August 14, 2012

Michael Hauge’s Workshop: Are These Characters the Perfect Match?

Two matched puzzle pieces with text: Find the Perfect Match...for your Character

Last time I shared tips from Michael Hauge’s presentation at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference about how to make romance (or love interest) relationships feel deep and not superficial. Most of us have probably read books where, at the end of the story, we didn’t trust the couple to make it past their next argument or setback, much less make it to a happily ever after. We don’t want our stories to fall into that category.

We spoke last week about ensuring the couple connects on an inner level—at their essence. But what does that mean in our stories? How can we construct stories that convince the reader that these two crazy kids (or adults) will make it?

Michael Hauge‘s workshop, “Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories,” went further in depth about how we can show our characters’ essences and how that affects their relationships with others. Creating those deep connections between characters requires us to identify their inner journey.

Outer Journey vs. Inner Journey

First, let’s make sure we’re all clear on what these terms mean in context of Michael Hauge’s teachings. A character’s outer journey is what they will accomplish by the end of the story. This accomplishment has a visible goal. “To win,” “to escape,” and “to stop” are common outer journeys, and the visible goal might be winning the courtroom case, escaping the kidnapper, or stopping the terrorist.

Many romances are set up so the hero and heroine want “to win,” and the visible goal would be winning the girl or guy. One thing Michael didn’t go into—because he’s not a romance guy (Yet. If we invite him to enough RWA meetings, maybe we’ll convert him. Heh.)—is that many of the romance subgenres have an additional outer goal based on the non-romance external conflict. Romantic suspense stories might have an “escape the bad guy” element, and paranormal romance stories often have a “stop the bad guy” aspect.

In contrast, a character’s inner journey is how they will transform by the end of the story. Typically, a character will start out by living in fear in some way, and if they succeed, they’ll end by living courageously. The invisible finish line to this journey would be that they’d meet a deep longing or need (that they might not even be consciously aware of).

All Characters Fear Something

Wait… Our strong heroes and heroines start off living in fear? Yep. Maybe they fear their secret getting out, maybe they fear losing control (often to their emotions), maybe they fear rejection. We all fear something and so do our characters.

Michael talked about characters’ wounds, an unhealed source of pain from their past. That wound causes them to have an untrue—but logical—belief about how the world works. The character then fears experiencing the pain of that wound again.

On a simplistic level, this insight into characters would look like: Character wants to be loved (Deep Longing or Need), but the last girlfriend they had cheated on them (Wound). Now, it’s easier to think all women cheat (Belief) than to risk being hurt like that again (Fear).

Characters Hide Their Essence Behind a Mask

Those four elements—longing/need, wound, belief, and fear—add up to the character’s mask they present to the world, their identity. (ETA: One of my RWA buddies, Janice Hardy, wrote up a post about this workshop that goes more into these terms.) This is their emotional armor they wear to prevent others from seeing what’s real.

A character’s essence is what lies behind that armor, and it’s who they have the potential to become. The problem for them comes in that they think the mask is who they really are. They don’t think they need to change, especially because they’ve rationalized the belief they hold to be perfectly logical. Most of their struggle might even happen on a subconscious level.

But in a good romance (or story with a love interest), the perfect match for a character will be able to see behind that emotional armor. This creates conflict between who characters think they are and who they can be. Who they must become if they’re to find the courage to meet their longing or need.

Their internal conflict is choosing to move from safe-but-unfulfilled to terrified-but-fulfilled. Only then can they be with the other character who will meet their needs.

The Trick to Showing that Characters Are the Perfect Match

In one of the comments from last time, Carradee mentioned that she likes to let relationships develop organically. I often write by the seat of my pants, so I fully understand that approach. *smile* But one of Michael’s other tips can help both plotters and pantsers write relationships that grow organically and show how the characters are the perfect match.

Our writing should give readers clues about a character’s essence. Maybe internalization or actions that don’t quite match their armor will clue readers into what a character longs for or needs. Readers should also have hints about the character’s wound to understand why they’re putting up this mask instead of going after what they want. Once we have character’s masks and essences introduced in the story, we can start the fun relationship stuff.

As I’ve mentioned, much of a character’s struggle might happen on the subconscious level. So how the heck do we show this essence-to-essence connection between the couple? Easy.

  • The characters should become closer (intimacy/love scene/etc.) after they’ve taken an emotional risk—unwittingly showing their essence.
  • The characters should have more conflicts and fights after they’ve retreated behind their armor.

That Seems Too Easy! Does It Really Work?

Intimacy with essence. Conflict with mask. Bingo. We’ve shown how they need to find the courage to finish their inner journey in order to meet their longing or need. We’ve shown the relationship potential of their essences. And we’ve shown how they’re the perfect match by connecting on that deeper level.

I love this advice because, as a pantser, I can use this trick to make sure each scene with the hero and heroine has the right approach. If they’re connecting, I can ensure they revealed a glimpse of the “real” them first. And if they’re fighting, I can make sure their internalization or actions show a retreat to their emotional shell beforehand.

Michael went further in his workshop to explain what a character’s inner journey would look like on a standard plot outline of acts and turning points, but this is enough for one blog post. *smile* I’ll be switching gears on Thursday, but I could probably write a dozen posts based off what I picked up from his workshop, so let me know if you have questions you want me to cover in the future.

What do you think of Michael’s tip? Can you apply this to your writing? Can you think of examples where this approach would work (or wouldn’t work)? Are there pieces of his advice you’d like me to go into more?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Susan Sipal

This is all great stuff, Jami, that I need to be reminded of every single time I sit down to write. It’s something that you have to put thought into, at least for me.

I’d also recommend Debra Dixon’s classic Goal, Motivation and Conflict to those who haven’t yet read it. She explains very clearly how to work inner and outer conflict through character development.

Reetta Raitanen

Thank you so much for sharing these insights, Jami. These are great lessons for real life relationships too. The more you share about yourself and allow yourself to become vulnerable, the more you get from the relationship. Hopefully, if the other isn’t a total jerk.


Oh, this one is so much fun! Give peeks to where the lovebirds get to see the person behind the façade they let anyone else see, and demonstrate that they can handle each other.

Granted, I’ve done it “by ear” so far, so it’s nice to see a “formula” there for me to use for making sure I set up things that work (and for helping me isolate the problems when something isn’t working).

The story I’m finishing now, the FMC has a sometimes lethal temper (not exaggerating). The MMC knows what it is to be odd, unusual, and not entirely sane, so he recognizes that the FMC’s probably lonely, like he is. He’s also not afraid of death, since he’s already experienced worse than what she could put him through in killing him.

So what does he do when she gets worked up?

He teases her, tries to make her laugh. Granted, he tries not to rile her temper to begin with, but he’s socially inept.

So let’s plug them in:

Deep Longing or Need: A family that accepts her.
Wound: Her magic killed her previous family.
Belief: She’s worthless if not a liability.
Fear: Her magic will kill anyone she gets too close to.

Deep Longing or Need: A family able and willing to help him.
Wound: His previous girlfriend used him to get access to his enslaved family’s magic and murdered their child.
Belief (Suspicion): Anyone who wants him only wants access to his family magic.
Fear: He’ll be used again.

Cool how that works! 😀


[…] Ooo, inner journey. We’ll talk about that more next week, along with these masks, essences, an…. *smile* […]


Oh, that is a GREAT summary of “working” romance. I hate it when the two seem to argue for no reason at all, or over incredibly stupid-seeming stuff that makes me wonder why I should even want them to end up together.


Ah, more great stuff. I’m a pantser as well, I’ll have to try this on my next MS.

And I just checked the schedule for my local chapter’s conference (in October), and Michael Hauge is going to be one of the keynote speakers. Squee!

Melinda Collins

Ooohh….. LOVE this, Jami! Thank you so so so much for sharing!

Like you said, it’s basic stuff that we’ve heard before, but this is quite a different approach, so when you tune in and ‘get it,’ it’s like having an epiphany all over again! LOL! I like how Carradee broke down her main character’s fears, wounds, beliefs, and needs in her comment, too! That made me want to sit down and write out my own characters’ inner conflicts in the same manner. 🙂

I’d definitely be interested in learning how he approached plotting out the character’s inner journey. I just recently finished The Plot Whisperer, so I have this HUGE plot planner on my wall now. It’s just waiting for me to add the inner conflict points to it. The book went over that, but between you and Michael Hauge, I’ll have another way to approach it and ensure I’ve got it right. 😉

Thank you again for sharing, Jami! This post is awesome! *hits the save and print button* 😀

Maryanne Fantalis

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Jami! Without realizing it, this “armor building” is exactly the sort of thing I did in my first draft of my adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Now as I revise it (again) I will definitely keep the Intimacy/Essence and Conflict/Mask paradigm in mind. Brilliant stuff. I love visiting your blog! 🙂

Laurie Evans

I’d really appreciate a blog post about this:

Michael went further in his workshop to explain what a character’s inner journey would look like on a standard plot outline of acts and turning points.

and, I love Carradee’s comment, great example!


Ah I like this tip about connecting essences, and the protagonist hiding / hidden under a mask. This really reminds me of one of my most recent stories: I DELIBERATELY wrote about a Gary Stu character, just as an experiment to see what would happen, lol. So on the surface, he is super duper handsome and ridiculously talented at everything (at least in everything academic, technical, and artistic); and this “hyper handsome and prodigious” exterior image of him (the mask) is what most people—his fans—admire and love him for. However, his would-be love interest doesn’t care a jot about how handsome he is, or how talented. She is immune to all his physical charms and doesn’t think that there’s anything awe-inspiring about being a prodigy at everything. But she does fall in love with him, because of who he really is: He’s a very innocent, genuinely well meaning person whose greatest desire in life is to help people achieve their happiness; and he is especially, extremely, fond of children. But he keeps failing when he tries to help people, because they always mistake his intentions because of his extraordinary good looks, which wreak nonstop havoc for him and those he tries to help. In the end, by magic, he turns plain, thus losing that “mask”, and he’s free to do and be what he really wants to do and be. The female love interest also connects very well with his “essence”, because she is also someone who is incredibly fond…  — Read More »


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Julie Glover

These two posts have been great, Jami. They also explain why I plotted a novel one way, and then had to change it so that the main character ended up with the other guy. It became clear that the other guy was the logical choice–because he was the one who understood who she was at a deeper, inner level. This perspective will help me consider love interests in the future. Thanks for sharing what you learned!


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Buffy Armstrong

I haven’t been commenting recently, but I’ve really enjoyed your last few posts. Your posts are on must read list every Tuesday and Thursday!


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Erin Pike

Great post! I need to sit down and analyze all my scenes to figure out how to translate the “inner journey” aspect into all my hero/heroine encounters. 🙂


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