The Haunted Past: What Really Motivates the Hero

Every story is about a hero who changes. To define why and how the hero changes, you must identify the hero’s haunted past.

There are two ways to create a haunted past:

  • Show it at the beginning of the story
  • Reveal it later in the story

The purpose of the haunted past is to create a traumatic event that puts the hero in a dead end life. When the hero strives for a better life, their limiting belief (formed during this traumatic event) holds them back. The only way the hero can change is to confront this haunted past and realize that their limiting belief is what’s really keeping them from achieving their dream.

In “A Quiet Place,” this traumatic event occurs in the beginning when a young girl gives her little brother a battery-powered toy that makes noise. Unfortunately, this young girl and her brother now live in a world where monsters hunt by sound.

So when the little boy plays with the toy, it makes a noise that attracts the monster that kills the boy. Now the young girl feels traumatized that her father no longer loves her. By showing us the traumatic event right from the start, stories let us experience the horrifying experience ourselves.

In most cases, the traumatic event occurs far in the past and only gets revealed much later. In “Soul,” this traumatic event has occurred in the past when the hero has tried to become a professional jazz musician but his mother has pushed him to get a more secure job.

Because the hero has failed in the past, multiple times, to achieve his goal of playing jazz professionally, he has created a limiting belief that playing jazz is the only thing that will make him happy.

Every hero must have a haunted past because this is what motivates the hero to take action, and what the hero must ultimately overcome near the end.

In “A Quiet Place,” the young girl fears her parents (and family) may no longer love her any more because she accidentally got her little brother killed by the monsters.

In “Soul,” the hero fears he’ll never get a chance to play jazz professionally and so his life will have no meaning.

Once the haunted past establishes the hero’s motivation, the hero must overcome this problem to become whole.

In “A Quiet Place,” the father sacrifices himself to save the young girl, using sign language to let her know he loves her. His words and actions make the hero realize she never lost the love of her parents after all.

In “Soul,” the hero gets his chance to play jazz, and realizes it’s still not enough. That’s when he finally learns that there’s more to life than jazz, and he starts learning to appreciate the little things in life beyond jazz.

The haunted past is a crucial part in outlining your hero’s story. The haunted past represents the motivation force and the final obstacle.

Without the haunted past, your hero has no motivation and no internal obstacle to overcome. Before you start with your plot, start by defining your hero’s haunted past. This will help you create a well structured story much faster than focusing on the plot.

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