Inception vs Tenet: The Art of Character

Part 1 - Why it’s important to establish Goals, Desires and Needs in Character and why stories mean more when they have all three

Why do we love film? It’s a simple question, but one that begs a complicated answer depending on who you ask. It’s also one not everyone would agree on. However, one thing’s for sure, we all indulge in films to be entertained. And you can’t talk about being entertained in film these days without mentioning one of the decades most successful, not to mention, influential filmmakers, Christopher Nolan.

To say that he’s a master making must-see blockbusters that enrapture as much as entertain is a given. What comes under more scrutiny, and especially recently, is his ability to develop characters that engage us with the story. After all, we can be entertained to infinity and beyond, but if a film doesn’t have characters who reel us into its emotionally resonant core, it’ll probably be remembered fondly but briefly, its impression never able to go gain a hook deeper than the surface. But a character-driven entertaining film with heart, now that’s hard for anyone to forget!

It’s for this reason, I think Tenet stands separate to the rest of Nolan’s work and why it highlights a growing trend of his to prioritise plot over story. This is exactly what I explored in my previous article, what happens When Plot Eclipses Character. In it, I briefly compare Nolan’s most recent spectacle to Inception and highlight how the now decade-old film offers a more complete and fulfilling story experience because it has a heart that’s missing in Tenet.

Today, I’d like to expand upon this further and delve into the two key ingredients missing in Tenet that elevate Inception as a complete story with characters worth revisiting, as well as explore how Nolan attempts to inverse these missing elements with more fruitful surface characterisations.

- Fair warning before I dive in, this article will explore some nerdy elements of story creation. Proceed with excited, if not bemused, caution -

The Inevitable comparison

You see, on the surface, these two Christopher Nolan adventure spectacles are very similar. Both are spy thrillers with his trademark high-concept twists; both are written and directed solely by Nolan; both require an extraordinary amount of exposition (explanation about the mechanics of the world) to understand the story, and both feature a high-flying acrobatics team attempting to defy time and accomplish the impossible.

However, when you take a closer look you can see that one film is not only a more fulfilling story but that the reason it is, is exactly because it’s doing a lot more with its main character beneath the surface. Indeed, while the similarities help compare the two films, it’s actually the differences that are useful to highlight why one is superior to another; elements that become all too clear when you look closer at the characters, their desires, goals and needs.

Ingredient 1: Characters with Desires & Goals

When referring to a story, a Goal and Desire are often used interchangeably to mean something external the characters want. However, today I’d like to propose that character desires are actually different from their goals. Sure, both drive the characters and, thus, narratives of the story. But the key difference is:

  • Goals are what a character, as well as us in real-life, are trying to achieve. It’s a set objective and can be attained by accomplishing a certain action.
  • Desire, on the other hand, springs from the emotional heart of a character and usually motivates said action

Great characters in great films often have this, such as Rick in Casablanca, Dr.Grant in Jurassic Park and James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), where, in perhaps his most personal story yet, he must grow and overcome his weaknesses. Consequently, Bond has both a desire and a goal: his desire is to prove himself as a double 0 (and earn the hand of Vesper Lynn) and his goal is to apprehend the villain and complete the mission.

Similarly, Cobb (Leo) in Inception has both of these. His goal is to accomplish Inception and complete the mission. Importantly, though, it’s fuelled by his desire to reunite with his kids. That’s what he truly cares about, so that’s what constitutes the core of the film. Having both of these propels character from the one-dimensional into the infinitely more vivid realm of appearing as relatable humans and allows the audience an insight into who they are and why we should care. In essence, it personalises their missions.

If we flip the switch to Tenet though, the Protagonist’s obvious goal is to save the world. But what’s his desire? What drives his desperation to achieve this goal? What allows the audience to care about him? If you’re stuck, that’s because he doesn’t have one. At least, not one that’s developed or made clear. It’s arguable that he has a desire to protect Kat and her son. The issue, if this is the Protagonist’s desire, is not only is it never stated — unlike the plot of the film — but it’s only vaguely hinted at, leaving his desire for Kat ambiguous at best.

Does he want to protect her and her son because he’s a good person and is that what’s fuelling his actions? Or does he actually like her and want to be with her? If its the former then the character suffers from being too altruistically one dimensional and if it’s the latter then we need more scenes of them together so we can engage with their growing affection.

Conversely, in Inception Cobb’s love for his wife is shown and expressed multiple times during the film, clearly establishing the hardship he has in letting her go. If only the same care had been placed into developing the relationship, whether platonic or romantic, between the Protagonist and Kat. In the end, the audience is left to assume he’s doing it because he’s a more chivalrous James Bond. The Ironic difference being that Bond’s often cringy pursuit of women at least allows the audience to know, if rather obviously, what he desires. I almost wish the same were true of The Protagonist.

So, how does the Protagonist’s lack of desire affect the story? Well firstly, when we see characters have desires that motivate their desperation to achieve their respective missions, we engage with them much more. When the world is ending, sure we care. But when the stakes are personal, like when the main character won’t be able to see his kids again, that’s a hell of a lot more immersive, not to mention relatable.

Secondly, because when the goal of both films has been accomplished, when the plot is over and both characters can return to the real world, what’s their reward? What’s there awaiting their efforts, struggles and sacrifices? For Cobb, it’s the reunion with his kids. In Tenet, we get a small scene where he saves Kat and confirms his journey is just beginning. However, all this does is show what we already know. It can’t make up for an emotional connection between him and Kat that took a back seat to exposition up to now. The emotional catharsis that this scene should be about is left blank and the audience leaves the film thinking about the plot and not about the character’s journey. Which brings us nicely round to the second key ingredient to great character…

Ingredient 2: Give Your Character A Need

I’ve spoken before about how character desires form goals and how this in turn forms the backbone of the story. Indeed, without desire, the story has nothing to drive it and falls apart. However, desire is the very obvious ingredient, often stated and referred to by the characters themselves. What’s not so overt is the second ingredient that elevates a character from the obvious into the subtle, from the relatable into the real: a need or an unconscious desire. In the words of a story master, John Truby:

“Weakness and need are the foundation of any story. They are what makes it possible for your hero to change at the end. They’re what makes the story personal and meaningful. And they’re what makes the audience care.”

If we go back to Casino Royale, Bond for perhaps only the second time in his silver screen career has a need: to put aside his ego and overcome his arrogance. It’s his struggle to overcome these internal, as well as external, forces that explode scenes from one-time suspense stops into tense classics worth reliving. And it’s the characters who have this that we can engage with more, and provide the heart and soul we explore films with and for.

In the end, Inception isn’t about accomplishing the mission. It’s not even about Cobb making it home to his kids: that functions very much as the reward. No, the need for his character is what the story is about. Cobb needs redemption. He needs to let his past go so he can move on with his life and finally get home to his kids. And, in perhaps the most genius move of Inception’s as a story, is that because everything is happening in their minds, Cobb’s need has a physical manifestation in Mal, his dead wife. Literally, as well as figuratively, his past and his guilt over causing her death is what’s holding him back. In finally confronting her he’s able to cathartically resolve the turmoil plaguing him since her death and return home whole to see his kids.

It’s because of this that Inception as a film is elevated from good to great. And it’s this same reason that Tenet can’t be as highly regarded. Because in Tenet, The Protagonist has neither desires nor needs to shape his character, and thus, the story into a more enjoyable cathartic experience.

Okay, but surely not every main character must have this and Tenet would suffer from having a character Need shoe-horned in, right? Correct, but Tenet also suffers from a lack of heart that Inception does not because right from the get-go, Inception has been building towards Cobb confronting his demons and overcoming his failures. He fails to be there for his kids, he fails his mission at the beginning, he fails his team by leading them down a dream rabbit-hole, and by repressing his need for catharsis he’s failing himself. That is until, we get to the end, by which point he’s ready to redeem himself. And this is why in most great films, the climax is about more than just the protagonist achieving their goals. It’s about whether they’re strong enough to overcome their flaw’s, to realise the lie that’s holding them back and be better from now on.

What having a Need does for a character is make the story about more than just the obvious. It means characters have a platform for change, evolving them from mere story constructs and plot devices into real people that an audience can connect more resoundingly with.

Does this mean characters with needs equal automatically better stories? Not necessarily, even characters with goals, desires and needs in a story poorly told won’t work. But what they can do is help create a more complete experience with characters who leap off the screen in a story worth revisiting; these are the foundations for an emotional hook that reels the audience in. Without them, stories risk becoming more about the spectacle than the characters who are struggling to overcome it, as is sadly with Tenet.

All of which begs the question, why did Nolan deny the audience the exploration of character and by extension an emotional journey in Tenet?

The answer to which I will be exploring in my next article, where I take a look at the ways in which Tenet inverses how a character is traditionally characterised and why Tenet fulfils our entertainment quota but leaves much to be desired in terms of a complete, engaging experience that’ll continue to leap off the screen as many of his other epics have. Thanks for reading and feel free to let me know what you think below!

First time storyteller looking to learn and share

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