All stories are built on a foundation of three basic components: character, desire, and conflict. A hero or protagonist desperately wants something, and must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve it.
The greater that conflict is, the greater the emotional involvement of readers and audiences.
Almost all successful stories involve external conflict for their heroes – obstacles created by other characters or forces of nature. But in stories that explore the deeper levels of character, the greatest obstacle the hero faces comes from within. This is the character’s inner conflict.
The heroes of these stories always carry some wound from the past – a deeply painful event or situation that the character believes she has resolved or overcome, but which is still affecting her behavior.
In Good Will Hunting Will’s wound is the abuse he suffered when his father beat him. For the heroes of Gravity and Collateral Beauty the wound is the death of a child. In Up and Sleepless In Seattle it’s the death of a spouse. And for Judy Hopps in Zootopia, it’s the beating she got from a predator bully when she was a young rabbit.
When characters are traumatized by these experiences, they formulate beliefs about the world that twill protect them from ever again experiencing the pain of those wounds.
Will Hunting believes he must have deserved those beatings, so he is afraid to let anyone see who he really is. Sam in Sleepless In Seattle believes real love “doesn’t happen twice” so he doesn’t have to “grow a new heart.” Carl in Up, Ryan in Gravity and Howard in Collateral Beauty are terrified that if they let go of the pain of their grief and move forward with their lives, they will lose even the memories of their loved ones – a level of pain they would never survive. And deep down, Judy Hopps fear of getting beaten again leads to her belief that predators are inherently bad – regardless of what she preaches to the outside world.
Notice that these beliefs that grow out of past wounds are never true. But they are ALWAYS logical.
So each of these characters’ subconscious minds creates what I term an identity – a persona or mask that the character presents to the world to feel safe.
Will Hunting hides his genius by working as a janitor at MIT; Carl becomes a reclusive grouch; Sam refuses to “grow a new heart;” Ryan floats in space, as far from earth – and reality — as she can get; Howard, mired in his pain, ignores his responsibilities and stops talking altogether; and Judy Hopps hides her own prejudice by being a seemingly open minded cop.
But then something happens that forces each of these heroes to confront his or her fears: they all desperately want something.
This is how you as a writer and storyteller instill the inner conflicts in your characters that will ultimately empower them to transform: you give them compelling desires that will force them to let go of their protective identities. Then, as they pursue those goals, they will come to realize the truth of who they are underneath their masks.
This truth is what I term a character’s ESSENCE.
So Will Hunting falls in love, Ryan must get back to Earth, Carl wants to get his house to Paradise Falls, Howard wants to get rid of his “hallucinations” of Love, Time and Death, and Judy must stop the villain who is making animals disappear.
Now all these heroes must face the same dilemma: either they drop the identities that keep them feeling safe, or they give up on the things they desperately want.
This tug-of-war between living in fear and living courageously is each hero’s INNER CONFLICT.
And the gradual transformation from fear to courage – from identity to essence – is the character’s ARC.
In most stories this inner conflict is ultimately more difficult to overcome than the external conflict. Because it means confronting a fear so deeply ingrained, and a wound so painful, that change is unthinkable.
This is no different than in real life, where given a choice between safe and happy, we will almost always choose SAFE.
So it takes the entire story for Will Hunting to declare his love for Skylar and let her see who he truly is; for Ryan to literally take those first steps toward moving forward with her life; for Carl to let go of the house – and the past – he’s been dragging behind him and instead help Russell and Doug save Kevin; for Howard to finally face the reality of what happened and begin living again; and for Sam to take Annie’s hand on the Empire State Building.
When creating your own story, you want your hero to struggle through this same emotional tug-of-war: remain safe but unfulfilled in her identity; or go after her goal and be scared to death.
Start by giving the hero of your story a wound – a painful event or situation from the past – that that has made him who he is at the beginning of the story. Then make sure that whatever motivation your hero is desperate to achieve, pursuing it will force him to gradually shed his protective identity in order to achieve it.
Once you have defined your hero’s identity and essence in this way – once you know the inner conflict – make certain it informs every scene in your story. Make sure that every action your hero takes is either a retreat back into his identity, moving him further away from success, or a step closer to his essence – and to achieving his goal, living his truth, and finding transformation and fulfillment.
Amazing Michael! Thank you so much for all these wonderful articles.
This is a great piece of information – very helpful insight indeed. It is so concise and comprehensive. I can imagine what a great teacher you are. I look forward to learning a lot from you. God bless you.
A big well done to you Michael…
This is one of the most informative articles that I have ever read… I wold love to receive more and more articles on how to break down the three arts structure… I am talking about film, both drama and documentary films…
Thanks again for sharing such a great article.
Michael, THANK YOU! This is terrific and very helpful.
Incredibly helpful article, especially useful during the re-writing process. Thank you for communicsting such abstract concepts, so clearly.
Thank you, Michael. Almost every time I read your advice, the solution to a problem comes to me, you clarify some tweak I need to make in my latest draft, or I realize that something I’ve already done was good. All are quite gratifying. Thank you for sharing your expertise!
Hi Michael. Great post – thank you for such a comprehensive “how to” on the heroes journeys.
Question – should all our major characters in a single story have a wound and journey?
I have an adoptee looking for his roots, a widow who’s helping him with research, and a new-found relative who can give the answers. All have to change/give up something to get what they need.
Adoptee – rejection, wants answers, angry at deception, afraid of what he’ll learn.
Widow – guilt with moving forward – fighting attraction to him.
Relative – recluse, afraid to get close to people – lives in her own world – everyone she ever loved died.
Thanks for sharing and follow-up posts.
Saw you at RWA conference, Adelaide, Australia, and I don’t remember this question coming up.
Best wishes, jay.
My character is a traumatized sort, but my mentor insists that being traumatized is not a misbehaviour or an obstacle….. Is a misbehaviour or weakness similar to inner conflict?
This is great especially for reviewing and editing. Good questions of did I do that?
I met you in Vegas at a Speakers conference and remain your loyal fan. I LOVE what you have to say and this article is a gem. As president of the International Hypnosis Federation I publish newspaper “The Hyp News” that is mailed to 4000 members. Will you grant me permission to reprint this article along with a tag on how to get in touch with you for coaching?
Do let me know
Michael, I’m finally writing my second book, after Indigo Sky, (hoping you remember working with me, TY). This information is a super reminder and lesson what to do with a story. I’m only 3500 words in, so I can easily edit to reflect that inner conflict.
I love getting these emails. As a refresher, I would appreciate those Free Key story Questions.