[Podcast] Lisa Cron on the Misbelief of Your Protagonist and Why It Matters to Your StoryJun 01, 2023
Think about your favorite book or movie. What makes it your favorite?
It’s probably a combination of things—an applicable life lesson, jaw-dropping choreography and action, an intense plot twist you didn’t see coming. We all love great action and heart-tugging themes. But what is at the core of those elements that make us fall in love with a story?
Characters are essential to good storytelling. From beloved protagonists like Elizabeth Bennet, Atticus Finch, and Harry Potter, to intriguing characters like Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone, and the Joker, readers/viewers crave a story with interesting characters.
And the best stories—the ones readers think about years later and recommend to friends and family—concern complex characters with internal struggles.
We sat down with Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius, Wired for Story, and Story or Die, to talk about writing a book readers want to read. What was Lisa’s top recommendation? To write a story that follows a character struggling with an internal misbelief.
What Is a Character Misbelief?
Character misbelief is a misbelief about human nature. It often stems from past traumas, misconceptions, and/or experiences. It’s never factual. And, according to Lisa, it typically emerges in childhood.
A misbelief showcases a character’s internal struggle—their vulnerabilities. Readers want vulnerable characters. Readers want characters with internal struggles they understand, and possibly relate to.
Let’s look at an example.
A psychological thriller, The Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable comedian trying to make his way through life. As the movie develops, we—the viewers—form an attachment to Arthur. He’s doing his best: he takes care of his mentally unstable mother; he tries to make people happy with his awful jokes. Overall, he’s a guy in a bad situation who wants to make the world better through comedic relief.
We like Arthur—we understand his struggles and we want to see him succeed.
What makes Arthur sympathetic to the viewer is his vulnerability shown through his misbelief. Arthur’s misbelief is that validation from others will make him whole. (Something most people have struggled with at one point in their lives.) Throughout the movie, his misbelief leads him to problematic behavior, such as stalking, obsession, and ultimately him becoming the face of anarchy.
We—the viewers—may not agree with Arthur’s decisions by the end of the movie. But we do understand how he got there. Arthur’s vulnerability—his struggles with his misbelief—make him a memorable, and even, at times, a sympathetic character.
The internal struggle is important to writing a character your readers are fascinated by.
According to Lisa, a character can commit the most horrific crime (think Hannibal Lecter with his penchant for cannibalism; or the Joker with his vindictive dedication to chaos and anarchy) and still be liked by readers. So long as your reader understands the character’s internal struggle, the reader will always be invested in your story.
Remember: a character misbelief must be about human nature. A character believing the earth is flat is NOT a character misbelief. Common examples of legitimate misbeliefs include: “emotion is weakness,” “trust will only lead to backstabbing,” “being in control helps you avoid failure,” “people are defined by their past mistakes,” “due to my history, I’m unworthy of love,” etc.
As you think about your protagonist, determine what misbelief/s they struggle with. What misconceptions about human nature dominate their internal processing, and thus, their actions?
Once you define your character’s misbelief, you can move on to plot.
Why Character Misbelief Matters to Your Story
Character misbelief is instrumental to your plot. It shapes your character’s thoughts and actions. And it forces your character to grow.
Lisa encourages new writers to think about plot this way: A story is about why what happens (plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a perceptively difficult story goal and how going through that change (conquering their character misbelief) forces the protagonist to see the world in a new way.
Here’s another way to think about it: Your protagonist enters your story on page one with a fully formed agenda and a character misbelief. The plot will force your protagonist to contend with their misbelief. And at the end of your book, your protagonist will see how their misbelief is wrong.
Every plot point should engage your protagonist’s misbelief and force them to struggle with what is true. Throughout your story, the misbelief will keep your protagonist from getting what they want.
And through your character’s internal struggle between what they want to achieve and the omnipresent weight of their misbelief, you create tension and conflict.
A well-known movie that follows this plot format is A Few Good Men. The movie is about Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, a lawyer in the NAVY JAG Corps who has a reputation for his plea-bargaining skills. From an outside perspective, he appears proud of his skills. From an introspective perspective, we learn that he relies on plea-bargaining to avoid trying a real case in a courtroom.
Why? Because he’s afraid that he’ll never be as good a lawyer as his father (his misbelief!).
At the beginning of the movie, Kaffee is assigned a murder case involving two marines. This could be his opportunity to finally prove himself in court! But his misbelief holds him back and he attempts a plea-bargain. Unfortunately, for Kaffee, the plea-bargain falls through.
Trial is inevitable, so Kaffee starts to investigate the case. He learns that the case is complicated, and due to his misbelief, he doesn’t want to fail in his first courtroom trial. So, what does he do? He tries to avoid court by encouraging his clients to plead guilty. They refuse.
Kaffee intends to be removed from the counsel, but in a surprise twist, he enters into a plea of not guilty (one step forward to conquering his misbelief!).
As the trial progresses, Kaffee learns that one of the military’s supervising officers—Colonel Jessep—is culpable in the murders. If Kaffee accuses the colonel and the colonel denies it, Kaffee could be court-martialed. Rather than accuse Jessep, Kaffee chooses the safe route (once again hindered by his misbelief) and decides to rely on testimony from another officer in hopes of winning.
Except Kaffee’s witness commits suicide. As the trial reaches its conclusion, Kaffee has one solution. Will Kaffee allow his misbelief to hold him back for the rest of his life? Or will he tackle the problem and force Colonel Jessep to admit to his culpability? You’ll have to watch the movie to figure it out.
Think about your manuscript. How does each plot point affect your protagonist? Does each scene force your protagonist to go after what they want while simultaneously forcing them to acknowledge their misbelief?
Character misbelief matters to your story. It shapes your character’s narrative arc. It helps you structure your manuscript into a character-driven story. And without it, your reader will struggle to understand your character’s actions and decisions.