Friday, November 19, 2010

How To Find a Supervillain’s Essence


At the recent American Christian Fiction Writers conference, I attended a class taught by Michael Hauge, THE screenplay guy who is famous for hisbook_w_drop lectures on story structure and his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell. Every novelist should learn how to write using his method, which is a linear version of the Hero’s Journey. You can read his articles and sign up for his newsletter here.

During the discussion on Character Arc, Hauge made this elusive concept even clearer in a way I had not heard before. He refers to the hero’s essence, which is only found in his inner journey.

Here are my rough notes on questions to ask about your character:

  1. What is my hero’s longing? The deeply held desire that the hero is paying lip service to because he/she doesn’t have the courage to go after it. (Hauge refers to the hero as both male and female characters.)
  2. What is my hero’s wound? The unhealed source of continuing pain. Often happens well before the story begins. It can be a single event or an ongoing situation.
  3. What is my hero’s belief? When we’re wounded, we take on a belief of how the world works.
  4. What is my hero’s fear? A situation that will lead to that wound again.
  5. What is your hero’s identity? What is the false self the hero is presenting to the world to protect them from the wound? This is the emotional armor we create to protect us from the fear created by the wound that created the fear in the first place.
  6. What is my hero’s essence? Who is he really if he could strip away the emotional armor? Who is the hero truly?

I just saw the movie, Megamind. Great movie! The dialogue is witty and the plot, while not believable, (because let’s face it, it’s a cartoon,) delivers a story that clearly develops the hero’s inner journey. It is text book in it’s display of the above questions.

Before you read further, I want to remind you that THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE! If you haven’t seen the movie, close your eyes and go a different website! Um…which might be difficult with your eyes closed. Oh well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Once you’ve seen the movie, come back. This is great stuff!

Let’s look at the questions above as they apply to the title character, Megamind.

What is Megamind’s longing?

In a prologue type of beginning, we see an adorable blue alien baby with a bulbous head being placed in a round space traveling device ala Kal-el who later became Superman. And reminiscent of Krypton, the blue child’s planet is also collapsing. As the glass door closes, his frantic parents tell him he is destined for gr—. And that’s when the door snaps shut and he is flung into space. Not having heard the word “greatness”, he wonders, “What am I destined for?”

We also see a more human looking baby in a similar craft. He’s much more self-assured, and we can see the beginnings of a rivalry. The blue child is excited when he sees earth drawing near and it seems his space craft is heading straight for a mansion. But, the humanoid child bumps him out of the way, and lands under the Christmas tree inside the opulent manor while the blue child lands in the yard of the Prison for the Criminally Gifted.

Through the next few years, the humanoid child is doted upon, while the blue child is taught right and wrong from the inmates, namely, good is bad and evil is good. The blue child is finally sent to school where the humanoid child has already won over his classmates and teacher. The blue child tries to do the same, but fails at ever attempt and gets into trouble. He finally decides that his prison family had it correct. He couldn’t be the good child, so he vowed to be the best bad child he could be.

And so, in answer to the question, his longing is to become the most notorious villain the world has ever seen.

What is Megamind’s wound?

As the two grow into adulthood, the humanoid child continues to be good, and has become Metro Man, a superhero who consistently saves the citizens of Metro City. They love him, to the point of ridiculousness, but then, who wouldn’t love an Elvis/Superman type with extraordinary good looks, good hair, and the ability to vanquish all your foes?

The blue child becomes Metro Man’s arch-nemesis, Megamind. He doesn’t have superpowers, but he has a phenomenal brain and can invent anything to further his dastardly cause—which is to destroy Metro Man. And why does he want to destroy him? Because of his wound. Metro Man will always be stronger, better looking, and. . .more popular.

What is Megamind’s belief?

Megamind is secure in his belief that he will never be good, because that would be bad. And since bad is good, that’s the only way he wants to be. Evil to the core.

What is Megamind’s fear?

Megamind finally accomplishes his purpose and fries Metro Man by intensified sunrays until he’s a mere skeleton. High on victory, he takes over Metro City, becoming its Over-Lord. But his victory is fleeting. With no Metro Man, he has nothing to do, and he is bored.

So, he devises a plan. He creates a superhero with whom he can spar as he did Metro Man. Problem is, he accidently shoots a doofus cameraman named Hal with the Metro Man’s superhero DNA. Hal becomes Tighten (originally Titan, but the doofus misspelled it,) quickly learns that it’s more fun to be evil than to be a superhero, and so he becomes the most dangerous supervillain Metro City has ever seen.

Hal, before he became Tighten, was the lovesick cameraman for a sassy reporter named Roxanne. Megamind also has a crush on Roxanne, and now he not only has a villain to deal with, he’s locked into a love triangle.

Roxanne, who was repulsed (and vaguely bored) with Megamind, begins to see him as a different person. . .literally. Megamind can change his appearance with the help of one of his inventions. After several dates with whom she thinks is Bernard, an unassuming, bookwormish guy, Roxanne begins to see the true essence of Megamind. When she kisses “Bernard” in a restaurant, Megamind’s disguise is revealed and she rejects him.

And this is his greatest fear that began in that classroom many years ago. Rejection.

What is Megamind’s identity?

I think we can agree that the hero’s identity is as a supervillain. Bad is good. It’s the emotional armor that he’s been carrying around ever since his school days.

What is Megamind’s essence?

However, if he could strip away his emotional armor, he would see himself as a genius inventor with a large capacity for love.

As Tighten continues his reign of terror, Megamind and Roxanne discover that Metro Man did not die in the burning sunray blast. He is, instead, hanging out at his secret. . .er. . .hangout. It seems that Metro Man faked his death because he has decided to shed his identity as a superhero and become what he always wanted to be—in essence, his. . .er. . .essence—a musician. He tells Megamind that he must stop Tighten and become the new hero. Roxanne agrees because she’s seen Megamind’s true essence of character when he was disguised as Bernard. But, Megamind refuses, believing the lie that his wound has caused—that he is condemned to be a supervillain for life. He is beyond redemption.

Dejected, he throws himself in prison. Nothing will change his mind that he could ever be good.

However, when he sees on the television that Tighten has captured Roxanne and she is in real danger, he escapes and faces Tighten—not as a supervillain, but as a superhero.

Alas, Tighten has all of the qualities of Metro Man since he was shot with a dose of the superhero’s DNA. Megamind’s brilliance is no match for Tighten’s strength. But wait! With one last effort, Megamind uses one of his inventions and changes Tighten back into Hal, but that doesn’t stop the falling building that is headed straight for him.

Suddenly, the building splits in two and we see Metro Man save the day once again. But this time, Megamind doesn’t. . .er. . .mind.

In the end, Metro Man continues to live in his true essence as a musician, and Megamind fulfills his parents’ prophesy that he is destined for greatness. He moves into his true essence as the much loved hero who vanquished the supervillain, Tighten.

In my class with Michael Hauge, he also taught about the romantic thread. He said, “The reason the romance character and the hero belong together, is because the romance character is the only one who sees beneath the hero’s identity and connects at the level of essence.”

We see this with Roxanne. She literally saw beneath the hero’s identity, especially easy since he didn’t even look like himself. She fell in love with whom she thought was Bernard, but it was Megamind who allowed her in to see his true essence.

This is the recipe for developing your Character’s inner journey. It worked with Megamind, and I’m sure if we watch for it, we’ll see it in other movies as well. Just remember Identity vs Essence. One is what the hero believes about himself, but the other is who he truly is.


Megamind -