One Problem Attacked From Different Sides

Every hero has one main goal and one main problem. The main goal is the physical goal the hero must achieve. The main problem is the emotional goal the hero must also achieve by overcoming a character flaw.

Bad movies simply force the hero to overcome obstacles that block the physical goal. Good movies force the hero to overcome physical goals while also constantly being pressured to overcome his or her character flaw as well.

In “The Big Sick,” a Pakistani standup comedian falls in love with a white girl. That by itself might not seem like a problem but his family is trying to arrange a marriage for him and only wants him to marry a Pakistani girl. Now the character flaw the hero must overcome is not being honest with his girlfriend and family.

If he tells his family he’s dating a white girl, he risks having them disown him, so naturally he keeps it a secret from them. That also means he can’t tell his girlfriend that he doesn’t want her to meet his parents. 

So the physical goal is to stay in a relationship with his white girlfriend while the emotional goal is to learn to be honest. Some of the obstacles working against the hero include:

    • His family trying to arrange a wife for him. What’s even worse is that he eventually meets a Pakistani girl who he actually likes. Now he’s tempted to leave his white girlfriend and start dating this Pakistani girl, which would also keep his family happy.
    • The hero is a standup comedian who is invited to the Montreal comedy festival and later invited by his friends to move to New York. Pursuing either goal means physically leaving his white girlfriend who’s going to school in Chicago.
    • The hero’s girlfriend gets sick and falls into a coma. This threatens to keep the hero from his girlfriend forever.
    • While the hero’s girlfriend is sick, her parents come and don’t like the hero. This forms another obstacle keeping the hero from his girlfriend.

Notice that these obstacles keep the hero from his girlfriend and let him avoid dealing with his character flaw. Ultimately, every story is about seeing if the hero will achieve the physical goal and overcome his or her character flaw. 

In “The Big Sick,” the question is whether the hero will reunite with his girlfriend and whether the hero will finally be honest to everyone around him. When creating your own story, identify the physical goal and the emotional goal, which involves overcoming a character flaw. Stories are interesting not just in seeing the hero achieve a physical goal, but also seeing how the hero learns to overcome his or her character flaw as well.

What happens if your story doesn’t have a clear physical goal? Then an audience won’t have a clue what the hero is trying to achieve. That’s one huge flaw with a bad movie like “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” which doesn’t make it clear what the hero is trying to achieve. All she’s doing is running from place to place with various people trying to shoot her. This creates opportunities for gunfire, car crashes, and explosions, but none of this matters if we don’t know what physical goal the hero is trying to achiever in the first place.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” makes a second major error in not giving the hero a character flaw to overcome. The hero (and basically everyone else in the story) remains basically the same person they were at the beginning as they are in the end. Thus there’s no change and no emotionally satisfying story. 

Watch a good movie and identify both the physical goal the hero needs to achieve and the emotional goal (character flaw) the hero must overcome. In “Die Hard,” the physical goal is to get back with his wife but the emotional goal is to realize that his own arrogance and selfishness helped drive his wife away from him. Only by overcoming his character flaw can the hero finally achieve the physical goal of getting back with his wife.

Once you know the physical goal and character flaw the hero must achieve, then you automatically know how obstacles must constantly block the hero from the physical goal while forcing the hero to deal with his or her character flaw over and over again. All great stories are really emotional stories so make sure your story idea has an emotional story or else you really have no story at all.

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