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Transformational Character Arcs: Part 9 - Exposure Therapy For Your Protagonist

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Exposing your Protagonist's fear has so much to do with THEME that I thought I'd go into it a bit with this article. Your Protagonist's FEAR runs DEEP. We're not talkin' Indiana Jones' fear of snakes here... What we're talking about is an emotionally deep rooted secret fear that your Protagonist continuously REFUSES to face. A burden that your Protagonist carries with them everywhere, i.e., your Protagonist's GREATEST FEAR and it's completely internal even though you'll need to manifest it visually.

Having said that, your story should ultimately force your Protagonist to face this very fear by the end of the story. Your Protagonist can and will of course face off with your Antagonist but it's NOT THE ANTAGONIST that your Protagonist fears. No... It's what your Antagonist symbolically represents to your Protagonist. That emotionally deep rooted fear that he or she's been carrying around inside of them since it became their greatest fear.

What's interesting here is that your screenplay works not unlike a treatment known as EXPOSURE THERAPY: "Exposure therapy is a type of behavior therapy in which the patient confronts a feared situation, object, thought, or memory. Sometimes, exposure therapy involves reliving a traumatic experience in a controlled, therapeutic environment."

The controlled therapeutic environment being your screenplay of course... LOL. And just like exposure therapy in the real world with real world patients, YOU are now the psychiatrist. You keep exposing your Protagonist to his or her fear a little bit at a time until they finally reach, face, and conquer their GREATEST FEAR!

By this time, you should of course know your Protagonist pretty well, so sitting down and making a list of ALL his or her fears shouldn't be too difficult. List as many fears as you can and once you've listed as many fears as you can, it's time to analyze them, i.e., see how they are connected to your Protagonist's GREATEST FEAR.

Figure out how to connect as many of these smaller fears to your Protagonist's greatest fear and get rid of the fears that you can't somehow connect to his or her greatest fear. Your list of smaller fears that you've managed to connect to your Protagonist's greatest fear can now be used to develop obstacles to toss in front of your Protagonist as he or she moves through your story. In fact, it's often useful to keep this list of fears handy as you write the screenplay. You might end up adding more fears, deleting existing fears, or develop and define existing fears even more.

Remember, your Protagonist is a SLAVE to this fear and until now, i.e., the end of your screenplay, he or she has not been able to deal with this fear, LET ALONE CONQUER IT.

Conquering their greatest fear is the transformational character arc, COMPLETED. Just like exposure therapy, you can now take your list of fears and begin to develop them. Consider putting them in an order of RISING ACTION with your story events, i.e., start out with the smaller fears -- leading into successively larger fears -- ending with your Protagonist's GREATEST FEAR. In other words, KEEP RAISING THE STAKES!

As you kick your Protagonist's ass up hell mountain and expose him or her to "the trail of fears," always keep in mind that each fear you ultimately decide YOU WANT in your story needs to be revealed through ACTION and DIALOGUE. Each fear needs to be CONVERTED into rising action and conflict and it's your Protagonist's emotional reaction to action that will reveal the fear(s) and begin his or her transformational character arc. Your Protagonist's action is motivated by their emotional reaction to action, i.e., the decisions they make along the trail of fears. Up hell mountain and along the trail of fears, your Protagonist must STRUGGLE between what he or she wants and what he or she NEEDS.

Also keep in mind that your character has very likely been HIDING these fears and especially his or her greatest fear. Think about yourself for just a minute... What is YOUR GREATEST FEAR? How many people know what your greatest fear is besides you? Chances are not many.. if any. We don't normally share our greatest fear with others. It's too painful. We don't want to let our guard down. We don't want to be hurt. We don't want that greatest fear to be turned against us. We don't want to be exploited.


And as a secret, you'll want to make sure that you don't make it too easy for your Protagonist to reveal it to us. Your Protagonist is an expert at hiding his or greatest fear. Hiding that fear has become his or her current state of being. Your Protagonist has that outer wall -- that gruff exterior because that's served him or her so well UP UNTIL NOW.

By exposing your Protagonist to his or her trail of fears, he or she should be just strong enough by the end of the story to finally conquer their greatest fear. When your Protagonist conquers their greatest fear they also fulfill their internal need. The internal need that will make them an entirely new person. This concept goes back to YOUR TRUTH -- what you personally believe in about LIFE and what YOU personally believe in about LIFE will be the theme of your story. Once you know the theme of your story, it's fairly easy to reverse-engineer the theme and come up with fears leading to your Protagonist's greatest fear. That's what the first draft is for, to explore all of these aspects of the theme.

You'll probably have some great obstacles but how much greater will they be if you flesh in your Protagonist's fears? How much greater will they be if you keep revealing a little more of your Protagonist's character along the way? Sure, you can write a screenplay where you simply throw in all kinds of cool obstacles in front of your Protagonist. We see this all the time so why not simply go this route INSTEAD of dealing with all this theme crap?

Good question and one you're gonna have to answer for yourself...

If you want to simply write PRODUCT that has no real chance to RESONATE with an audience, please be my guest and write product however, if you want the ticket-buying demographic out there to remember your film and tell others about how great it was for the REST OF THEIR LIFE – consider developing theme by having your Protagonist conquer their greatest fear.

Remember, there is no ONE UNIVERSAL THEME.

There is no ONE SIZE FITS ALL.

The theme of your story should ultimately be what you believe in about life an or some aspect of life -- GOOD OR BAD. Sure, if it's something like "LIFE SUCKS" -- you're probably in for a hard sell but again, if that's what you truly believe and you write it from that point of view, you might just get lucky.

My point being that you can't simply adopt someone else's outlook on life and expect to write from a believable point of view. Well, you CAN but you probably won't be able to pull it off unless at some point, you've made that point of view your own.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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