Freedom & Slavery In Storytelling

In stories, characters change. The change may be tiny; it may be massive. Apart from ‘range of change’, there is another way of thinking about the nature of your main character’s arc: Do they end up more free at the end than they were at the beginning?

Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century that all stories are basically about the victory of mind over matter. Howard Suber says something similar in his book on film: That every movie could be called ‘Trapped’.

Is it true that in every single story, a character is gets stuck somewhere?

Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Language, explains that there is a ‘manifest’ and a ‘latent’ layer to most stories. This is the terminology Freud used when describing dreams.We might call them ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ layers, except Fromm’s terminology is better — in a story like Jonah and the Whale, the ‘literal’ layer has its own weird logic, so it feels a bit weird to call it ‘literal’. When Jonah can’t stand it inside the whale and starts praying to God for release, this is a plot point characteristic of neurosis.

An attitude is assumed as a defense against a danger, but then it grows far beyond its original defense function and becomes a neurotic symptom from which the person tries to be relieved. This Jonah’s escape into protective isolation ends in the terror of  being imprisoned, and he takes up his life at the point where he had tried to escape.

— Erich Fromm

When analysing stories for ‘freedom’ vs. ‘slavery’, it’s important to consider symbolism. Look at the latent layer, not just the manifest layer. The answer is yes — all characters in every story are constrained by something, even if only on the latent layer of story.

In Breaking Bad there is a character who Walter White pays to go to prison in his place. For this other guy, prison is its own kind of freedom — freedom from the worries of the outside world. Jimmy “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly has become institutionalised, which means he understands prison laws better than he understands society’s laws. All characters desire freedom, including “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly. Another example of someone who seems to crave imprisonment is the main character in King Rat, but again, that’s only because he has ironically found his own kind of freedom within the workable constraints of imprisonment.

While others talk about being ‘trapped’ and ‘victory of mind over matter,’ author of The Anatomy of Story, John Truby, would probably describe  ‘victory of mind over matter’ as a type of ‘freedom’. As noted above by others, in the vast majority of stories, the main character moves from a state of slavery to a state of freedom.

‘Slavery’ is of course a loaded term. Truby is specifically talking about the way in which a character is enslaved by their own psychological and moral weaknesses.


However, not all stories have happy endings. In real life, not everyone ends up free.


There are three main ways characters move between slavery and freedom in stories, with complicated variations on these.

1. Slavery to Greater Slavery to Freedom

When a character moves past their weaknesses, from a state of slavery to one of freedom, we call that a happy ending. These stories remind the audience that there is more. There is hope, there is improvement; things tend to get better. Progress is being made. This is the content we crave. These stories tend to appeal widely.

Shawshank Redemption is a standout example of the Slavery to Greater Slavery to Freedom arc. If you want to write ‘heartwarming’, use this arc.

2. Slavery to Greater Slavery to Death

But sometimes a character never breaks free. ‘Death’ may be a descent into madness or succumbing to Original Weakness.

The lyrics of “Flow” by Crooked Colours describe a certain psychological slavery, often brought on by love:

“I took off from paradise
And I landed in the jungle…”

Hamlet is the standout example of this arc, and is therefore a tragedy. Yuval Noah Harari describes how The Lion King is a modern Hamlet:

The 1994 Disney epic The Lion King repackaged this ancient story for modern audiences, with the young [WEAKNESS] lion Simba standing in for Arjuna. When Simba wants to know the meaning of existence [DESIRE], his father – the lion king Mufasa – tells him about the great Circle of Life. Mufasa explains that the antelopes eat the grass, the lions eat the antelopes, and when the lions die their body decomposes and feeds the grass. This is how life continues from generation to generation, provided each animal plays its part in the drama. Everything is connected, and everyone depends on everyone else, so if even a blade of grass fails to fulfil its vocation, the entire Circle of Life might unravel. Simba’s vocation, says Mufasa, is to rule the lion kingdom after Mufasa’s death, and keep the other animals in order.

However, when Mufasa is prematurely murdered by his evil brother Scar, young Simba blames himself for the catastrophe, and racked with guilt [SLAVERY] he leaves the lion kingdom, shuns his royal destiny, and wanders off into the wilderness. There he meets two other outcasts, a meerkat and a warthog, and together they spend a few carefree years off the beaten path. [MYTHIC JOURNEY] Their antisocial philosophy means that they answer every problem by chanting Hakuna matata – no worries.

But Simba cannot escape his dharma. As he matures, he becomes increasingly troubled [GREATER SLAVERY], not knowing who he is and what he should do in life. At the climactic moment [BATTLE] of the movie, the spirit of Mufasa [ALLY] reveals himself to Simba in a vision, and reminds Simba of the Circle of Life and of his royal identity. Simba also learns that in his absence, the evil Scar [OPPONENT] has assumed the throne and mismanaged the kingdom, which now suffers greatly from disharmony and famine. Simba finally understands who he is and what he should do [SELF-REVELATION]. He returns to the lion kingdom, kills his uncle, becomes king, and re-establishes harmony and prosperity. The movie ends with a proud Simba presenting his newly born heir to the assembled animals, ensuring the continuation of the great Circle of Life [NEW EQUILIBRIUM].

So, in repackaging Hamlet for contemporary kids, Disney turned the story into a happy one, with the Freedom to go forth and keep building family at the end.

But apparently, this is how The Lion King almost ended.

Sometimes, however, death is meant to be a freedom in itself. “The Little Match Girl” broke my heart as a preschooler, but I didn’t live in an 1800s culture in which death is meant to be better than living a life of poverty. Andersen meant her hypothermic death as a happy ending because the little girl got to see her grandmother again in Heaven.

Even today, some cultures would consider death a type of freedom.

3. Slavery to Temporary Freedom to Greater Slavery or Death

If you want to create a heartbreaking drama, bloody hell, use this one.

The Wrestler fits in here.  I find this arc even more tragic than the arc of a tragedy like Hamlet, because we had a glimpse of how Randy’s life might have looked had he made different choices. He was so close to achieving a lasting relationship with Stephanie and with Pam. If only he hadn’t blown it. If only. This arc invokes the strong emotion of regret.

King Arthur stories also fit this arc.


This is an important point for storytellers.

In the vast majority of stories, there is a one-to-one connection between hero and world. For example, an enslaved main character lives in a world of slavery. A free hero lives in free world, or creates a free world after achieving freedom. 

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

Moreover, certain genres dictate certain arcs.

Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story


If you listen to the theologian and philosopher St Augustine, real freedom doesn’t mean the right to do anything whatsoever. It means being given access to everything that is necessary for a flourishing life – and, it follows, being protected from many of the things that ruin life.

– Alain de Botton, here.

Scientific Evidence That You Probably Don’t Have Free Will from io9

What Does It Really Mean To Be Free and Equal? — A talk by Ayaan Hirsi Ali



Header painting: John Ritchie – Rogues in Bond 1873

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