The holy grail of stories can seem elusive. Sometimes, on the surface, everything is right. But then, all the time spent ironing out a theme (complex, but not too preachy!), a plot (coherent, but not too simplistic!), and characters (even the quiet one who initially refuses to let you into their head), seems to be wasted. Each story has a heart, something at its core that makes it unique. If you’re missing the heart, you don’t have anything.
In keeping with the Marvel theme, think of the Captain America movies. At the core, they are fueled by duty vs. friendship. The story has nothing to do with Bucky or Steve’s respective families. The addition of Peggy Carter as a love interest was cute, but not the center. Friendship was the center.
Often, it is some type of relationship that provides the story’s heart. Ant-Man is no different. Like any story, there are multiple relationships taking place on multiple levels. While Scott’s friends fulfill the function of allies and provide a bit of comedy, they don’t directly fuel his choices. It’s his daughter. Cassie Lang gives him a reason to do the things that he does. Even though she got comparatively little screen time, Marvel made this relationship work exceptionally well. While relationships aren’t simple, by any stretch of the imagination, a few checklist items are helpful.
Don’t tell us, show us.
How do we know that Cassie Lang really matters to her father? It’s not like she got a lot of screen time, especially compared to other characters. (Scott’s allies/partners in crime, for instance.) While Scott does mention that “he has a daughter to take care of”, it’s not a big deal…until we see their relationship in action.
Scott breaks visitation rules, and is desperate enough to do anything to get a present for Cassie. We’re not told how he obtained the scrappy, nasty rabbit, but we can certainly guess.Dumpster diving? Selling something to take it from thrift store shelves to Cassie’s party? Compared to the house that she lives in, she must have gotten better presents than that. Scott knew that, but he still made such a huge effort to contribute to Cassie’s smile on her birthday. Showing us made Cassie important to the viewer, not just to Scott.
If a relationship glides along with nary a bump in it’s path, readers are bound to get complacent. This is where conflict–the all-important story element–rears its head. At the climax of the movie, Cassie is endangered by Scott/Hank Pym’s rival. This provides external motivation for Scott, but it also is a very intense reminder to the view of just what is at stake if he loses. Additionally, obstacles are important. Scott has many barriers in his way: no money for an apartment, no one wanting to hire him, and no ability to visit his daughter. A protagonist’s willingness to overcome these obstacles will endear him/her to readers, and make the relationship’s worth prove itself.
Let them make mistakes.
Making choices, even the wrong ones, are what makes a protagonist worthy of the title. Scott Lang had a choice: continue on the straight and narrow, or commit a crime to increase his chances of seeing Cassie sooner. Neither option is ideal, but he makes a choice. Additionally, Scott was a criminal prior to the story’s beginning. He must have known the consequences and their potential to hurt Cassie. For story purposes, this is ideal.
All of us know how fickle relationships can be. I’ve made mistakes in relationships that I value very highly. Fictional characters are no different. Instead of relying on the villain to provide all the relationship barriers, let other characters do it too. They are all human. Even if your allies/protagonist/love interest think the world of each other, they’re going to make choices that cause lasting harm to those they love.
As someone who favors a sparse cast (after a traumatic experience with a very overpopulated story), it was easy for me to brush off the importance of story relationships. I had to dig into my instant connection to Cassie Lang before I realized how much they’ve played a role in my own works-in-progress. Sometimes, these often-fickle relationships can be just the ticket to overcoming the problems with your story.