To add depth to the hero of your screenplay, novel, speech or marketing tool – AND to explore that character’s arc or transformation – you must give that hero some fear to be confronted and overcome. Because of some wound from the past, your hero begins the story stuck in a state of inertia, and tolerating a situation that is neither emotionally risky nor fulfilling. Your hero’s fear stops that character from going after what he (or she) truly longs for or needs.
But however he is stuck at the beginning of the story, you want him to be REALLY stuck. You want him to be an extreme version of someone with that fear and that identity.
In other words, you don’t want a “kind of” hero. If your protagonist is kind of withdrawn, or kind of meek, or kind of greedy or kind of vengeful, your story won’t work, because the arc for that hero won’t be great enough.
A “kind of” hero can only have a partial transformation. You need your hero to go all the way from fully in his identity at the beginning to fully in his courageous, fulfilled essence at the end – from one extreme to the other.
This doesn’t mean your hero should be extreme in every way. Quite the opposite; in most stories the hero is fairly ordinary in most ways, until she’s plunged into the extraordinary circumstances of the story. Or she may have one particular skill at which she excels, but in every other way (except her fear and identity) she’s pretty normal.
Let’s take two recent and hugely different hit movies: SPY and DR. STRANGE.
In the first, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is pretty much the epitome of ordinary. She has a steady job, lives at home, she’s single (but not withdrawn), she has a best friend, she gets along with some of her coworkers but not others, she’s funny, she’s smart, and she has an endearing personality. She is highly skilled at one thing – she’s a crackerjack analyst for the CIA – but other than that, everything about her spells normal.
Her extreme quality is in her identity and inner conflict. She is stuck behind a desk, giving support (and getting little appreciation) to another CIA agent, but terrified of standing up for herself and insisting on the field assignment – and the recognition – that she longs for. She’s not just a doormat at work; she’s an extreme doormat. Only when she is forced to go into the world to stop a dire threat will she find the courage to overcome her fear and define herself.
Calling Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) ordinary is a stretch. He is such a renowned, brilliant and talented surgeon that he is clearly superior to most other mortals.
But his extreme quality is with his ego. He’s not just “kind of” self-centered; he is extremely narcissistic and selfish. He isn’t simply more skilled than others; he sees himself as superior to them. He cares little or nothing about either individual people or humanity in general. His surgical skill is not offered in service of others, but rather to further his own authority, recognition and wealth.
At the beginning of the film, Dr. Strange is stuck in his own egomania. So when his hand is crushed in an accident, his greatest fear is of losing his abilities, because without them he loses himself. As with all characters about to begin an arc, he believes his identity is who he truly is.
And as with Susan Cooper, only when Dr. Strange enters a different, less isolated world does he find the courage not just to face mortal danger, but to give up his identity. Only then does he transform into someone devoted to humanity rather than to himself.
If you’d like to see more about my process for exploring identity, essence, and character arc, Film Courage has just release several additional videos from my interview with them, including “What Screenwriters Should Know About A Character’s Inner Journey by Michael Hauge – 6 Stage Plot Structure.”