One crucial element of any story is that the hero often needs to overcome a problem from the past. This past problem haunts the hero in the present and gradually gets revealed over time.
In “Thelma and Louise,” we gradually learn that Louise got raped in Texas so that’s why she won’t drive through there. In “Midnight Run,” Robert DeNiro plays a bounty hunter who used to be a Chicago cop and refused to take payoffs from an organized crime boss. As a result, another cop is now married to his wife and he’s forced to work as a bounty hunter making little money as a result. In “Star Wars,” Luke is just bored on his uncle’s farm, which is a problem that occurred in the past and spills over into the present. In “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” the hero has never had sex throughout his entire adult life.
Something from the past still haunts the hero in the present, and by pursuing a goal, the hero indirectly fixes this past problem. In “Groundhog Day,” the hero is a stuck up, arrogant jerk. Because he’s forced to relive each day over and over again, he gradually learns to become a better person. In “Midnight Run,” the hero finally stops clinging to the past in hopes of getting back with his wife and finally helps get the organized crime boss arrested.
What happens if your hero isn’t haunted by the past? Then we don’t feel we get to know the hero. If we don’t get to know the hero, then the hero’s triumph in the end feels relatively meaningless. Although “Hercules” is a mediocre movie, its hero is also haunted by the past of having his family slaughtered. The problem with “Hercules” is that this past problem isn’t fully explained or gradually revealed over time to intrigue us and keep our attention. This past problem just pops up and suddenly gets revealed without any emotional connection. If we don’t feel emotionally connected to the hero’s past problem, we won’t really care when he finally resolves this problem.
Think of the hero’s past as a way to fully create your hero in the eyes of the audience. Your hero needs to not only work towards achieving a physical goal, but also needs to overcome the past, which forms the emotional goal. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E’s physical goal is to find someone to love. His emotional goal is actually the same, which occurred when he became isolated on Earth as the other robots gradually broke down.
Often times the hero’s past makes the hero a victim. As a victim, we feel sorry for the hero, which helps us bond emotionally to that hero. When creating your screenplay, find a way to haunt your hero with a past problem that he or she eventually solves in the end. If your hero doesn’t have a past problem, you probably don’t have a compelling enough hero.