by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Sigmund Feud is credited with popularizing the idea that the human psyche is multi-faceted. He suggested that our personalities could be seen as having three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. Long before Freud’s suggestion of this idea, stories were often told with a key character representing one of these three aspects of the psyche. The conflict created by these three ideas running into each other gives us more than enough drama to keep a story fresh for two hours of screen time, which is why this design is often seen in screenplays.
For anyone who missed the day they discussed Freud’s ideas in school, the id is the primal component of the personality. Experts attribute uncoordinated instinctual trends to the id. Our aggression to fight against death or harm, our libido or instinct towards sex, hunger, and thirst are all aspects of the id. The ego is the mediator between our sometimes unrealistic id and our over-idealistic superego. The ego is rational and oriented toward problem solving. Feud used this example: The id is like a horse and the ego is the rider on top of that horse. The superego consists of the conscious and the ideal self. Rather than just mediating, the superego can actually stop the id from doing certain things it may incline us to do.
In case you’re still a little confused, here are ten films that use characters to represent the the id, the ego, and the superego in their story structure.
THE NICE GUYS
Jackson Healy, portrayed by Russell Crowe, represents the id in the new Shane Black comedy. He goes into every situation swinging. He embodies all our human base instincts. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, the ego in our story. He often mediates between Crowe’s id instincts and the idealistic approach his daughter, Holly. Speaking of Holly, she is the superego of the story. She shows her power by literally stopping the id of Crowe from killing a man.
The id in The Dark Knight is clearly The Joker. He appeals to the primal side of humanity with his philosophical approach in society. Bruce Wayne/Batman is the ego trying to mediate between The Joker’s id and the idealistic views of society, specifically Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. Dent best personifies the superego, with his desire to take the moral high ground above the chaos.
Ferris is the highly entertaining id of this story. He is interested in whatever his instincts push him towards, as long as its pleasurable and fun. Cameron is the superego, reluctant about any pleasure that might be less than ideal or moral. Ferris’s girlfriend, Sloane, is the ego, mediating the extremes, and providing level-headed balance.
Neo represents the id. Trinity is the superego. Morpheus is the ego. The film’s plot is structured around the conflicts and balancing act that encircles the three.
The Tom Cruise classic has been in the news lately, because of its 25th anniversary. The story has endured greatly because of Maverick’s id and Iceman’s superego. Of course, Goose’s ego is what many of us remember being the highlight of the film.
The classic from Kansas is Freudian psychology 101. The id is the Tin Man, who represents the heart. The superego is the Scarecrow, representing the brain. And the ego is the Cowardly Lion, representing the courage it takes to mediate between the two.
Proving the trio works across genres and generations, the John Hughes film plays out a Freudian character design with the males in the story. Bender is the id, who is loud, instinctual, and rebelling against authority. Andy is the superego, a jock who has strong ideals and tries to keep Bender in line. Brian, the ego, is the nice guy, mediating and attempting to reason between the others.
HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITECASTLE
Harold plays the superego, highly moral about getting the work done that he’s been assigned. The id is Neil Patrick Harris, a man absolutely consumed by his own urges. Kumar is the ego, seeing the value in both approaches and trying to create a third way.
In this tale of a man trying to catch a fish, Quint is the anger-prone id. Hooper is the idealistic superego. And Brody is the ego mediating the Freudian feud.
Tolkien was a master of psychological storytelling, working in three different sets of Freudian trios to the expanded universe of this story. Within the ring-bearing trio, we have Gollum as the id, Frodo as the ego, and Samwise as the superego. Within the hunters, we have Gimli as the id, Aragorn as the ego, and Legolas as the superego. And within the world of The Hobbit, we have a Freudian trio among the wizards. Radgast is the id. Gandalf is the ego. Saruman as the superego.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.