Hugo got great reviews, which baffled me. The story is all obstacle and no conflict. An obstacle is anything that makes a task physically difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a character not want to do that task.
Genuine conflict occurs when a character doesn’t want to do something, for reasons such as these:
- It would require them to question their assumptions
- It would require them to overcome an inner weakness.
- They promised someone they wouldn’t do it.
- It would reveal their secrets to others.
- It would get their love interest or a family member in trouble.
Obstacles, on the other hand, are external problems that the hero can tackle without facing any internal doubts. Hugo encounters lots of obstacles: a train station guard he has to avoid, an old man who won’t give him what he wants, a living situation he has to hide... But he’s not reluctant to deal with any of them.
He does have a “want”, but it’s very vague: For some reason, he thinks that if he repairs an automaton, it will write out a message from his dad, but why does he think this? His dad told him outright that he just found the old automaton somewhere and he has no idea what it will say if they get it working. What part of that did Hugo not understand?
Not only does this make Hugo’s quest nonsensical, it makes his inability to spot other clues exasperating: every piece of evidence indicates that the automaton is the lost property of the man who runs the gadget shop, but it takes Hugo forever to accept that this might be true.
If I may slip into Meddler mode, the fix for Hugo seems fairly obvious to me: combine two flat characters, Hugo’s beloved dad and his rotten uncle (who both die mysterious deaths), into one complex character.
In this version, Hugo’s loving but ne’erdowell dad, who maintains the clocks in the railway station with his son, would discover the automaton and bring it home to Hugo, claiming he made it himself. When Hugo realizes what the gears used to do and asks what it writes, the dad quickly covers for his lie by saying that it’s a mystery he wants Hugo to solve.
This way, after the dad disappears (drunk in the river, we eventually find out) Hugo has every reason to assume that the automaton will contain a message from his dad, and every reason to get upset when the evidence starts to indicate that the automaton must actually belong to the old man.
Also, this way, Hugo’s surrendering of the automaton to the old man is a painful decision, and it requires him to admit the truth about his father. By recognizing and alleviating the old man’s bitterness, he gains insight into his father’s own failures, ironically fulfilling his original goal of understanding his father.
This change would not only strengthen Hugo’s motivation, it would turn external obstacles into internal conflicts. Hugo’s tasks would not only be hard to do, but hard to want to do.