Watch any bad movie (“The 355”) and you’ll notice that it’s all action and far less character development. What makes any hero feel real and more interesting isn’t more special effects, gunfire, and car crashes. Instead, what makes a character fascinating is watching them deal with internal conflict as they change.
Heroes typically begin with a self-defeating belief that has put them in a dead end life. The real challenge is for the hero to overcome this self-defeating belief and change into a better person by embracing a more empowering belief.
Identifying your hero’s self-defeating belief makes it clear his or her motivation for why they do what they do. Someone who believes they aren’t good enough to do anything will likely avoid taking a chance, which is how the hero initially behaves in “Back to the Future”.
A self-defeating belief has stuck the hero in a dead end life in the beginning. The only way the hero can achieve his or her emotional dream is to embrace a new belief.
This tug of war between the self-defeating belief and the new, empowering belief is what drives all conflict throughout the story. To transition from the self-defeating belief to the new, empowering belief, the hero must temporarily embrace both at the same time until finally changing beliefs for good.
In Act I, the hero’s life is defined by a self-defeating belief although the hero often doesn’t even realize it. Then the hero discovers a more empowering belief often through something unwanted that intrudes upon the hero’s life..
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s self-defeating belief is that she thinks she’s not strong enough on her own so she needs a man. She’s forced to look at the possibility of a new belief when her boyfriend dumps her and she’s forced to be single.
In Act IIa, the hero must embrace these two conflicting beliefs, often by deceiving others at the same time being unaware that they’re slowly embracing this new belief. Act IIa is where the hero’s self-defeating belief often helps the hero.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero succeeds in getting into law school to follow her ex-boyfriend. Her self-defeating belief that she needs a man fueled his motivation to apply to law school but in the process, she doesn’t even realize that in doing so, she’s demonstrating she’s a strong woman who doesn’t need a man. Not only does she deceive others around her, but she also deceives herself.
In Act IIb, this embrace of two conflicting beliefs starts creating massive problems for the hero. Because the hero still clings to the self-defeating belief, he or she suffers the consequences. Because the hero hasn’t completely embraced a new belief, this new belief can’t help her. Now the hero’s torn between two beliefs and suffers from both of them.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero hasn’t abandoned her self-defeating belief that she needs a man, so when her law professor wants to help her pass in exchange for sex, the hero feels trapped. The self-defeating belief makes life worse for the hero but also tempts the hero away from the empowering belief. The hero can pass law school easily by just giving in to her self-defeating belief that she needs a man.
Finally in Act III, the hero abandons the self-defeating belief and fully commits to the new, empowering belief. What’s frightening is that the hero has no guarantee for success and success seems nearly impossible to achieve. Yet the hero plunges ahead anyway and wins.
In “Legally Blonde,” Act III is where the hero finally commits to the empowering belief by taking on her first court case against a far more experienced attorney. Yet by embracing the best features of her past (she’s a smart woman) and embracing her new belief (she doesn’t need a man), she triumph in the end.
Given a choice between the safety of the self-defeating belief or the risk of the new, empowering belief, the self-defeating belief looks like the easiest choice. However, only the new, empowering belief offers the hero a chance to achieve the original emotional dream, so that’s why the hero must take this choice.
When a hero must constantly struggle between a self-defeating belief and an empowering belief, this keeps all physical conflict focuses on forcing the hero to choose one or the other. Now all the car crashes, gunfire, and special effects can work to force the hero to choose one belief or the other, and that makes all the action feel far more important and integral to the story.