Sunday, November 6, 2011

Identity vs. Essence

I spent this past weekend with Michael Hauge, the screenwriter, in his Story Mastery class. One topic seemed to catch the attention of many attendees. It was the discussion of a character living in their identity versus living in their essence.

Identity is the false self we present to the world to protect us from the fear that grows from a belief created by an emotional wound. In order for the character to achieve their goal, they must face this fear. The way for the character to do this is to live in their truth. Michael Hauge calls this truth the character’s essence.

Michael describes this character journey as moving from what is safe (identity) to destiny (essence). He said “A character can be safe and unfulfilled or can attempt to fulfill their destiny and be scared shitless." The character arc is the journey between living fully in their identity and living fully in their essence.

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, he states, “The character’s transformation from someone stuck in his inner conflict to someone who has found the courage to overcome it is his arc. It’s an arc from fear to courage, from inner conflict to true self-worth."

At the end of his Saturday lecture, he told us that the notion of identity vs. essence applies to real life as well. He said that given the choice, most people choose to live in their identity rather than live in their essence because they choose safety over potential happiness. He challenged us to apply this to our own writing life. In other words, he told us to complete the following sentence:

I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal, just don’t ask me to __________________ because that’s just not me.

At lunch today, many of us said fear held us back. But Yvonne said that fear is too easy an answer. I agree. Fear may be the result but if fear is keeping you from your writing goals, then there must be an underlying cause. In other words, fear is the result of something else and that is really what’s keeping you from achieving your writing goals.

I’ve been thinking all day about what my answer would be. And I still don’t know.

What are your thoughts on the subject, either for yourself or for development of character arc? What are some good examples of this in movies or books?


  1. Yes, I guess fear is the situation - but what was the action that begot the fear/situation? I'm not sure I can answer this one with deep and utter truth, either.

    I'll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal, just don't ask me to write naked because that's just not me.

    Sigh. Writing naked. That's the fear of someone seeing the real you, eh? Stripped down and exposed to your essence. Guess I'll muscle through that fear anyway. Today at least!

  2. That Yvonne (big wink!) is such a pain in the butt.

    I wonder if it's possible to really drill down far enough into our own psyche's to figure out the foundation of the fear? Isn't wonderful that we can do it for our characters, though!

    Or in my case, TRY to do it for our characters . . . and try and try and try . . .

  3. Yvonne, I think we can. If you understand your own wounding, you can trace it back and even come up with your false belief. You know, the one that isn't true, but is logical. ;0)

    I'm combining the Hauge session and the recent meeting a few weeks back with Grace Burrows and Robin Kaye to come up with mine.

    But, I have a feeling it's multi-faceted. It may take me a little longer than a day or so . . . I did think about it all day today. I think I'm getting closer. ;0)

    Great post, Lisa. I loved the conference this past weekend. I think Michael Hauge just keeps getting better and better. The man is a hoot. And really brilliant. I enjoyed the time and I'd recommend his seminar or coaching to anyone!

  4. I've been thinking about it all weekend, and I can't come up with anything either. The only thing I can think of is just dont' ask me to write non-fiction abuot my family.

  5. Fear may be the easy answer, but what -- exactly -- it is that we fear, and why, is harder. Not so fun to figure out for ourselves, but really handy to be able to delude our characters! :)

    Fun discussion!

  6. Keely - It is hard to expose yourself with your writing. But those pieces are often the best things we write.

    Evie - I agree. I think it's a lot of work to figure out the foundations of some of fears. Some of them may have happened before we were even old enough to understand them. Others may be too painful to consider. I guess writers can work some of these things out by torturing their characters. :)

    Candy - Thank you. I know when I get close to the source of what Michael called a "wounding" I feel kind of a jolt in my system. It's so hard to contemplate these things, isn't it? I agree with you - I think it's multi-faceted.

    Lynne - LOL! I don't think I'll be writing any non-fiction any time soon, either. That's a whole can of worms I do NOT want to open.

    Elaine - It is a great tool to use on our characters, isn't it? Drilling down to a character's fear usually takes me the entire length of the book to really get deep with. I have some idea when I start writing but find out more and more about this wounding as I go along.

    Great discussion, everyone!

  7. Be brave, Keely! Write naked! Just maybe not at Panera's!

    I'm teasing, but seriously, Lisa, you've given us such an interesting post.

    It's so interesting to me that Michael's challenge always has such a deep impact on folks. Regardless of whether we think the answers are easy or not, the fact the question hits so many people between the eyes really says something.

    So what does its impact say? That we want to know what holds us back? That we want to look inward, backward, forward? That we naturally don't? Hmmm...

  8. It's hard to face what holds us back. I think that it's like a car accident sometimes. You can't look and you can't look away. I think that often we can want to know and not want to know all in one. We can get close to it, skirt around it and dance away from it. Maybe the answer is that there is not one giant enlightenment where we say "Oh, that's it" but a series of small realizations that add up over time. Maybe we are not made to handle the truth all at once.