I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Michael Hauge‘s approach to characters. In fact, I wrote several blog posts about the workshop, “Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories,” he presented at the RWA National Conference two years ago.
His insights helped me figure out how to avoid the “love at first sight” cliché and how to make sure romances featured couples that were the perfect match. Most importantly, his approach helped me figure out how to mesh a character’s internal journey to the external plot.
This last item is often tricky, though, even with the help of my beat sheet based on his teachings. Robyn, one of my readers, asked me to clarify the difference between a character’s Identity and Essence. So let’s take the opportunity to revisit the topic and go deeper into how characters change.
What Is a Character’s Internal Journey?
Stories are about change, and the plot arc is the path of change we can see in external, tangible ways. The external/plot arc might be about catching a murderer or fixing a spaceship.
But in most stories, characters will change on the inside too. A character’s internal journey—their emotional arc—is the path of change we can see in a character’s thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, etc.
Michael Hauge describes a character arc as “a journey from living in fear to living courageously.” Along the way, they’ll transform into who they have the potential to become.
The Starting Point of a Character Arc
At the beginning of a story, characters are broken or stuck in some way. They have deep (often, so deep as to be subconscious) unmet needs or longings.
However, life is usually tolerable on some level, so they’re living life, day-by-day. Their life is a known quantity, so it feels safe. They might have no intention or thoughts of changing because change is hard.
They might think they’re making progress toward some goal, but the choices they make usually hold them back from making real progress. Or maybe their behaviors are self-sabotaging in some way.
Meet Our Character’s Identity
The reason they’re not making progress is because something in their past wounded them—known as their Backstory Wound. That wound or pain colors their view of the world.
They have an untrue—but logical—belief, known as a False Belief, about how the world works because of that pain. Think about the wound creating the opposite of rose-colored glasses. They believe they’re unlovable, a loser, unworthy, or somehow deserving of their pain.
All that pain results in Fear. The fear could be anything. Fear of failure, fear of revealing their secret, fear of losing control, fear of rejection, etc. And subconsciously, they often fear feeling the pain of their wound again.
Change is not just hard—it makes them vulnerable. So they build up emotional armor for protection.
This emotional armor is known as the character’s Identity. A character’s Identity is the “mask” they wear to keep themselves safe.
Maybe they push people away before they can be rejected. Maybe they don’t pursue their business dream so they can’t fail. Maybe they bury their emotions to prevent losing their heart again.
A character’s Identity is who they want everyone else to see: the strong person who can’t be hurt. But this safe life is built on lies and fear.
And then…Something Happens
Our story starts around the time that something happens to our character to make that emotional armor not fit as well. The Inciting Incident might show the first cracks and demonstrate how their coping mechanisms don’t work perfectly.
There’s a gap between how they want their coping mechanisms—that emotional armor—to work and how they actually work. And that gap exposes unhappiness and the pathetic excuse of an unfulfilled life they’ve been living. That gap gives readers the first glimpse of what the character’s internal journey will entail.
As the story proceeds, the character’s emotional armor will get more in the way, causing problems. Plot events act as triggers for their various realizations:
- Something happens to make them consciously recognize a goal around the 25% mark (the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point on a beat sheet), but they can’t reach this goal while wearing their emotional armor. They’ll stubbornly try to keep their mask on anyway because, again, change is hard.
- Something happens to make them consciously recognize around the 50% mark (the Midpoint) that they need to change to reach their goal. They start experimenting with taking off their mask.
- They slowly make progress, but around the 75% mark (the Crisis/Black Moment) something so horrible, so painful, will happen that they’ll retreat completely behind their armor again. They’ll think that allowing themselves to become vulnerable during their minor progress was a huge mistake.
At the Black Moment/Crisis point, all should seem lost. They tried their experiment and it failed, causing them pain all over again. They’ll go back to their Identity, their coping mechanisms, and try to forget any of this ever happened.
Meet Our Character’s Essence
A character’s Essence is who they are behind the emotional armor—or who they have the potential to become. But coming out from behind their mask opens them up to hurt and vulnerability.
They stay behind their armor until something at the beginning of the story forces them to start recognizing how much it’s not working for them. That’s how we know where/when a story should start.
The issues characters deal with internally often could have been solved long before the story starts if they had the guts to face their fear. Characters could have pursued a relationship, a job, a dream years ago.
But because change and vulnerability is hard, they don’t step out from behind the armor until they’re forced to. The plot events that force our character to take that risk are the story.
The Stakes Force the Final Step
So after the Black Moment, our character is ready to give up and they’re back in their Identity-built emotional armor. What then?
If we’ve done our job right, we’ve been raising the stakes—the consequences of failure—throughout the story. Now we’ve left them no choice. They can’t give up because the stakes are too high.
Our characters have to dig deep and find the courage to allow themselves to become even more vulnerable than they were before. They go forward, knowing pain is waiting, and they’re willing to take that risk.
Often the final battle against the story’s obstacles at the Climax will force the characters to face their fear. They refuse to let the pain stop them this time, and they refuse to let their fear hold them back.
That’s what makes our characters heroic. That’s what makes readers cheer for them. That’s what creates our theme.
Our characters push forward with a leap of faith and expose themselves to all the pain, all the vulnerability, all the risk. They are now in their Essence. And now they deserve to win. *smile*
(Other excellent posts about this Identity to Essence transformation:
- Michael Hauge’s analysis of Good Will Hunting
- Janice Hardy’s Guide to Inner Conflict
- Susan Kaye Quinn’s breakdown of Emotional Structure
- and my own post shares how romance stories use this arc too)
Do you struggle with the emotional arc for your characters? What aspect gives you the most trouble? Does Michael Hauge’s approach of growing from their Identity to their Essence help? Are you able to tie the character arc to the plot arc? Do you have questions about any of this concept?Pin It