Watching Groundhog Day Will Help You Understand Fiction Writing Better

Phil: I’m a god.

Rita: You’re God?

Phil: I’m a god. I’m not *the* God… I don’t think.

Oh, Phil, how right you are. If I may, however, I’d like to add another group to your pantheon: writers.

That’s right, writers are godlike. But before you begin jotting down your commandments and demanding calves be burned in your honor, keep in mind that our powers are limited to the blank page (sorry!).  Let’s discuss what Groundhog teaches us about godhood and writing.

Know Your Worshippers-er-Characters

After reliving February 2nd several times over, Phil Connors knows quite a bit about everyone in Punxsutawney. He’s gotten them to share their beliefs, desires, and memories; he knows some of them so well that he can manipulate them to do what he wants.

Phil learns everything he can about his co-anchor Rita, from her love of French poetry to her dislike or white chocolate, in order to woo her properly, to get the desired result he wants.

Writers, take note: if you’re looking for a reaction from your characters, know what motivates them. Learn everything you can about them. It doesn’t have to be all at once—some writers prefer to write an entire history of their characters; others favor developing the character as they go along.

Either way, a clear understanding of who your character is can be helpful: what he or she likes, how she’d react if she received white chocolate instead of milk chocolate, how her past has affected her growth as a person. Otherwise, you may find it difficult to keep the character’s actions consistent throughout the story.

Your Will Be Done

In Groundhog Day, each day plays out exactly the same . . . until Phil does something to change the routine.  In one version, he’s taking money from the back of an armored truck. In another, he’s trying to make a homeless man’s life as enjoyable as possible.

Without Phil’s input, the day would go on as usual. Each choice he makes creates a different outcome, and he’s able to go back and try something different the next day.

Phil is basically living several different narratives based on what he does and to whom.

Your characters and story are exactly the same. Different actions = different reactions. Does your character kiss the girl or push her away? Will he take that job in Paris or won’t he? Is he going to accept the pact with the demon or reject it?

Personally, I like to write out mini scenes that branch out from a single choice. If my main character’s talking to someone, I’ll let him agree with her in one version and disagree in another; the outcomes should be and are very different, and like in Groundhog Day, it’s only when I hit that sweetspot that the day/scene progresses normally.

So the next time you’re in front of your digital page, remember what Groundhog Day teaches us: you’re a god.  Learn everything you can about your characters, then poke them and see how they react.

Or try the reverse, poke them, see how they react, and learn from it.

Want to learn more cool stuff? Fill your braaaaaaain with  What Zombies Can Teach Us About Writing.

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11 comments on “Watching Groundhog Day Will Help You Understand Fiction Writing Better

  1. Never thought about it that way, but it’s an excellent point. I haven’t seen that movie in forever by the way. Bill Murray is the man. 🙂

  2. I’ll admit to not having seen Groundhog Day yet. When beginning a new project, I think I know the characters I’m working with, yet they are almost always surprising me. All right, making note to borrow Groundhog Day from the library tomorrow!

    • Thanks, Rob. It’s funny what you learn about your characters when you just give them a different line or have them do the opposite of what you wrote.

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. Funny, I happen to do just that when I write. Each and every character I put into my storied has a very detailed background to convince my mind that they are real people and not just fiction. I must know something that others didn’t…

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