Good Will Hunting — The Psychology of Character

Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. Good Will Hunting has some classic, great
moments. “How do you like them apples?” But the one I remember, the one that gets
me every time, is the final scene between Will and his therapist,
Sean Maguire. “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” Why is this scene so effective? Its power is certainly amplified by the great
direction and performances, but from a story standpoint, the scene is
emotional because we understand the walls Will has built
up around him, and we witness Sean finally tear them down. In his book “Into the Woods,” John Yorke
writes: “Story matches psychological theory: characters are taken on a journey to acknowledge
and assimilate the traumas in their past. By confronting and coming to terms with the
cause of their traumas they can finally move on.” “Good Will Hunting” is a film that puts the
psychological aspects of story structure right on the surface. So today, I’d like to examine how characters
use defense mechanisms to protect themselves… To demonstrate how the supporting characters in a story can be designed to weaken these defenses… And to show how these elements work together
to create a powerful catharsis for both the characters and the audience. Let’s take a look at Good Will Hunting. In stories with a positive change arc, the
protagonist begins with a weakness— a lie they believe about themselves or the
world that they will have to overcome. Often, this weakness is rooted in some past
trauma, sometimes referred to as the wound. In “Good Will Hunting,” Will’s wound is his
awful childhood— growing up an orphan who suffered terrible
abuse at the hands of his foster father. This wound spawned Will’s weakness: the belief that stepping outside his comfort
zone will lead to emotional pain. As a writer, sometimes thinking of characters
in this way can feel abstract, but one way to turn weakness into behavior
is with defense mechanisms. In “Into the Woods,” John Yorke takes
the psychoanalytical concept of ego defense mechanisms and reframes it
in story terms: “Ego defence mechanisms are the masks characters
wear to hide their inner selves; they are the part of the character we meet
when we first join the story, the part that will – if the archetype is correct
– slough away.” In his first session with Sean, we see how Will’s fear of exposing his wound
in therapy expresses itself through defense mechanisms. “Let’s let the healing begin.” Will begins by mocking the entire notion of
what they’re here to do, and as soon as the session begins he refuses
to engage. “Will doesn’t look at Sean for more than
a second. He seems more interested in the room. There is a long silence as Sean watches Will.” “Where are you from in Southie?” When Sean tries to connect with him on a personal
level, Will changes the subject. “Did you buy all these books retail, or do you send away for like a ‘shrink kit’
that comes with all these volumes included?” In doing so, he flexes his intellect, trying to intimidate Sean into feeling small. But none of these actions are having an effect
on Sean, who can keep up with Will and even parry his
quips. Will: “What, you lift?” Sean: “Yeah.” Will: “Nautilus?”
Sean: “Nah, free weights.” Will: “Oh really? Free weights?” Sean: “Yeah, big time.” Will: “What do you bench?” Sean: “285. What do you bench?” So Will looks for a new tactic, one that will
hurt Sean directly. “Maybe you married the wrong woman.” “Maybe you should watch your mouth.” “That’s it isn’t it? You married the wrong woman. What happened? She leave you? Was she bangin’ some other guy?” “In a flash, Sean has Will by the throat. Will is helpless.” “Time’s up.” “Yeah.” This scene paints a clear picture of how Will
uses his defense mechanisms to avoid dealing with uncomfortable situations. But in this interaction Will is knowingly
trying to upset Sean. In the book “Psychology for Screenwriters”
by William Indick, he writes: “The key to writing a defense mechanism
is that the characters themselves are completely unaware that they are exhibiting
defensive behaviors… the other characters in the film and the viewers
in the audience watch the heroes and become frustrated with
their obliviousness to their own glaring problems.” Will’s bigger problem is the defense mechanisms
he doesn’t even know he has, which is why it’s going to take a small
army of characters to wear down the protagonist’s defenses. In “Good Will Hunting,” Will has amazing
opportunities before him. Professor Lambeau recognizes Will’s genius and tries to set up him with prestigious job offers. “I’ll give you a job myself, I just wanted
you to see what was out there.” And Skylar is unlike any girl he’s ever
met. “This girl is like fuckin’ perfect
right now. I don’t want to ruin that.” But to pursue these opportunities requires
leaving his comfort zone and taking risks— which is the thing he is most terrified of
doing. So Will unconsciously uses defense mechanisms
to justify his inaction. “The question isn’t ‘why should you work for N.S.A.’ The question is ‘why shouldn’t you?’” After turning down a job offer from the NSA, Will lets loose with a worst case scenario
of what could happen if he accepted. “Now the politicians are sayin’ ‘send
in the Marines to secure the area’ ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number
got called.” Here, Will is using rationalization— explaining his decision in a seemingly logical
manner to avoid the emotion behind it. But Sean calls him out. “You’re always afraid to take the first
step because all you see is every negative thing ten miles down the road.” “Look at me. What do you want to do? You and your bullshit. You got a bullshit answer for everybody. But I ask you a very simple question and you
can’t give me a straight answer. Because you don’t know.” Sean forces Will to see the truth that he’s
hiding from. Once Will’s relationship with Skylar gets
serious… “I want you to come to California with me.” …Will again jumps to the worst case scenario. “We could be in California next week and you might find out somethin’ about me
that you don’t like. And, you know, maybe wish you hadn’t said
that.” Rather than let him get away with rationalizing
his refusal… “I can’t go to California.” “Why not?” “One, because I got a job here and two because
I live here.” …Skylar calls him out on the real issue. “You’re afraid that I won’t love you back. You know what? I’m afraid too. Fuck it, I want to give it a shot. At least I’m honest with you.” Skylar forces Will to see the truth he’s
hiding from. But Will isn’t ready to change yet, so an even harsher mix of defense mechanisms
are triggered. “Will looks Skylar dead in the eye.“ “I don’t love you.” This is a small scale form of regression—
returning to an earlier safe state before he was in an emotionally challenging
relationship with Skylar. In fact, regression is one of the biggest
ways Will avoids leaving his comfort zone, expressed by his group of friends. They’re immature and fiercely loyal, providing a place where Will never has to
grow up or be challenged. And he tells himself that it’s ok to have
sacrificed his job opportunities and relationship because he’ll always have a home with his
friends. “What do I want a way outta here for? I gonna live here the rest of my life. You know, be neighbors. You know, we’ll have little kids, can take
out kids to little league together up Foley Field.“ But Will is in denial about what he really
wants. And Chuckie, his closest friend in the world,
calls him out. “Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t
take this the wrong way, but in 20 years, if you’re still livin’
here, comin’ over to my house to watch the Patriots’ game, still workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill you. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here
in twenty years.” Chuckie forces Will to see the truth he’s
hiding from. This moment is a turning point, one where Will realizes the only person keeping
him from moving forward is himself. Through the conversations with the characters
around him, Will’s defenses are lowered. But it’s not enough. Because this story isn’t about getting close
to changing and then reverting to previous behavior, it’s a story about meaningful change…and
that requires catharsis. The word “catharsis” derives its meaning from its use is Aristotle’s Poetics, where he used it to describe how a play can
provide the audience with a purification and purgation of emotions. Later, the physician Josef Breuer applied
the term “catharsis” to psychotherapy, describing the process of releasing, and thereby
providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Because of the dents made in Will’s emotional
armor throughout the film, in this climactic therapy scene he will finally
release his repressed emotions. Upon realizing Sean has his file, which contains images of the physical abuse
he suffered, Will asks: “Have you had any experience with that?” “Twenty years of counseling, yeah I’ve
seen some pretty awful shit.” “I mean, have you had any experience with
that?” “Personally?” “Yeah.” “Yeah, I have.” As they commiserate about their painful childhoods, Sean looks for a way to get through to Will. “You see this?” “This is not your fault.” “Yeah, I know that.” “Look at me, son. It’s not your fault.” As Sean repeats this phrase, Will starts to
go through his arsenal of defenses, starting with making light of it. “It’s not your fault.” “I know.” Then, Will claims to have gotten the message,
hoping Sean will stop. “It’s not your fault.” “I know.” “It’s not your fault.” Finally, Will turns to aggression. “It’s not your fault.” “Don’t fuck with me, alright? Don’t fuck with me Sean. Not you.” “It’s not your fault.” Through their time together, Sean has learned
all of Will’s defense mechanisms and refuses to let him escape the situation, until finally… “It’s not your fault.” …all of Will’s walls are torn down. “Sean takes Will in his arms and holds him
like a child. Will sobs like a baby. After a moment, he wraps his arms around Sean
and holds him, even tighter. We pull back from this image. Two lonely souls being father and son together.” The events of the plot have brought Will to
a place where he experiences a psychological catharsis, and because we’ve gone on the journey with
him, the audience experiences a dramatic catharsis. Good stories draw us into the world and make
us empathize with the struggles of the characters. We witness their inner conflict as they avoid
the very thing that will make them whole, often recognizing that same behavior in ourselves. We root for the cast of characters around
them, hoping they can help show our hero the truth
they’re hiding from. And if the story is executed just right, we share in a much-needed catharsis. My personality type is one that can get obsessed
with ideas very easily. I can be minding my own business, see something
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