We can look at story from many different vantage points: structurally in terms of plot, thematically in terms of symbolism, visually in terms of imagery. However when we consider a story from the perspective of character, what we are doing is interpreting it as a psychological journey. Indeed from this particular point of view, it is not out of line to think about all the events of the story and all its characters as existing precisely in order to support the playing out of the Protagonist’s psychological quest.
The noted Swiss psychoanalyst and theoretician Carl Jung said this:
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict.
On a personal level, this is quite remarkable, meaning that if we don’t engage all aspects of our psyche, especially the darker impulses, the universe will create circumstances to compel us. In terms of screenwriting, the implication of this observation is two-fold:
- A Protagonist who begins a story in a state of Disunity has an implied destiny to move toward Unity
- The events that transpire in the story’s Plotline have a direct connection to the core elements of the Protagonist’s Disunity
As Joseph Campbell suggested, “The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.” So when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz seeks to go “somewhere over the rainbow,” driven by her sense of disconnect to the place she knows as her home but doesn’t feel like home, we already have a sense from the start that her psychological journey will involve events which feed into her eventual realization, “There’s no place like home.”
This is how we begin a character-based approach to screenwriting: Delving into our story’s Protagonist, determining what is at the core of their Disunity, then working outward from that base of understanding to craft a throughline that combines events and actions as the Protagonist grows through their unique metamorphosis process.
While there are movies where a Protagonist does not go through any sort of significant transformation or their arc may be a negative one, the fact is they do experience a positive metamorphosis in most stories. Indeed Campbell posited that transformation is the central theme of The Hero’s Journey.
For a screenwriter, perhaps the best way to go about digging into their story’s psychological journey is to ask these two questions:
What does my Protagonist want?
What does my Protagonist need?
By want, I mean their conscious goal, an end point they have clearly in mind, perhaps at the very beginning of the story, but surely by the end of Act One. What was Dorothy’s want in The Wizard of Oz? Once she had reached that magical realm, her goal — stated multiple times — was to get back home to Kansas.
By need, I mean the Protagonist’s unconscious goal. To a certain degree they may be aware of this inner desire, but more often than not it is an instinct the Protagonist has been suppressing unconsciously. What was Dorothy’s need? To feel like these people she lived with in Kansas were actually her family and the farm was actually her home.
The tension of the Protagonist’s want and need is the core of their Disunity. As a result, there is an important truth that lies hidden in plain view: The seeds of the Protagonist’s unity lie within who they are from the beginning of their journey. Their need is the key and as it emerges into the light of consciousness and the Protagonist embraces it as part of their destiny, the more likely they are to achieve a cinematic semblance of Unity. This truth is reflected at the very end of The Wizard of Oz when Glinda tells Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
You have always had the power. If there is one mantra key to understanding the essence of the Protagonist’s metamorphosis, it is probably this phrase.
The Protagonist has always had the power. It has been tied up:
- By the Protagonist’s belief systems, coping skills, defense mechanisms, and behavioral patterns in their lives in the Ordinary World leading up to FADE IN.
- By the Protagonist’s suppressing and disavowal of their need, even though it is a key aspect of their authentic Inner Self and Core Of Being.
All of that requires energy, diverting the Protagonist’s resources. When they finally do allow their need to emerge, it unleashes the floodgates of power, typically what they require to overcome the challenges they face in Acts Two and Three.
We see this type of positive metamorphosis at play over and over again in movies, the Protagonist evolving from a beginning state of Disunity, embarking on a journey during which they confront different obstacles and tests, challenged by some characters, aided by others, then ultimately facing a Final Struggle which if they succeed allows them to achieve some manner of Unity.
Which is why when we think of a story, we must always consider its psychological journey
For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.
[Originally posted November 23, 2013]