Michael Hauge on The Hero’s Two Journeys
Michael Hauge discusses the hero’s internal and external journeys, the crucial elements of character, and the three things a protagonist must possess.
In their new video series The Hero’s Two Journeys, screenwriting teachers Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler explore the external and internal journeys that a character goes through.
Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to speak with Michael about the concept behind the series, the crucial elements of character, desire and conflict, and the three things a protagonist must possess.
What prompted you to create the concept of The Hero’s Two Journeys?
Chris Vogler is the author of a great book, The Writer’s Journey, which takes a mythical approach to story based heavily on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He and I have been friends for a while, bumping into each other at conferences and lectures, so for a long time I have wanted to do something with him.
I was so heavily involved with talking about the inner life of the characters, the character’s arc and the invisible qualities of the character, and that was also something built into the Writer’s Journey and Chris’s approach – how the structure of the story reflected what was going on with the hero. So I thought it would be a great idea if we could share the stage and do a seminar on both levels of story.
One is a story of accomplishment, the external story, where the character is pursing a visible goal amidst obstacles. And then there is the inner journey, the journey of transformation, what a character goes through in terms of finding courage to overcome their inner blocks and inner conflict.
So, we did a seminar in a couple of different cities, filmed it and that resulted in the video of The Hero’s Two Journeys.
One of the reasons why Chris and I are so happy about this video is that it shows how both Chris and I look at movies. One of the neat things that I think people will like about it is that Chris and my approaches are different, but compatible. We don’t contradict each other at all.
People get exposed to a different way at looking at story, so you can pick which one fits your sensibility more when developing your script, or you can combine the two. In the video, we also get explore the movie Erin Brockovich together, and how each of us sees how the hero’s journey is reflected in that movie.
You mentioned the external and internal journey. Can you explain to us a little bit about them, and why they are so essential to story?
First of all, when it comes to Hollywood movies, the foundation of a story is always at the beginning: a hero who has a desire and has to undergo a series of conflicts in order to achieve that goal. And so, what is essential to any story is that desire be visible. By that I mean that there is a clearly defined finish line that a hero wants to cross by the end of that story.
So, typically in a Hollywood movie, it would be stopping from something bad from happening, like an alien invasion or escaping from a dangerous situation or winning a competition or winning the love of another character. And in that journey for the goal, the character will encounter obstacles from forces of nature or from other characters or from both. So, just about any Hollywood movie you can name will be built on that foundation.
However, there is also the inner conflict that the character faces, which is, essentially, a fear that the hero holds that they must overcome in order to achieve that outer goal. If the movie is an action movie, the fear is usually simply a physical fear, there are overwhelming obstacles and there isn’t much inner conflict or much of a character arch. If you take James Bond, for example, you see that he doesn’t really change much over the course of the movie.
But in stories that go deeper, they explore what is the source of that fear, what form does that fear take and how does that fear prevent the hero from achieving that goal. The outer journey is one of an accomplishment. The hero wants to say, “I did it. I achieved that goal.” But the inner journey is overcoming the fear to live courageously. The question is: is the hero going to find the courage to face their own fears and in doing so, be able to accomplish the outer journey?
So, the idea of calling it the Hero’s Two Journeys, wasn’t only to explore both but to see how these two ideas are intertwined. How does the inner journey affect the outer, and vice versa? How do they link together in a well-told story?
In the video, you say that a good story contains three elements: character, desire and conflict. How essential is it to form your character before you start writing, or even outlining? What do you suggest to a writer who comes up with a story concept without a main character in mind?
You might come up with a clever situation, like what if aliens take over someone’s body? Or how do we steal jewels from a high security bank? So those writers come up with the goal first. So then out of that, they have to come up with the character that defines that story.
But sometimes it is the opposite. Sometimes writers come up with a character who is very rich and whom they want to explore the inner life of. So those writers have to ask, what is the goal that I can give to this character that is going to bring out all of those qualities that are essential to the character?
It doesn’t so much matter what you begin with, but what you have to ask yourself before writing the story is: who is the hero and what is their outer motivation? Until you have the hero, the goal and the sense of obstacles, then you aren’t even ready for outlining yet because you don’t have the essential elements of a story yet.
Once a writer comes up with either a situation or a goal that they think would be high concept or a character they want to explore, they have to come up with the other two elements, which are: who is the hero that is going to pursue that goal and what is goal they are going to pursue? And what are the obstacles they are going to have in order to make it seem difficult?
You mention that although going deeper is important, the plot is first and foremost. So, does the character make the story, or does the story make the character?
My answer is yes. The story makes the character, and the character makes the story. Because you can’t make a story without either. It’s not that one comes first, but both have to exist together in terms of turning it into a real story that will be a well-structured screenplay and story.
Let me continue. I believe that character is everything. There is not one movie that isn’t character-driven because all movies are about a characters reaction to an event that occurs and their pursuit that grows out of the situation.
For example, let’s look at Zootopia. It’s about a cop who is a bunny who wants to investigate why certain animals from Zootopia are disappearing. So, you can say that’s plot-driven because you have animals that are populating a fictional place and there is a criminal on the loose who is kidnapping animals.
But there’s no story without that character’s reaction to it. It’s her reaction to the situation that is driving the story and her pursuit of her goal that moves the story forward. So, in that regard, I make everything character-driven. There is no difference between Room and The Avengers.
What does a solid protagonist — hero — have to possess?
I would say there are three things that I would focus on in particular. One is that the hero has to be in state of conflict. From the beginning, the character has to be in some sort of conflict whether they are stuck somewhere or in some kind of danger because one of the most essential things that a writer must do for the hero – and to me the hero is the protagonist and doesn’t necessarily have to be a hero or heroic – is to establish empathy for that character.
The empathy is going to come from that conflict because she is in unfortunate circumstances or because their life is threated or the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job. Or the character has to be portrayed as a lovable, likeable person who helps other people with their conflicts.
The next thing that is essential for the character is that there has to be fear. They have to be afraid of something.
In a big budget movie, it might be hard to detect, like in a superhero or spy movie. But even then in those movies there is the fear of a loss of life or that people will be killed.
In films that are explore the inner journey, it will be an emotional fear that the character has been dealing with or has pushed aside that has to be explored in order to achieve that visible goal, whatever it is.
The final component, which grows out of that fear, is that the character must exhibit courage or there must be courage needed in order to achieve both the goal of transformation and the goal of achievement. To me, those are the consistent, essential ones across all of genres. We must empathize because of the conflict they’re in, they must be afraid of something and they must have courage to achieve their goal.
In the video, you also discuss the underlying key components of character in the Inner Journey. Would you mind briefly naming and describing them?
When you are thinking of the inner journey of the hero, you want to ask yourself certain questions about that character.
The first one you want to ask is, what does the hero need or long for? When you introduce the character, you want to set the stage that they are longing for something; they are settling for something, they are tolerating something. They say they want freedom or independence or true love, but they don’t do what’s necessary to achieve that because they are afraid. Often the need the character has is the need of connection because they have become shut down in some way. An example would be Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting, or Shrek.
You also have to ask what has the character experienced in the past that has hurt them? From that wound, they might be afraid of standing up for who they are, they might be afraid of getting close to someone and intimacy and commitment, or rejection.
Whatever that fear is, then the next question is: what is the hero’s identity? That is just my term for the character’s armour they wear in order to protect themselves. Will Hunting works as a janitor so people don’t get close to him and can see that he really is a genius. Shrek’s identity is big, scary ogre because he is scared of being rejected from people.
So that emotional armour is what that character will have to overcome and let go of in order to achieve that visible goal. So that is how you set up your story. You say, you can have that but you have to let go of that fear in order to achieve it. Will Hunting wants to be with Skylar, so he has to allow her to see the truth of who he really is.
The last question you want to ask is, what is the character’s essence? If you strip away the character’s armour, who would they be? What potential do they have?
The inner conflict for the hero is moving from their false identity to their more fulfilled existence, which is terrifying to them. That tug of war is going to continue throughout the whole story until the hero finds the remaining courage to achieve their goal or they give up, and they will be a tragic character that doesn’t complete the arc.
What are common mistakes that writers make in their screenplays? And how can they be addressed?
The first and foremost thing I see is that writers haven’t given their character a clear and visible goal. The problem with many scripts is not the absence of an inner journey is the absence of an outer journey.
The writers want to explore the themes and underlying motives so much that they neglect to focus on the outer journey so what remains is a picture of character in a situation wondering if they are going to find the courage to change. But what audience want to see when they go to the movies, they want to see hero pursue visible goals. They want to see heroes win the competition, win their true love or fight the bad boy.
The next problem is the writer hasn’t really given any or sufficient thought to their movie being commercial. They assume their movie will make money because they think it is interesting, but that is not the case. A script won’t see the light of day – I don’t care how low budget it is– unless it has the potential to make some money because someone put up the money for it. Whoever is financing it will want to make money off of it, or think that they will.
One of the things that I strongly recommend writers do is ask themselves, can I point to two recent movies that are similar to mine in regards to genre or tone and similar to the audience they would draw? If you can’t, then you should explore the idea further or give up the money because Hollywood only wants to make movies that will make money. Hollywood is looking for things that are like other things that have made money.
Another way to look at that is that your script doesn’t combine originality with familiarity. You have to look at your movie and say, my movie is like this movie, but it has this in it that makes it unique. Because they want both: familiarity and originality. They want your unique hook on that situation.
Another mistake is that the story is just too complicated and that is usually because there is no clear goal or through-line. They throw on plot situations and new characters and new action, and then it becomes a huge non-event and goes in different directions, so you can’t stay involved because you don’t know who you are rooting for.
The last one is just a weak writing style. Some of that goes beyond screening –you just have to know how to put words on a page. Another reason is because the writer just hasn’t read too many scripts before so they don’t know the proper format, or what the vocabulary is. So they use big complicated words or poetic descriptions, or they don’t even have proper grammar. They don’t know how to write a fast, simple action scene that is easy to read.
What are some recent movies that you thought achieved the Hero’s Two Journeys exceptionally well?
One that I already mentioned is Zootopia. I thought that was a terrific film. That had all of those elements in it. The movie starts out with Lt. Judy Hopps having a wound. A predator animal bullies her, so she has ingrained in her a prejudice that she isn’t aware of. An idea of us versus them. That is a deep-seated fear, and because of the bullying, she has difficulty standing up for herself.
So she starts out with an identity that, yes, she is a cop but she wants to follow the rules because she doesn’t want to kicked off the force. Then, as she is pursuing her visible goal – which is ultimately tied to the mystery of why are these animals disappearing – and we see her becoming increasingly courageous and hooking up with a predator, not aware that she is carrying this prejudice until it gets really scary, then she resorts to that and that’s when her deep-seated wounds and fears comes to the front and she has to overcome those in order to redeem herself, so by the end of the movie she is a more fulfilled character, and much more in her essence.
Another is one of my favorite movies from last year, The Martian. That was a movie with a very clear, visible goal: he wanted to survive until he got back to Earth. But what came out was that he was repeatedly struggling with what he was doing next on Mars and then giving up and feeling there was no hope. So we saw the tug of war where he was doing all of these physical things to leave Mars, but also the hopelessness he felt.
Another good example is Spy. Even though the movie is a broad comedy, there was the idea that she was living small. She stepped out from the basement that she was in and then she was forced to take on being a spy herself, and she found not only the courage to beat the bad guy but also to stand up for who she was in and to step into her essence. At the end, she was a fulfilled character who was living her essence. She was skilled and independent and worthy as being a spy as the guy she looked up to.
Check out Michael and Christopher’s excellent new video series The Hero’s Two Journeys, available for streaming from this website.
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