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Monday, February 11, 2008

Michael Hauge's Concepts of Identity and Essence

Last Fall I had the good fortune to attend an all day Washington Romance Writers workshop featuring Michael Hauge, screenplay consultant, lecturer, and author of the acclaimed book, Writing Screenplays that Sell. From his years in Hollywood, Hauge has developed an understanding of the kind of story structure that results in successful screenplays. The good news is, his ideas are very helpful in writing romance.

(Note: I'll be using ‘hero’ in a generic sense, not a romance writing sense and I'll adopt the old convention of using ‘he' instead of the cumbersome 'he/she')

Hauge’s concepts about Character are very integrated into his ideas about Plot. No matter what the external plot, the hero must have an inner journey of transformation, one which Hauge conceptualizes as a journey from Identity to Essence.

For this journey the hero must have not only a visible goal, but also a deeply held desire, an unfulfilled longing that he is too frightened to pursue.

What prevents the hero from fulfilling this deeply held desire is a wound from the past, an unhealed source of internal pain, a pain so strong he fears its reoccurance. From his wound, and his fears of repeating it, the hero develops a belief about himself. This belief about himself is what Hauge calls the hero's Identity.

Identity is “the persona the hero develops to protect himself from the pain of re-experiencing his wound.” It is his “emotional armor,” what keeps him from again facing that early pain. It becomes, as Hauge says, who the hero thinks he is.

Hauge gives a great fill-in-the-blank sentence to help us figure out our hero’s Identity.

How would your character respond to this question?

“I would do whatever it takes to achieve my goal. Just don’t ask me to _____, because that is just not me.”

Whatever belongs in that blank is, of course, what your character must do in the story.

In order to reach his inner goal, the hero must give up living in his identity, face his pain, and become the person he has the potential to be. Hauge calls the person-he-has-the-potential-to-be the hero’s Essence.

Essence is who the hero really is on the inside, who he has the potential to be if he gives up his identity.

Inner conflict, Hauge says, is the “tug of war between Identity and Essence.”

So this is the battle we want to convey in our stories, showing glimpses of the hero’s essence, his fears, his wound, and his deeply held desire.

The only way the hero can achieve his deeply held desire is to “move out of his identity and into his essence” This is the hero’s transformation, his journey.

Try figuring out your characters using Hauge’s concepts. What is your character’s deeply held desire? What is his Wound? His Identity (use the fill-in the blank question)? His Essence?

Can you see his Inner Conflict? Do you get ideas about Plot?


This is only a tidbit of what Michael Hauge has to offer. I very enthusiastically recommend you attend one of Michael Hauge’s workshops, purchase one of his DVDs, or buy his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, all of which can be found on his website or at


Stay tuned this week for Colleen Gleason's Differentiating Heroes While Keeping Them Heroic (Tues), Jill Monroe's Alpha Heroes (Weds), Janet Mullany's Historical Characters and Their Problems (Thurs) and Q and A Day (Fri). Feel free to email me your questions for Q and A Day ahead of time

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At 12:33 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

I haven't yet attended one of his workshops, but I plan to now. I'm off now to make sure I've got my characters identity and essence worked out properly.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Charity said...

I've heard so many great things about his workshops and I'm hoping he'll present at RWA National this year (since I'll be there).

Thanks for this preview!

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I heard his name mentioned all the time last year at Nationals, usually on the elevator when I had my hands full of free books. :) Everyone loved him!

Charity, if he presents, maybe you could come back and tell us what learned, and if it was helpful for you.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Ladyhawk said...

What an interesting question to ask one's self. It's unsettling to realize that there are many things I'm unwilling to do, with plenty of reasons why not, though the base reason is fear. I suppose it's time I drag out Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Thank you, Diane, for sharing this bit from the workshop. Another great question to add to my writing notes.
Judy T

At 6:21 PM, Blogger doglady said...

What a great blog! This hits on my current problem / solution with my novel LOST IN LOVE. I have discovered some things about my hero that definitely fall into these concepts. I really appreciate having it boiled down into a couple of succinct questions. I need to read this guy's book. Thanks, O Divine One. Another winner!

At 6:27 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane, thanks for sharing. What an exciting way to think about story/character. I'm definitely going to have to buy his book!

Ladyhawk, I'm with you. It *is* unsettling when I think about how many thinks I'm not prepared to do, and you're so right. If I look carefully, the reason usually is fear, mixed with a dash of lack of time or lack of interest. ,-) But I'm definitely going to explore this guy's work.

Speaking of fear, it can be quite paralyzing. I have a quote I always look at when fear threatens to stop me. (Yes, I should have whipped this quote out when we were sharing inspirational quotes, but better late than never.) It's from Winston Churchill. "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it's the courage to continue that counts."

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wonderful quote, Norah. Great blog, Diane. I, too, need to get this book. Does he say that both main characters need to have an Identity and an Essence? I usually have a stronger internal journey of transformation for one character but not as strong for the other... any words of wisdom about this?

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

“I would do whatever it takes to achieve my goal. Just don’t ask me to _____, because that is just not me.”

Now, the only thing I can think to fill in the blank for my current WIP would be Just don't ask me to give up football, because....

Football is his life, but he has a knee injury that he's been hiding from everyone, and he just doesn't know what he'll do with himself when he no longer has football. The game has defined him since junior high. What will he do without all the attention he gets as an NFL starting quarterback? How will he support the heroine and his new son...what will become of him?

Of course everything will work out just fine and he'll end up with some amazing offer at the end, but he doesn't know this...and don't tell him. shhhhh

Does that work??

At 10:22 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Does he say that both main characters need to have an Identity and an Essence? I usually have a stronger internal journey of transformation for one character but not as strong for the other... any words of wisdom about this?

Yes, Hauge would say that in the best stories, both the hero and heroine experience a transformation from identity to essence, but he also told us that it didn't have to be equal for both. He also said you can give any character identity and essence, a villain, perhaps.

"I would do anything to support my new son. Just don't ask me to give up football, because that just isn't me."---that works for me, Theresa!

At 10:31 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it's the courage to continue that counts."

Wouldn't you just love to magically share a quiet dinner with Winston Churchill and just listen to him talk? I would.

Judy and Nora, fear is so limiting. It is supposed to keep us safe, but sometimes it keeps us stifled. A strong goal certainly does help us overcome fear. I know I wanted to be a successfully published romance writer so much, I did stuff I was afraid to do--travel to strange places alone; talk to people I didn't know.

I still can't exactly walk into a party where I don't know anyone and feel comfortable, but now I could probably wing it okay.

Anyway, romance writing has opened up a world of friendship to me and it's made my life so rich. I'm so grateful!

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Let me say that, if you can't attend a workshop, Hauge's DVD is also an alternative. And the book contains his ideas, too.

I liked his concepts because they were so easy to understand and so easy to apply to my characters.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I saw Hoage at the last RWA conference too. Good speaker. Unfortunately, what I find myself "unprepared to do" is use his technique -- not because I think it's not useful. I do. I just focus more on external conflict. Give me a villain and a dire situation, and I'm a happy camper. The closest I came to having a book be primarily about internal conflict was in my (unpubbed) story about the tarot reader with the split personality. Even then, a lot of her internal conflict was left to the reader to infer, because the protag was obviously in denial about something, and figuring out why she had this problem was the book's mystery.

A therapist once told me I wasn't real in touch with my emotions. Luckily, this doesn't stop me from talking about myself.

All that said, I love writing exercises that push my comfort zone, so I'll try that fill-in-the-blank sentence on my WIP. I mean, it's GOT to make the story more satisfying. The more layers, the better.

Norah: That is a great quote. I should get Churchill's biography. I think he wrote one of his own.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I've heard very good things about his workshops. I like the Identity and Essence idea, especially that one question. Letting the character answer that one question that continually asking why could lead to a whole lot.

Theresa, that sounds great to me! Love stories with athletes.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Mel Francis said...

boy it's a small world. I blogged about Michael Hauge today over at He's amazing. I highly recommend listening to his audio books.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Just the question I needed, Diane. Thanks! I've been thinking there is something incomplete about my current hero, and this clarifies it.



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