The past always causes problems for the hero. Every story is about the hero trying to fix his or her life due to a problem from the past. Sometimes the problem from the past can be a traumatic event. In “Casablanca,” the hero fell in love with a woman, who later broke his heart. Now the hero’s bitter and cynical, but then she appears in his life again and he has to deal with the pain all over again. That’s a traumatic event from the distant past that the hero must resolve in the story.
Another example of a traumatic event occurs in “WALL-E” where the hero is left alone on a completely abandoned Earth. The hero wants to find love, but when you’re the only thing left on an entire empty planet, how can you achieve your goal?
“Die Hard” represents an emotional traumatic problem from the past. The hero is separated from his wife and is arriving at her company Christmas party to get back together with her.
Traumatic events turn the hero into a sympathetic victim, which helps us cheer for the hero as he pursues a goal to resolve this traumatic problem from the past.
If there isn’t something traumatic in the past that the hero needs to resolve, it’s a simmering, unresolved problem that the hero finally needs to confront. In “Star Wars,” the hero longs for an adventure, but he’s stuck on his uncle’s farm on a boring planet. There’s nothing necessary traumatic about this past event, but it’s a problem the hero has a burning desire to resolve.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s goal is to just get married. What she doesn’t realize is that she really needs to stand up for herself and rely on her own abilities to become a whole person. Her early actions mask the fact that she needs to be independent.
Even in the action film “Under Siege,” the hero is a commando who has been busted down to a cook. That past gives the hero the skills and motivation to redeem himself. Although that redemption isn’t clearly resolved in the movie, you can see how the past event helps us better understand the hero a little bit better and turns the hero from a two-dimensional figure into slightly more complex character. The past is crucial in defining your hero.
When plotting your own screenplay, look for how the past creates the goal for your hero to pursue. The past gives your hero the emotional push to pursue a goal, whatever that goal might be. Once you as the screenwriter knows what past event the hero needs to resolve, you\’ll have a much stronger emotional foundation for defining the actual goal your hero needs to achieve.
Your hero can experience a traumatic event that he or she needs to overcome, or simply deal with a simmering, unresolved issue that can’t be ignored any longer. Try creating a traumatic event for your hero to overcome, such as in “Hercules” where the hero needs to overcome the traumatic event of his family being murdered. Then try to create a simmering, unresolved issue from the past for your hero such as in “Miss Congeniality” where the hero needs to learn to be a woman.
You may find that the traumatic event from the past works best or the simmering, unresolved issue from the past works better. Or maybe both will work, but create a problem from the past and your story will likely feel richer and more important as a result.