Obstacles. We don’t like them, they frustrate us, we don’t want them. But we need them. Obstacles are an essential element of existence – everyone’s existence – heck, even plants and animals face obstacles over the course of their lives. Obstacles are what make life rich and invigorating, challenging and colorful. They define us. And they are one of our most powerful storytelling tools.
Obstacles are present every moment of our lives, whether it’s other people, other attitudes or beliefs or even our own doubts and insecurities. We complain about them but, quite honestly, a life without obstacles would be unreal, absurd, bizarre, and surreal.
Many of us face the same obstacles (i.e. the weather, the economy, a difficult boss or spouse, low self-esteem, etc.), but how we handle these common obstacles reveals more about us as individuals than our pursuits and accomplishments.
I once ran a marathon (now there’s a challenge with many obstacles) in under three hours. My pride was put into proper perspective when, an hour later, I witnessed a man finish the same race with an artificial leg.
As we create and construct our stories and characters, we immediately face two primary questions:” What do our characters want (objectives)?” and “What is in the way (obstacles)?” Our characters have needs, wants, desires and dreams. But over the course of the story, they also face enormous obstacles, challenges that are extreme and petty, external and internal. And regardless of what a character wants or needs, it is the construction of the "world of obstacles" and how each character handles them that reveals the true nature of the character.
As you look at the characters in your story (regardless of whether you are a writer, director, actor or producer) take a moment to look at each character and consider the obstacles they face. Observe how they respond to their obstacles, how they either overcome them or are defeated by them. And, remember, obstacles come in three distinct categories:
First, Other Characters. These are usually pretty obvious. In every story each character is pushing against the needs and desires and actions of one or more other characters. We recognize these obstructions quickly; they are often very public and obvious to the viewer if not to the other characters in the story.
Second, the Environment. No matter where our characters go or what they do the physical environment pushes against them, sometimes in helpful ways, most often not. Whether it’s the weather, the distance they need to cover, the confusing geography, the traffic, the hills, the size of the building, the tightness of the room, the poor lighting, the number of doors … or just that there are too many "safe places" where they could have put their keys … they live in a physical world that presents obstacles at every turn.
But there is another part of the Environment that presents even more challenging and perhaps even illusive obstacles – and that’s the social environment. This is an environment of opinions, attitudes, political correctness and such panoply of prejudices, priorities and preferences that it’s a wonder anyone can even get through a day unscathed.
The third category of obstacles contains the most powerful, most crippling and most tenacious obstacles imaginable: the Self. Every character has obstacles that are carried from childhood, from life experience, from the belief systems that have been adapted or adopted. These obstacles, mostly fear based, are powerful enough to sabotage our character’s greatest efforts.
There are internal voices that are so powerful they can convince anyone to take actions that are reckless, irrational and maybe even suicidal. And these voices can also convince anyone of their wisdom. There are other voices that can rip at the heart of pride and self-esteem so effectively that individuals are unable to function in the most menial tasks, like getting out of bed in the morning.
These internal obstacles, these Voices (I call them “the Committee”) are more persuasive, more effective, more powerful, more crippling and humbling and destructive than all the character and environmental obstacles combined.
As you look at your characters, put aside for a moment what they do or what they achieve. Look at their obstacles. Look at what they allow to be obstacles. Look at how they respond or react to each obstacle. Most importantly, look for the obstacles that they can’t see or are unwilling to recognize or acknowledge.
The obstacles that remain in the unconscious or subconscious are the biggest challenge. Your character may be able to topple a government, win the heart of a beautiful maiden, disrupt a terrorist attack, or calm the nerves of a first-time surgeon … but is he able to overcome his own conviction of inadequacy simply because his father once said, “You will never amount to anything”?
Obstacles. Love them, respect them, honor them. They are here to stay.