Defining the Obstacles for the Hero

Every hero is trying to achieve an emotional goal, which means overcoming a character flaw from the past. To achieve this emotional goal, the hero must pursue a physical goal that forces the hero into confronting his or her character flaw. This character flaw then defines what type of obstacles the hero must face and overcome.

First, the hero must rely on deception to pursue a physical goal. This deception gets the hero what he or she wants, but will also later cause problems precisely because the hero is lying to others about who he or she really is. The arc for the hero’s deception looks like this:

    • Act I – The hero defines an emotional goal and the villain inadvertently gives the hero a physical goal to achieving that goal
    • Act IIa – The hero uses deception to pursue and achieve the physical goal
    • Act IIb – The hero fails to achieve the emotional goal despite achieving the physical goal, and then loses the physical goal after others uncover the hero’s deception
    • Act III – The hero must change to obtain the physical goal and emotional goal

In “Tootsie,” the hero uses deception to land a role as an actress in a soap opera. Yet he falls in love with another actress on the show and now his deception keeps him from developing a romantic relationship with her. 

In “School of Rock,” a failed rock musician pretends to be a music teacher and teaches kids about music, right up until the school discovers he’s not a qualified music teacher after all and fires him. 

In “Die Hard,” the hero hides his true identity to protect his wife form terrorists. By hiding his true identity, the FBI almost kills him, thinking he’s a terrorist, and the real terrorists eventually learn his identity anyway and threaten his wife.

A second type of obstacle occurs with the carrot and the stick. The stick shows the hero the horror of what happens if he or she fails to change. The carrot shows the hero the temptation of what happens if he or she fails to change. 

In “Tootsie,” the hero runs into a lecherous male actor in the soap opera who treats women like garbage. This is the stick that shows the hero what type of person he could have become. The carrot is when the hero becomes a popular actor on the soap opera because everyone thinks he’s really a woman. To maintain this fame and fortune, the temptation is to maintain his deception.

In “School of Rock,” the hero lives with a roommate who admits that he also loved music but couldn’t make it a career so he gave up music and suggests the hero do the same. This is the stick to horrify the hero while the carrot is having the power to create and run a band of school children, which is something he’s always wanted to do. Thus he needs to maintain his deception of being a music teacher to continue mentoring his students into a band.

In “Die Hard,” the hero meets a slimy man who’s attracted to the hero’s wife. When this slimy man tries cooperating with the villain, the villain kills him, which shows the hero that he can’t try to make a deal with the villain. The carrot for the hero is that by killing terrorists, he’s getting closer to saving his wife. 

In every story, the hero must have a character flaw that helped create the hero’s dead end life in the beginning. Then the hero needs to use deception to get what he or she wants. This deception will eventually be uncovered, creating even more problems for the hero. 

In addition to deception, the hero must also face the carrot and the stick. The stick shows the hero (and the audience) how he or she could have turned out in a horrifying way if the hero fails to change. The carrot shows the hero the benefits of deceiving others without having to change and address the hero’s character flaw that created a dead end life in the first place.

Deception seems to give the hero what he or she wants.

The stick shows the hero the negative side of not changing.

The carrot shows how the deception appears to give the hero what he or she wants. 

Through deception, the carrot, and the stick, the hero (and the audience) can constantly see what’s at stake for the hero so when the hero finally does change, it proves emotionally satisfying in three ways:

    • The hero no longer needs to deceive others.
    • The temptation (carrot) of maintaining the deception is gone because the hero finally admits and overcomes his or her character flaw.
    • The stick horrifies the hero and audience into showing what the hero could become if he or she fails to change.

Know your hero’s character flaw. This character flaw can be anything, but it must be hidden by the hero’s deception, the carrot must tempt the hero into maintaining the deception, and the stick must horrify the hero into seeing how he or she could turn out by failing to change.

Ultimately, every story is about change and change can only occur emotionally. That’s why bad movies are so unemotionally satisfying because the hero doesn’t change emotionally. (“The Spy Who Dumped Me” and “The 5th Wave”) If a hero does change emotionally, then we (the audience and the hero) must see the carrot and the stick. 

The carrot shows the appeal of the deception while the stick shows the horror of not changing. By showing the hero (and audience) the carrot and the stick, we can fully see the consequences of not changing along with emotional challenge that changing requires to give up the carrot to finally change into a better person and get a better life than the deception could ever give. 

Change is the key for the hero. Avoiding the stick and overcoming the temptation of the carrot is what makes every hero truly admirable in the end. 

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