Conscious vs. Unconscious Desire


When McKee talks about the conscious desire being a contradiction of the unconscious desire, would you relate this to the mid act 2 reversal / change in approach? Or would this be true from the very start of the story, script or life of the protagonist?


Let’s start with quoting exactly what it is that McKee says:

“The PROTAGONIST may also have a self-contradictory unconscious desire(*).”

He goes on:

“Although these complex protagonists are unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction. The conscious and unconsious desires of a multidimensional protagonist contradict each other. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants.”

McKee makes a statement, then doesn’t really explain it. He doesn’t give an example either. But here is what I assume he means:

The conscious desire is what Michael Hauge calls the ‘visible goal, with a clearly defined end point’. In DIE HARD, John McClane wants to stop the gangsters and arrest them. In THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Wiesler wants to expose the theater director Dreyman. In JAWS, sheriff Brody wants to stop the shark from killing the people of Amity.

The subconscious desire is what John Truby calls the ‘need’, it is what the protagonist needs to become a more complete character, to overcome the flaw. This flaw often stops the protagonist from doing the right thing:

John McClane is a macho cop who can’t accept his wife to put her career first and Chief Brody can’t swim, so his fear of water keeps him initially from going out and kill the shark out on the sea. Wiesler wants to be a good man, but has only pursued this by following the stasi rule book.

Each of these have to overcome their flaw, before they can succeed in their outer objective: McClane makes a confession over the radio, Brody goes out on the open sea and Wiesler realises being a good man has nothing to do with justice fabricated by a totalitarian system. Sometimes this realisation happens at the mid-point, sometimes at the end of Act Two.

In each case, the inner need is in conflict with the outer ‘want’ from the start. Sometimes the mid-point causes the reversal, sometimes it is the Act Two turning point.

(*)From Robert McKee “STORY”, p.138

5 thoughts on “Conscious vs. Unconscious Desire”

  1. Thanks, Karel: McKee does provide brief examples, although in a different section: see pp195-6 of STORY, where he shows the unconscious v conscious dynamic at work in DR NO, MOBY DICK, THE CRYING GAME and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE

  2. There was a recent video on mckee’s website detailing the difference between conscious/unconscious desire and need:

    Conscious desire is self-explanatory, unconscious desire is a deeper, stronger, tribal urge the character has that he doesn’t have the words to express. NEED is another thing entirely. It is the “open spot” in the characters nature that must be filled if the character is to achieve his superobjective. The character does not want this. It is only until the character is pushed to the brink that he realizes he must change.


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