Salvation, liberation and freedom in storytelling

An audience is more likely to empathise with a character who has a purpose, especially if his or her goal is a basic human desire. In The Road, the Man hopes to take the Boy to safety. In Ice Cold in Alex Captain Anson hopes to take the soldiers and nurses under his command out of harm’s way, and return them to the safely of Alexandria. A visible goal gives a character a dynamic, which is to say, the motivating desire to restore the story’s  ‘balance’. It’s only through achieving this that a character can achieve his or her meaningful purpose—this mirrors similar desires held by the audience. The desire for salvation, liberation, and freedom are basic real world and storytelling human goals.

A character’s quest takes them on a journey, which leads to a destination. This new place can be a physical space, or an inner-revelation that leads to a rediscovery of the existing world. While characters search for many things, these goals can often be summed up as some form of salvation, liberation, or freedom. This attainment can take different forms: material (money, wealth, possessions); emotional (success, winning, status, happiness), spiritual (harmony, balance, peace, connection), or inter-dimensional form (transcendence). It can be defined positively, as an emotional feeling (a sense of well-being, and a lack of boundaries), and negatively as ‘freedom from…’ something (not being hungry, not experiencing pain, not suffering from poverty, not having a feeling of being unloved, not being lonely, not being successful, not being popular, and so on).

The biblical story of the Jews being led out of Egypt, to the promised land, is a classic story of freedom, salvation and liberation. An escape from repression and injustice takes the Jews on a journey to a new land where they can once again live and prosper. This new world is a place of learning, enlightenment, community, and relative plenty. This sanctuary or ‘promised land’ may be a blank slate, or a place where the existing culture and laws allow people to be who they are without fear of punishment. During the Cold War, East Germans escaped over the Berlin wall, fleeing a repressive Communist regime for the ‘freedom’ of the West.

‘Freedom’ in real life and in storytelling can be difficult to define. In The Lord of the Rings it means defeating the dark forces of Mordor. In Battleship Potemkin it means a violent revolution to overthrow the injustice and inequality imposed by a ruling class. In The Last Picture Show and Moonlight it means the freedom to share some common humanity. While in The Matrix Neo experiences freedom as a pseudo-spiritual awakening—his inner-liberation leads to wider group liberation in the ‘real’ world. In Logan’s Run, Logan 5 and Francis 7 are searching for a place called Sanctuary, but Sanctuary turns out to be the rediscovery of their common humanity (a less hedonistic, less technological, more natural lifestyle). Freedom can imply an opportunity to thinking about who we are, and how we should live.

Liberation and freedom in storytelling can relate to an individual’s personal struggle (a character’s quest for basic happiness, or self-transcendence), or the group fight for emancipation from injustice (the abolition of slavery, opposing prejudice). The personal journey is one of inner salvation, which, once achieved, can be reflected out into the world. The group journey is a struggle for justice (equality and representation and opportunity). These are stories involving journeys: the inner journey, the political journey, and the journey of hope (to a symbolic new land). At their most basic and psychological level they are journeys to a place where you can be yourself, and feel good about it (bringing an experience of happiness, security, safety, empowerment, status, and belonging), or an escape from unwanted emotions (that crush the human spirit with feelings of fear, powerlessness, confusion, despair, repression, conformity, and meaninglessness).