The Haunted Past and the Miserable Present

In nearly every story, the hero or mentor have to deal with a problem. Often times this problem comes from the past, long before this tory started, but sometimes this problem occurs near the beginning of the story.

For example, in “Harold and Maude,” Harold’s problem occurred long before the story started based on his reaction to his overbearing mother and the absence of his father who presumably died but left an impression on him. On the other hand in “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s problem begins when he gets beat up by the villain early in the story.

In “Harold and Maude,” Harold needs to overcome his painful past and he does this eventually when he admits to Maude that the reason he fakes suicides is that he enjoys being dead rather than being alive, which is his whole problem. This revelation happens in Act IIb, so the hero’s history looks like this:

  • Act I – Harold’s odd, fake suicidal behavior was formed by his past but we don’t know what that past is.
  • Act IIa – Harold’s odd behavior includes attending funerals.
  • Act IIb – Harold reveals his haunted past that helped cause his odd behavior (he found being dead is better than being alive).
  • Act III – Harold finally learns to embrace the story theme and change, overcoming his haunted past.

In “The Karate Kid,” the hero haunted past comes from a miserable present, which looks like this:

  • Act I – The hero moves to a new neighborhood and gets beat up by the villain.
  • Act IIa – The mentor gets the hero to agree to compete in a tournament against the villain if the villain will stop his bullying of the hero.
  • Act IIb – The hero prepares for the tournament to compete against the villain.
  • Act III – The hero defeats the villain.

Remember, the hero isn’t the only one with a haunted past. Often the mentor has a haunted past as well. In “Harold and Maude,” Maude is Harold’s mentor, but her past is subtly revealed when she talks about her wild adventures defying the police. Then Harold accidentally spots a concentration camp tattoo on Maude’s arm, which reveals more about her haunted past that helped define her. Maude later commits suicide to end her life, but her redemption is to inspire Harold to embrace life and go on loving.

In “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s mentor is the apartment handyman, who turns out to know the martial arts too. Yet this mentor’s odd behavior comes from his own haunted past in losing his wife and son. This traumatic loss has defined his life as anything more than an apartment handyman, so when the hero defeats the villain, this redeems the mentor as he’s able to help someone else grow and understand the true spirit of the martial arts.

So the lesson is that the hero and mentor often have a haunted past that they must overcome. If the past didn’t cause their problem (like Rick in “Casablanca”) then something in the present wrecked their life instead. Think of the hero and mentor as emotionally wounded warriors who can only redeem themselves by the hero defeating the villain.

If you write a story where the hero and the mentor don’t have a problem from the past, you’ll likely write a weaker story. If your hero and mentor suffer from a haunted past or a miserable present, then you’ll create a more emotionally engaging story.

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