August 28th, 2015

Getting to the Bottom of Your Characters

I was fortunate enough to go to the RWA Conference in New York in July (thank you, Alpha Dog). Between meetings, chatting with friends, and parties, I got to exactly 3 workshops (beat last year, when I got to zero!). But luckily I attended what I’m sure was the BEST of all workshops.

I’ve heard others sing the praises of Michael Hauge, and every year, have intended to make his presentation. This year, I committed to get there no matter what, and am I glad I did! I’m here to pass some of his wisdom on to you.

In case you don’t know who he is, this is from his website:

MICHAEL HAUGE is a story expert, author and lecturer who works
with writers, filmmakers, marketers, attorneys and public speakers,

both in Hollywood and around the world.


If you do know of him, or have attended his lectures in the past – hang in with me, because some of this is new.

These are my notes from his awesome 2 hour lecture. He’s talking about romance, but this works for all relationships – it’s the explanation of why they work.

A good story is manipulation – you’re trying to create an emotional experience for the reader.

All stories are based on 3 elements:

  1. Character
  2. Desire
  3. Conflict

There are 12 components of a good story:

1. Hero – Protagonist is not necessarily heroic, but he has potential to be. The story is him realizing that potential or failing (tragedy)

2. Set-up – Glimpse you give of the hero’s life before the story.

     a. Every good story is a reflection, of the before and after story. Reveal what the hero longs for, somewhat unrealistically. Ex: Heroine in Titanic                longs for adventure.

     b. How is the hero stuck? He’s in a state of inertia – he’s settling

3. Create empathy for the hero – for emotional engagement, the reader must become the hero

     a. Make the hero the victim of undeserved misforture

     b. Put a character in jeopardy

     c. Make the hero likable

4. Hero has a catalyst – an opportunity or event that pushes him forward. Could be good or bad

     If it looks good, it goes bad / If it looks bad, it goes good

5. New situation – the hero’s goal is to decide, where am I, what are the rules? Involves exploration and questioning

6. Outer motivation – the hero creates a new goal

7. Other characters – Here’s the new stuff 

     a. Reflection character – best friend, mentor, helper. They hold the hero’s feet to the fire. Point out the problem.

     b. Nemesis – Villain, bad guy. Embodies the character has of himself.

     c. Romance character – outer motivation for the hero.

The biggest weakness of romance is that there’s no logical reason for these two people to be together.

Wrong answers:

          1. Chemistry – Nope, that burns out. We’re talking about love here.

          2. Love is not explainable – yes, it is.

The right answer:

The right hero for the heroine  is the only person who connects with her ESSENCE, not her IDENTITY.

Identity is the face we wear for the world – He sees what she really is, not the face she puts on for the world. We may even believe our identity is who we are.

Essence is who we truly are, deep inside.

Lovers are in conflict because one or both of them is in identity – not essence. This is great before sex, and it helps in a love triangle:

Whoever she dumps embodies identity

Whoever she chooses embodies essence

Laura – butting in here. This was an epiphany for me.  Think about Twilight, or Hunger Games. Something always bothered me about those love triangles, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. This is it! There’s no reason for them to be together; neither sees the girl’s essence – or if they do, they see only a part. That’s why you can’t decide who the heroine should be with! And that bugs me – on a subliminal level. And if they’re getting to me on a subliminal level, this is powerful stuff, no? Back to Michael….

8. Pursuit – More visible and persistent the goal, the more the reader is engaged. Goal must be within the power of the hero to achieve. Avoid something he needs another to achieve. Has to be big enough to carry us to the climax.

9. Conflict – Emotion grows from conflict NOT from desire. There 2 levels:

     a. Outer conflict – forces of nature, conflict with another character. Must get worse as story moves forward. Obstacle comes closer – faster – bigger

     b. Inner conflict – invisible, inside heroine.

                   What is the heroine’s wound? Mostly in adolescence.

                  What is the heroine’s belief? It’s a misunderstanding about the world.

This belief is NEVER true, but ALWAYS logical

                  What is the heroine’s fear?

                  What is the heroine’s identity? Persona – the mask we wear to protect us from fears that grow out of the belief, created by the old wound. Identity is who we believe we really are.

                  What is the heroine’s essence? If you strip away the armor, what is left? They have the potential to become it, but only if the strip down to the essence and face their biggest fear. They can be safe and unfulfilled or fulfilled and scared to death.

10. TransformationBegins in identity, ends in essence. Character arc



     Glimpse new way


     Move steadily

     Disaster – major setback, all is lost

     Retreat – Doesn’t work. Reflection character may help here. Am I willing to be afraid?


Bigger stake – if the hero’s courage also helps the outside world. Or, if he doesn’t find the courage=tragedy like Brokeback Mountain.

11. Climax – Complete the arc and the goal is achieved.

12. Aftermath – the ‘after picture’ in his new life.

That’s it. Michael Hauge is officially my hero. If you ever have a chance to catch him live, don’t miss it. By the way, he has videos, and books available on his website, and he also does individual coaching. Check him out at:

 So, WITS followers, what what your biggest takeaway from the notes? Can you see a way to use this in your WIP?

About Laura

Author Headshot SmallLaura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women’s Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central.  The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her ‘biker-chick’ novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin’s Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The latest, Twice in a Blue Moon , released July 1.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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51 comments to Getting to the Bottom of Your Characters

  • Hi, Laura. I’ve taken Michael’s workshop before–focus on women’s fiction–but your notes are much better. (And mind are hard to read.) I’m bookmarking your post. I need to review this lesson, over and over.

  • bettybolte

    Thanks for breaking down the steps, Laura! I’m saving your post to refer to later. I appreciate having a fresh look at what the steps are as I’m revising to make sure I’m hitting the mark to the best of my ability. Thanks again!

  • Yes, Lorrie and Betty, I’m keeping it close, too. I came home from conference and edited my WIP, based on the above…MUCH stronger!

  • This is a fabulous checklist to make sure the story is working. Thanks, Laura.

  • Thanks for sharing this brilliant overview of Michael’s session, Laura. I’ve seen a few of his posts (I’m in Scotland) but never this kind of thing and you make it so easy to follow. Will definitely bookmark this!

  • I totally agree with all the above remarks. I have met Michael Hauge, taken his workshops, had a script consultation with him. As I went over the checklist, I saw many things in a clearer light than ever before. And believe me, Michael can be very tough when he is your consultant.

    • Oh yes, olderwriter, our own Fae can attest to his no-nonsense feedback! But he was right. I mean, you’re not paying for unbridled praise, right? 😉

  • I’ve taken his two day workshop and walked away amazed and overwhelmed. But I always refer back to my notes and I can’t help but learn something new every time I hear him speak. I would take his workshop again. Excellent teacher.

  • The transformation step: begins in identity ends in essence pretty much blew my mind — now I see the error of my ways with my young heroine, the funny thing is, I kind of got it right with the hero–purely accidental. Thanks for sharing!

  • The Reflection Character is a new thought for me. Do you see this character ever also being the Romance Character? The concept of Essence vs Identity is also powerful. I’m using this outline as an exercise to work through with my WIP. Thanks for sharing Michael’s presentation.

  • Thank you for sharing your notes, Laura. This post came at a perfect time for me. I will keep it handy. The pointers triggered some insight into the “hero” of a short story I just started.

  • Fae Rowen

    Yes, Laura, Michael Hauge’s workshop was the best of the conference, and I got to more than three! I’ve been to several of his conference workshops and the all-day OCC one last year, the day after the earthquake. He may be beating the same drum, but every time I hear a different rhythm and take-away more than the time before. The “seeing the essence” idea was key.

  • Laura, this is awesome! I feel like I was there. And yes, I needed this because I’m in a revising frenzy right now. 🙂

    One other question – I think you left a word out here and I want to know what it is!!

    b. Nemesis – Villain, bad guy. Embodies the ?? character has of himself.

  • This is fantastic. That distinction between essence and identity is brilliant and it now makes so much more sense why two opposing characters can find love (as opposed to just attraction or lust).

    • That was my take-away, too, missw. I was thinking about the movie, Jerry McGuire. The heroine get’s Jerry’s essence from the beginning – even before the audience does! Once the Tom Cruise character finally gets it, ‘You complete me, says it all’.

  • Thanks so much for sharing, Laura. Now I understand why I must write dossiers for my hero and heroine and find a true reason for their “connection” before I begin a story. I might not have been fortunate enough to attend Michael Hauge’s workshop, but I agree with his criteria for developing believable characters and creating conflict.

  • The insights in #10 — Transformation — instantly became a blinding lightbulb in my head for my WIP. Where are my inner sunglasses when I need them!?!?!? I know where I’m going with the hero and heroine, but #10 gave me a how-to structure to get it out of my brain and heart … and onto the screen/paper. Laura, thanks for being my writing guardian angel!

  • I attended a two day workshop with Michael in CT. Fantastic! I learned so many new things. You should read his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.

  • Great revisit to Michael’s workshop, Laura! I attended his all-day OCC mtg several years ago, and have his DVD workshop with Chris Vogler. Las Vegas RWA is hosting his all-day seminar in a few weeks for a bargain $100. Time for a refresher! 🙂

  • I’ve taken every opportunity to hear Michael’s workshops, whether at Orange County Chapter/RWA or National Conference. I’m sorry I missed this conference! He is the Master. No matter how many times I attend one of his classes, I come away with new knowledge and insight into my story. His concept of identity to essence really resonates with me. Laura, I’m so glad you finally got to hear him.

  • I’ve heard him speak a couple of times and found it informative – nice take on why sometimes love triangles don’t work, Laura!

  • That was an epiphany for me, Deb. Hey, you going to San Diego next year?

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Great checklist, Laura. I saw went to an all-day workshop with him several years ago and still refer to my notes when I’m feeling stuck. 🙂

  • Thanks for the great notes, Laura. I haven’t had a workshop by Michael but will put it on my list. I took Margie Lawson’s class in Denver this spring, and she sings your praises.

    • Margie Lawson is the best writing teacher I’ve found, Jackie – glad you found her too! I often say that she took me from good to sold! She’s been in Australia lately, but she’ll be back blogging with us in the fall – watch for her!

  • Thanks for these notes on Hauge’s presentation. I find them very useful–inner and outer conflicts, identity vs. essence–yes!

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Thank you very much for sharing these tips about characterization. They are truly thought-provoking and work for memoir too. Thanks again, Laura!

  • Laura – thank you so much for sharing these notes. They’re are bring focus to my current work.

  • Hi all. I thought it might be time for me to chime in here. First of all, thanks, Laura, for saying such wonderful things about my lecture, and for doing such a fantastic job of summarizing it. Your outline really gets to the core of what I said, and everything you included is accurate. I’m happy – and honored – you were finally able to attend this year.

    And to all of you who responded, and who made such kind and ego-inflating comments, my deepest gratitude. It means a lot to have my ideas garner such a strong and positive response, and to know they’re helping your writing.

    And now, at the risk of commandeering Laura’s terrific blog, I’d like to respond to some of the issues the article and comments raised, to see if I can clarify them a bit. I’m not well versed in the principles of blogging, so apologies if I’m breaking ten different rules of what a comment should, and shouldn’t, be.

    Laura – When you wrote in your notes that the identity/essence principle was great before sex, what I meant by that was that rather than just have the heroine and hero jump into bed because the sexual tension is so great, precede it by a moment of real vulnerability between the two – when one of them drops the mask of his or her identity and risks letting the other see the truth they have been hiding. I like to say that in great stories, the lovers have to get naked before they can get naked. (By the way, I agree completely regarding the lovers in The Hunger Games trilogy. The resolution of the love triangle seemed arbitrary to me, and very unfulfilling, for the very reason you said.)

    And if you really would love to take my 2-day Story Mastery workshop like Sylvia did, you’re in luck now that you’re in Texas. Among my many upcoming seminars, I’ll be offering one for the Austin RWA Chapter the first weekend in February. Just stay tuned to my web site.

    [And here’s another somewhat shameless plug: for those who couldn’t be there for my lecture at Nationals, the key concepts I discussed are available in a video (slide show) and audio presentation entitled ADD HOLLYWOOD MAGIC TO YOUR STORIES (]

    Carol – The issue of whether a Reflection Character can also be the Romance (love interest) comes up frequently. Both characters are at times supportive of the heroine (or hero) achieving her goal, and both see beneath the heroine’s identity to her essence. But I recommend you not combine them. It will become confusing, and the tool will lose its helpfulness. And the Reflection has an important separate function to fill. Even though the Reflection wants the heroine to achieve her goal(s), the Reflection will repeatedly hold the heroine’s feet to the fire and urge her toward her essence. Toward the end of most love stories, there is a moment when the heroine has suffered a setback, become too afraid, given up on her goal and retreated back where she was at the beginning of the story – fully in her protective identity. This is when the Reflection will invariably confront her with some form of the challenge, “What the hell are you doing? You know you want him/it. Go after it!”

    Laura again – Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady is a Reflection for Eliza, but never a Romance character, because she never pursues him romantically, nor him her. Even though we want them to be together, and we can infer the possibility of some romance after the play or film is over, it’s really not a love story in the traditional sense.

    Jenny – The missing phrase regarding the Nemesis (the character who stands in opposition to the hero/heroine achieving his goal) was that that character embodies the hero’s Identity. In other words, even though the hero (or heroine) may look upon this character as his opposite, in some way the character’s words or actions are consistent with the hero’s own persona or inner conflict. In SHREK, Lord Farquaad makes fun of Shrek for falling in love even though he’s an ogre. But that’s just the attitude Shrek has about himself that has kept him hidden behind a barbed wire fence, refusing to get close to anyone. And in TOOTSIE, Ron, the sexist and insulting TV director played by Dabney Coleman, is Michael’s Nemesis, because Ron is having an affair with Julie, the actress Michael is in love with. But is Ron really that different from Michael, who also lies to and manipulates women to get what he wants? It’s only when Michael becomes Dorothy and discovers his essence that his similarity to Ron ends.

    And finally, a word about JERRY MAGUIRE: it contains a line of dialogue that brilliantly conveys the idea of connecting with another’s essence. When Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) is chastised by her sister for sleeping with Jerry, Dorothy answers, “You don’t understand. I love him. I love him. I love him for the man he wants to be, and I love him for the man he almost is.” In a great love story, the Romance recognizes the potential the hero or heroine possesses, and will love them and stand by them until their courage is great enough, and their essence is realized.

    I will now return control of this blog to Laura, with deepest thanks to you all. Keep writing, and Stay in Your Essence!

    – Michael

  • Fae Rowen

    Thank you for stopping by and your comments, Michael!

    When I went to holistic healing school I first heard the term “essence.” In a decade, I hadn’t thought to transfer that idea to my writing–until you talked about it. What a concept. And yes, essence is what made me fall in love with my tough, emotion-free, wrestler husband. I saw the massive tenderness under that hard exterior and knew I would always be safe with him.

    Can’t wait to see you at the next conference. You rock!

  • Wow, SO glad you stopped by, and added more of your wisdom, Michael – we’re honored!

    And people, you can see from Michael’s response that my bare-bones outline does NOT do justice to his brilliance. If you get a chance to see him in person, or get his book or DVD, do it!

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  • Just catching up with blog reading today. Thanks for a great post Laura. I loved the insight on inner conflict – that it is a misunderstanding about the world and it’s a belief that’s never true but always logical. The character arc steps are wonderful as well. I’ve taken one of Michael Hauge’s tele-seminars – well worth it.

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