minions drag Kratos' dead body into the underworld. But Kratos is a man with a deep and passionate drive to have revenge on all the gods. We're talking about a guy who has chains permanently seared into his arms. He was tricked into killing his own family and now their ashes are embedded in his skin.

Upon waking up in hell, Kratos drags himself right back out, fighting off hundreds of minions who try to stop his ascent. Kratos is exhausted, literally dead, and could barely put up a fight against Zeus. But he spends weeks climbing the walls of the underworld, just to keep fighting. Even though he has nothing left and no chance.

The Uncharted series had the same feel. Through the game, it is made abundantly clear that Nathan Drake is a regular guy, not a superhero. He stumbles and pants. When he finds himself in a train wreck, you can sense his exhaustion as he scrambles to save his own life.

In Witcher 3, you do get the chance to make moral decisions for yourself. And how you decide determines the outcome of the game, which characters are on your side, etc. There is a character name Dijkstra (named after a graphing algorithm?) who can be a bit of an ass. But I liked the character. My character got along with him well. Through the whole game, I always played the nice guy.

But when he said he wasn't going to let me save another character because of an old tiff... it kinda' pissed me off. Instead of taking the nice way out, I broke the fuckers leg.

I suppose with a guy like Dijkstra, it had to happen sometime. But whatever Geralt was feeling when he said, "I don't have time for this..." I was feeling it too. I've got shit to do, you can work out your nonsense later!

That scene stuck with me because it pushed my limits. Luckily, my limits are much higher in the real world, but the point remains. It's clear to me that when someone says, "There's always a peaceful way out," it's naive. I understand that when pushed, I'm more than capable of taking an... alternative route.

Having an opportunity to see and 'experience' different scenarios in fictional worlds is an opportunity to learn where my limits are. And as Dr. Ford said, that's what's interesting about these worlds. Not the same old hero saves the weak bullshit. It's the unique explorations of scenarios that may only exist in a fictional world, but have a direct tie to the real world and the way we think about it. That's what makes a story interesting.


My favorite show of all time, without competition, is Vikings. The main character Ragnar Lothbrok started as a nobody tired of bad decisions coming from his King. He made an attempt to help that King, and when it didn't work, he went and did his own thing. That inevitably resulted in the overthrow of that king. Ragnar didn't want to rule, he wanted to have successful raids and take care of his family and his people.

Through the show, characters mistake Ragnars natural leadership and sense of justice for an addiction to power. People who want Ragnars power try to take it, get killed, and never realize that all Ragnar wants is for those who follow him to trust him. If you don't want to follow him, you're welcome to live on your own.

The great failure of Ragnar Lothbrok is that he could inspire loyalty, but he could never inspire people to think like him. He wanted his people to be better. To work with other cultures and grow. Not just kill and raid for meager payouts. He would rather be a soldier with a mission than a Viking who fought just to fight. His people never saw that. That was his limit.

That's why I believe he disappeared after he failed to take Paris. He tried to make a home in France with allies. His people, violent as they are, made that impossible. He sieged France out of a loyalty to his people whom the French slaughtered. But after that, recognizing that he had reached a military limit, and a leadership limit, he went home and disappeared. Leaving his people rich and prosperous. Yet, upon his return, they did not welcome him. But still, none could take on the responsibility they put on his shoulders in the first place.

"They're here because they wanted limits, of who they could be." Rick, Kratos, Geralt, Nathan Drake and Ragnar Lothbrok reached their limits many times through their story lines. And they broke through those limits only to discover more challenges and new limits. That's the hidden similarity between these gripping tales. That's why they've held a lasting impression on me and many of their consumers.