I re-read recently my post on Antagonists and Protagonists (you can read here) as I replied to another comment about Conflict and Motivation. Even though I truly believe what I wrote then, that the main pillar of the Conflict in a story is the mere incompatibility of the goals of Antagonists and Protagonists, it’s true that psychoanalytic motivation gives a sense of profound meaning to a story. My life changed completely when a couple of decades ago I met the works of Freud and psychoanalytical thinking. It is still at the core of my thinking about life and death and it improved not just my life but the understanding of my characters. So even if the motivation of a Protagonist or an Antagonist can be as simple as the need to eat and/or survive, as in JAWS or ALIEN, it’s useful to understand some of the deeper core motivations of characters. So here are a few nuggets about Freud – a genius who is, in our day, in my view, critically undervalued.
Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian doctor, was a very clever man who studied hysteria in the barbaric 19th century. At that time, people were convinced that only women suffered from hysteria and one of the main treatments for the condition was the removal of the uterus. Freud was not particularly keen on that kind of therapy so he studied another path: hypnosis. He was a pioneer in hypnotherapy and had phenomenal success. Through hypnosis he was able to uncover the origins of the traumas that led to neurosis and hysteria. As he brought these traumas to the conscious mind, he saw that the patients soothed their symptoms and felt more at ease. Unfortunately, though, this therapy had a side effect: the patients got dependant of the therapist. As soon as the hypnotic sessions were terminated, the symptoms seemed to come back. But Freud started to notice one other thing: he was hired to take patients to a sanatorium in the quiet mountains and between sessions of hypnosis he would engage in massages and conversations with the patients – as he did this he started to pick up that these conversations were as valuable as or even more valuable than the hypnosis itself. And thus was born the Talking Cure – Psychoanalysis.
Two of the main discoveries that made Freud famous were the so-called Two Topics. The First Topic said something like this: our mind has three basic parts – the Unconscious, the Conscious and the Pre-Conscious (Subconscious). Think of it as a computer. Conscious mind is the program you are using at the moment – I am using MS Word at the moment and writing a text – I am perfectly conscious that I am doing that. The Subconscious are the programs and applications that are minimized: I can quickly activate them by clicking on an icon and opening a browser, for instance. The Unconscious though, is much deeper within the software – it’s the Operating System – that mass amount of software that is running under the whole workings of the computer and which is much more difficult to access. Think of it like this: if I ask you to tell me what you had for dinner last night, you will probably remember by accessing your Subconscious mind. But if I ask you what you had for dinner a year ago, you will probably have more trouble remembering. It’s possible that I could use hypnosis to make you remember, it is there in your memory somewhere, but we would have to access your Unconscious mind – the part of your mind where more than 90% of your thinking occurs. Freud discovered that the Unconscious works with Symbolism and that our dreams are a gate to the Unconscious. And that’s also the source of our Fantasies. And our love for stories. Stories, in a way, are the perfect way for our Unconscious to learn – as they also work through symbolism. That’s why the deepest narratives are the ones that resonate with the chords of our Unconscious – not necessarily the most complex.
Now, Freud’s Second Topic is more controversial. Freud said that there are three parts of our mind that are constantly in conflict: the Id is our pure animal – focused on egotistic needs, feels and wants. It’s very basic: hunger – eat; thirst-drink; pee-release; anger-violence; etc. The Superego is the social, disciplined self: it obeys the rules, it inspires feelings of guilt and shame, and other social impositions. And finally the Ego: the diplomat, trying to balance the Id and the Superego and Reality – looking for comfort and to overcome the conflict. In Freud’s view, this main basic Conflict between the parts of our mind is the pillar of every conflict and every neurosis.
One important source of this inner conflict is the Oedipus Complex. This complex represents the conflict between our fundamental inner needs, Id needs, towards our parents – love, sex, hate, violence – and the Superego that idealizes and defines a «normal» relationship with our parents. Our Ego must be able to reconcile both these parts of our inner mind and Reality, which is never ideal, and that’s why most people’s relationships with their parents is never perfect.
If you want to render profound motivations to your characters, then, the relationship with the parents is always at the core and your knowledge of psychoanalysis becomes a major resource. Here are a few examples:
In STAR WARS, Luke’s father, Darth Vader, represents Evil and Obi Wan is the Grandfather who rivals that Evil. Luke’s oedipal relationship with his father is the main source of this story’s conflict – as well as Vader’s oedipal relationship with Obi Wan.
In GODFATHER, the main inner conflict of the story is Michael Corleone’s desire to leave a life of crime while still being unable to separate himself from his father’s figure.
In CASABLANCA, Rick’s inner conflict is between his love for Isla and his love for the principled and mature course of action represented by Victor Lazlo’s father-figure.
I will not analyze each of these cases one by one, as it would take a whole post and require much explanation. I just wanted to alert you, as fellow writers, that if you want or need to engage in the deeper meanings of a story, Freud’s theories and thinking seem to me a very good place to start. See you next time, fellow knights.