Michael Hauge—A Different Way of Thinking about Character Development

Posted by on May 11, 2011 | 26 comments

Last month a number of other children’s authors and I attended the Screenwriters’ Summit in Toronto.  I’ve already written about what I learned from speakers Linda Seger and John Truby, and now I’ve finally found a moment to write about my favourite speaker of the conference, Michael Hauge.

Because all the speakers have books that they’d love you to buy, I haven’t summarized their entire talks; instead Ive chosen the one nugget of wisdom in each that struck me the most.

Michael Hauge is well known for his Six Stage Plot Structure, and he writes very powerfully about how to create empathy with a main character, even a flawed or unlikeable one.  He also understands dramatic conflict better than most other writers I’ve read.  But for any of that you’ll have to read his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, newly republished in a 20th anniversary edition.

The shiniest nugget I came away with from Hauge’s talk was about the relationship between plot development and character development or, as he put it, the relationship between outer conflict and inner conflict.

Before hearing this talk I saw these two story elements very separately.  My thinking went something like this: I’ve got a plot, which includes an inciting incident, rising action, climax etc. and along the way my character should probably go through a change, so I’ll be sure to have him edge towards change and withdraw a few times until the end where he’ll embrace the change fully.  Since listening to Hauge, however, these two story arcs have become much more united in my mind.

I’m probably over-summarizing here—really, read the book!—but for me, his advice on figuring out a character’s inner conflict came down to asking myself these four questions:

What is your hero’s wound?

The hero has a wound or source of pain from his past that he has suppressed but has never really dealt with.

What is your hero’s belief?

Out of the hero’s wound comes a (usually mistaken) belief such as: I’m worthless (Will in Goodwill Hunting), I won’t survive without a rich man to take care of me (Rose in Titanic), if I show people my true self, I will be rejected (Shrek in Shrek) or, if I live as my true self, I will die (Ennis in Brokeback Mountain).

What is your hero’s identity?

The hero’s identity is the false self that they present to the world in order to protect themselves from re-experiencing the wound.

What is your hero’s essence?

The hero’s essence is what’s left if the identity is dropped, the hero’s true self.

For Hauge, character development is the pull between the strong desire to remain in the identity and the need, brought about by the events of the story, to live in essence.

And here’s the connection I promised between outer conflict and inner conflict: According to Hauge, a satisfying outer conflict is created when a hero can only reach his goal if he abandons his false self and embraces his true one.  You can see this from his examples: Will, Rose and Shrek all have to reject their mistaken beliefs, abandon their armor, and live in their essences in order to gain the courage to face the climaxes of their stories.

Identity and essence, Hauge says, define the difference between a sad ending and a tragic one.  Although the ending to Titanic is sad—Rose experiences a great loss—she does move into her true essence at the end of the story, so it is not tragic.  In Brokeback Mountain, however, Ennis not only experiences great loss but also fails to abandon his false identity, and so his ending is a tragic one.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Great post! This reminds me of another fantastic book on screenwriting by Peter Dunne called Emotional Structure. He also talks about characters having to let go of their pasts (and essentially relearn who they are) in order to complete their emotional journeys. I love how much screenwriting tips can help with fiction.

  2. Wow! Great post. And I can’t wait to read Witchlanders. It sounds awesome.

  3. That sounds like exactly what Hauge was talking about, Anna! I haven’t heard of Dunne but I’ll definitely check that out. Yes, those screenwriters really know how to talk about structure. John Truby’s book Anatomy of Story is great too.

  4. Wow, this makes me want to run and get that book! I love these questions. I’ve always liked the idea of character interviews etc. but these offer so much more depth. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Lena. The talk of working through a journey sounds dangerously like how you’re supposed to live life for real, not just via characters. But that’s too hard. I’ll keep writing fiction!

  6. Thanks Kip. He’s a good writer too; the book’s really clear–I recommend it.

    It’s true, Sarah. There were actually some comments at the conference about how Hauge should be writing self-help instead!

  7. The bridge between inner and outer conflict is something I’m still learning to get a full handle on, so this is very timely. Thanks so much for sharing this–it’s just an excellent breakdown and really clarifies the relationship!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. This is awesome!! I just had a little nerdgasm. And yes! I took notes and will be linking back to this post! 🙂

    • I think I’d have to call it a good day if I’ve given somebody a nerdgasm. And we hardly know each other! Thanks PK!

  9. Okay, first off, I will get and read the book! Thanks for giving such clear picture of what he said. And yes on the inner wound…I’ ve come to the conclusion I might be afraid of looking to closely at that for my MC, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and could be why I’m struggling with the middle of the book! The MC can suppress it all she wants, lol…I’m her writer—I got to get in there and explore it. Thanks again!

    • Fabulous! So glad it was helpful in your WIP. Good luck with the messy middle.

  10. Really enjoyed that – and I like your attention to the differences between sad and tragic. I always tread in the sad/tragic end of the pool, but ultimately bring my characters toward a very-hard-won happy ending. But this gives me a marker to keep in mind. Thanks!

    • I’ve never really written anything tragic, but I’d have to say that the tragic stories are the ones I can’t forget.

  11. Great post, Lena! I look forward to reading this book. And I am loving the term ‘NERDGASM’ — have had them, and NOW I know what they are called…thanks to you, and also PK Hrezo.

  12. Thanks for posting this, Lena! It’s really helpful, especially at a moment when I’m thinking about the intersection of character and story arc in my own stories.

  13. Oh good! Thanks for dropping by, Joanne!

  14. Sounds like you learned a lot at the summit. What he says is simple but powerful, and I’ll definitely keep it in mind as I write.

  15. A few days later and I am still thinking about this post. A good sign! (must order that book now)

    In the meantime, I’m passing on the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award to you for such a fantastic writing blog!

  16. Wow! I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that! And I am so, so honored to be in the company of some of my favorite authors like Erin Bow, Cindy Pon and Marissa Doyle! Thanks so much!

  17. Just coming back to tell you I did grab this book, and what a gem. Thank you so much for posting about it, or I might not have known. I encourage everyone to grab this book! 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    • Wow! I’m so glad you liked it, Angela!

  18. Thanks so much for this! I never get to his workshops, so I took good notes. You made it all seem so simple. I can’t wait to attack my wip.

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