If you're not a member of Dave's Script Club, why not? If you are, you may remember a thread about the 'wants' and 'needs' of the main character. This can be translated into 'conscious desire,' and 'unconscious desire,' and I think it's worth taking the time to give it some more thought. Credit for this post must go to Gary Sutton, my MA tutor, whose lecture these notes are based on.
Conscious Desire – it is the protagonist's goal, it is explicit – but more importantly it is what they can articulate. Your protagonist can articulate their conscious desire. They are full aware of it.
Unconscious Desire – the character has no idea what his unconscious desire is – this is for the audience and you the writer to know.
This is the pleasure we get in going to watch a film – we know what the character should be doing but the character does not.
Example Midnight Cowboy – His conscious desire is to embrace sex and embrace the stud and embrace this kind of life, and be this predatory type of character. But his unconscious desire is the absolute opposite and he just wants to love and be loved and this is born out in his relationship with Ratzo. He says I’m a stud and I can handle sex - but he can’t handle it and wants love. His conscious desire and his unconscious desire are absolute opposites.
These opposites can even be personified:
Example Bridget Jones – a romantic comedy love triangle – which means Bridget has two choices, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth – Hugh and Colin translate to conscious or unconscious desire.
Hugh is the conscious, I’m crazy, I’m wild, I’m unpredictable, sexy, fun.
Coin is safe, secure and he is what she needs subconsciously and ultimately in the film she chooses Colin. But she resists the unconscious desire until the end.
However we need to make it clear now that screenwriting is never that easy. No 'rules' or 'templates' ever apply across the board. For example in the straight romance like Romeo and Juliet the triangle is two of them against the world. Everything you could possibly put against these characters getting together. In Notting Hill – she is the biggest movie star in the world and he is some bookseller – the most unlikely match you’ve ever had. Everything in that film conspires to keep them apart. Once they get together the story is done. There is no real dilemma for Hugh Grant in that film. They meet up, he spills stuff on her and she gives him a quick kiss. This is the inciting incident, then after that you keep them apart as long as possible. When he's interested, she’s not interested, when he’s not interested she’s interested, and it is this all the way through. As soon as they get together, who cares? The story has ended. It is mainly conscious desire – they both want each other and there is no real unconscious desire or if there is it is quite small and it is not really what the story is about.
Another example is in Quest movies. They tend to be about conscious desire to the end. James Bond does not really suffer from this dilemma. Indiana Jones has to get The Ark away from the Germans. Full stop. There is a small secondary love story but nothing really hinges on it.
So the main reason we have conscious and unconscious desire are for dramatic stories. You have no idea how the central character is finally going to resolve whatever their issue is. It is a massive active question. The inciting incident comes and they react to it – what are they going to do? And because they’ve got these opposing forces within them, they can’t make the decision. The story keeps impetus because of the active question, which way are they going to go? We don’t know. We have to watch to find out.
And tomorrow we'll look at how this plays out with character arcs.