What Drives Your Characters? By Phil Lowe

Regular readers of this guest blog will have realised by now that the world of psychology – where I work when I’m not writing – has limitless models to offer those of us who struggle to create believable characters. It’s been a few months since I last covered a motivation-related model (You can’t have forgotten surely?) so this time I bring you one of the simplest ever devised.

character driversEric Berne, a Canadian psychoanalyst, has made several contributions to the world of personality profiling. Rather fittingly for someone whose models are a gift to writers, he regarded our lives as a script written for us by our parents. His book Games People Play is worth a read; it looks at how we pay off our psychological needs through the way we set up our dealings with others. He is also the father of Transactional Analysis (known to cod psychologists as “that Parent-Adult-Child model”), which I may return to in a future blog. Today, though, we’re looking at his related work on personal “drivers”.

Each of us has at least one driver – so called because these are the scripts in our subconscious that drive our fundamental approach to life and work. Think of them as the messages you heard most often when you were little; instructions designed to set you up for life (“I will be OK as long as I…”), but which can hinder as well as help. Fictional characters, generally being more dysfunctional up than the average, frequently suffer from excessive or inappropriate use of them. There are five drivers, and for each I’ve suggested an example from film or TV:

Be Perfect. If this is your primary driver, you’re likely to be driven by the idea that nothing you do is ever good enough; you set high standards for yourself and others, and criticise yourself if you don’t meet them. You value achievement, success, being right. In your head is a voice saying “Don’t mess this up”. Miranda (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada shows how this driver can be an antagonistic force; her high standards cause repeated problems for our heroine Andy.

Please People. This driver seeks the approval of others, making you considerate, kind and service oriented. “Don’t upset people” is the warning; you might be easily persuaded and avoid conflict. Please say you’re not too hip to have seen Elf; if you are, ask your cognoscenti friends about the character of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who just wants to make everyone happy, and as a result is obliging in the extreme.

Hurry Up. If this is the main voice in your head, you may always have lots of things on the go, be generally impatient with yourself and others, and feel like there are never enough hours in the day. You’d rather get on with the job than talk about it (“Don’t waste time”). After Elf, my head’s stuck in family entertainment so I have to give a nod to Twitchy the squirrel in the animation Hoodwinked, whose inability to do anything slowly is a hindrance to the others, until it becomes useful in Act Three (sorry, no plot spoilers).

Be Strong. This driver will prompt you to control your emotions and never to show weakness. You’re unlikely to ask for help, and look to be the one that others depend on. Remember the scene in American Beauty where Carolyn (Annette Bening) starts crying and responds by slapping herself round the face and telling herself to stop? A typical Be Strong reaction (if a little de trop for the average office worker) and a glimpse at the ghosts of her parents speaking to her as a child.

Try Hard. (Wouldn’t Die Hard have been a very different film with this as a title? But I digress.) This driver discourages you from ever letting go of something. Maybe this time it’ll work…? You might start more things than you finish, because it’s more important to try than to succeed. As a result you are full of persistence and determination. Stories in which an apparently weak protagonist takes on the system frequently rely on our hero or heroine possessing this driver; and it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy thriller – witness Elle (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde.

Of course, the first thing they teach you at writing school is never to create one dimensional characters – so do what most people’s upbringing does and give your character two drivers. Back to Buddy the elf: he wants to please people; he also Tries Hard and keeps going. This makes him a more interesting (and funnier) protagonist because nothing puts him off. His biological father discovers that like a punchbag, he just swings back from every blow trying to be even more helpful. Replace the Try Hard with Be Strong and you get DS Miller (Olivia Coleman) in Broadchurch, whose impulse to Please People and defer to others vies with an impulse to not show weakness. The warrior patriarch Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in Game of Thrones combines Be Strong with Be Perfect, and demonstrates in the process how parents’ own drivers are passed on: his messages to his children tend to be that they are weak and “not good enough”.

Remember there’s not much point giving your characters a driver if it’s not going to cause problems for themselves and others. And also remember they may mask their true driver, only for it to show through when they least want it to. But do at least give it a go, otherwise you won’t be good enough/I’ll be cross/It’ll take you twice as long/You’re weak/You won’t be giving it your best shot (delete whichever don’t apply to your own drivers).

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

What Is Your Character’s Interpersonal Style? by Phil Lowe

Regular readers of my ScriptAngel guest blog (of course you are: Creating Conflict Using Personality TheoryCharacter Motivation) will know I divide my time between the world of business psychology and writing fiction, and use the former in the service of the latter. This time, a model to help you think about how your characters interact: the FIRO-B.

“FIRO-B” stands for “Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation – Behaviour”. It’s a measure of personal style which looks at an individual’s preferences for three different categories of interacting with others:

  •  Inclusion is about your level of social contact, belonging to a group, taking part in group activities. It tends to be driven by a need to feel significant. Some people want to be in the centre of things all the time; some prefer to stay isolated, highly selective about who they spend time with; and some will say “it depends”.
  • Control is about taking charge, taking responsibility, showing others the lead. It’s often driven by the need to feel competent. Where does your character want to be? Top dog all the time? Or do they abdicate responsibility to others, let others dictate what they do? Maybe it depends; or maybe they have an internal conflict about it, wanting both – or neither (more on that later).
  • Affection is about how much you want to be close to others; how much intimacy and openness you want in your interactions. Some people will tell anyone their deepest secrets on first meeting, others will be a closed book to most of their colleagues or acquaintances. And many will, again, say “it depends”.These three dimensions are “revealed in action” (as the dramatists like to say) in two ways: expressed behaviour (what I do to others) and wanted behaviour (what I’d like others to do to me).

Have a coffee and read the grid below, and I’ll see you on the other side:

Character Interpersonal Style

Were you to complete the psychometric questionnaire that goes with this model, you would be given a score in each of those boxes, which would represent the extent to which those statements apply to you. For our purposes, just think about scoring high, medium or low – this would reflect the range of people or situations for which the statement is true. For a fictional character, all scores have potential: a very high or very low score may border on the compulsive, useful for both comedy and drama; an “it depends” medium score can make the viewer curious: we see a character in their first scene surrounded by people; then we discover they’re a loner – so what’s driving the behaviour….?

As a practical example, while everyone’s raving about the BBC’s Wolf Hall, think about Thomas Cromwell:

Inclusion: Let’s start with his ‘wanted’ score: a ‘medium’. There are quite a few people in whose company he wants to be, in several situations; but he only wants to be with people who are useful to him, and generally those in Henry VIII’s circle. In terms of ‘expressed’ his score is lower – he’s highly selective about whom he invites into his own circle; generally his family, and individuals from whom he needs information. It’s a pattern we call “cautious association”.

Control: high Expressed Control clearly evident; do you ever hear him say “Actually, your idea is better, let’s do that”? And very low Wanted Control: notice how often Anne Boleyn in particular tries to pull rank on him and he just stands and refuses to give her the deference she craves. The scene that caps it all is when Henry loses his temper at Cromwell and accuses him – him, Cromwell (sorry, Mantell fans, couldn’t resist) – of using Henry to further his advancement. Cromwell crosses his arms, stands unmoved. You never see anyone telling him what to do. It’s a pattern known as “Mission Impossible” – a profile shared by high flying executives and tragic heroes. Cromwell is on the verge of discovering it isn’t possible to control everything.

Affection: Low on Expressed Affection, Cromwell is clearly highly selective about whom he opens up to (his immediate family) – mainly because of a lack of trust, which would be the prerequisite for a higher score. I would lay money that his ‘wanted’ score is much higher, a pattern known as “Cautious Lover” – in other words, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” (er, that’s “Affection”, obvs). There are many scenes in which a female character, such as Mary Boleyn, initiates the possibility of a warmer, more intimate relationship, and he – he, Cromwell (it’s alright, I’ll get fed up in a minute) – becomes warmer in response. That’s the key to the ‘wanted’ dynamic: someone else needs to initiate it, but the character’s responses to that initiation gives the clue.As you use the FIRO terminology to get a fix on your character, here are two aspects to think about:

The balance between Expressed and Wanted scores. The simplest characterisation in terms of Inclusion or Affection is where the Expressed and Wanted scores match. For example, If I score high on both Expressed and Wanted Inclusion, that suggests I want most people to include me in what they’re doing, and I regularly include most people in my activities. Everything matches; people will see me as sociable, so will tend to reciprocate; I get what I want. But what if I had low Expressed but high Wanted Inclusion? I really really want people to include me, but I’m uncomfortable initiating social contact. What will I do? Well, I might hang around by the water cooler at work, making it easier for people to notice me. For a recent example of Low Expressed and High Wanted Affection, try Spike Jonze’s Her, in which our protagonist achieves intimacy with his computer operating system (and not a single “expansion slot” gag in 120 minutes).Control, by the way, works slightly differently in terms of Expressed versus Wanted: the simplest profiles are high on one and low on the other (if I want to tell others what to do, it’s easier if don’t also want them to tell me what to do, and vice versa). Low on both can be interesting (“Don’t tell me what to do, and I won’t tell you what to do”) and high on both even more so (someone who wants to both be in control and be controlled; unless they’re a sergeant major in the army this will cause internal conflict, and in real life can lead to alcoholism or drug dependency, where the artificial substance is what the character abdicates control to).

How the three dimensions interplay. This is a huge topic, so for now think about which dimension most defines your character: do others experience them most as sociable, as controlling, or as affectionate? Notice also how scoring high on all of them would make a character a real “ball of fire” (as played by Jim Carrey), while low on all makes them highly self contained, a rock (the ‘outsider’ of the Western genre).Remember, as with all the models I share, a little learning can be a dangerous thing in real life; please don’t go psychoanalysing your friends. But your fictional characters can be as messed up as you like – and their imperfections will affect their relations with others.

The FIRO-B is published in the UK by www.opp.com, and in the US by www.cpp.com

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Screenwriter Interview – Nicholas Gibbs

Script Angel’s very first Mentoring client in 2013, Nicholas Gibbs, was signed by an agent in January this year. Here Nicholas kindly shares his experience to-date of that journey towards a long-term screenwriting career.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on signing with an agent last month. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

Nicholas Gibbs signs with agent - 5 March 2015Nicholas: I approached Elizabeth Dench at the Dench Arnold Agency in mid-September with an introductory email and my writing CV. About an hour later, she responded and invited me to send a writing sample. She asked to read a second script that led to a meeting with Elizabeth and Fiona Grant. The meeting was scheduled for late October but did not take place until the following month. From that, they asked for documents relating to the scripts they had read plus another script I had. We were then scheduled to speak on the phone about representation in early December but for various reasons – not least, the festive holiday break – we didn’t have the conversation. I thought at that stage that the interest was gone. Then on Sunday January 4th, I got an email from Elizabeth rearranging the call. In that call, she made a verbal offer of representation. I had a think about it and accepted and then we officially signed. It sounds all straightforward and easy but as all the writers out there know it is not. At the time of approaching Elizabeth, I had also approached other agents – some of whom said no. What was in my favour was at that time I had three different scripts being read by three different production companies all of whom responded positively about the scripts and kept the door open to read again.

HM: Can I take you back and ask, what was the first script you finished and what did you do next with it (agents, producers, etc)?

NG: Once I have finished a script I show it to three trusted writer friends who do give honest feedback, which then leads to rewrites. At that stage, I would then pass it on to a script consultant like, for example, that rather good Script Angel. Then I work the script to its best possible incarnation before sending it out to producers. On occasion, those producers will provide valuable feedback. In this business, everyone has notes and everything is subjective.

I would like to say I wrote all three scripts in a week and it was really easy. It wasn’t. There were many drafts of all those scripts. And before that, there were other scripts that were what I regard now as learning scripts. Some were dreadful but there is a progression of quality not just in terms of the latest polished draft but also with the first draft. I have always leaned towards approaching Indies and producers first rather than agents and have had a good response and as I said before prior to getting an agent I had opened doors with some of those sample scripts. Those little breakthroughs end up on the writing CV, which impresses the indie, or agent you approach next. It also helped that I had done the BBC Script Editing course and written a book on Writing Television Drama.

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter and that it could be a career?

NG: I have always loved stories from a kid playing Batman – the Adam West version not the moody cinematic versions – in the playground. I vividly remember at primary school writing a story about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and meeting dragons. I did drama at university and in my last year I wrote a book on the England football team which was endorsed by the FA and the then England manager Bobby Robson did the foreword, that was picked up and published that led into journalism. I went freelance and got involved with BBC RaW and a whole range of theatre and radio projects. I can’t say I have a screenwriting career yet. Now, I just have access to a wider group of people who can say no.

HM: Did you have a plan of where you wanted to be in five years’ time?

NG: I didn’t have a five-year plan but I would like to think I could have a returnable series up and running by then. That may sound optimistic but you have to believe it is possible or else what is the point? That is in contrast to two or three years ago when I seriously thought of abandoning the notion. It combined with a difficult period in my life where loved ones were lost. Out of that period was an all or nothing approach. I contacted you, we did a six-month stint working on a number of scripts that were enhanced, and the response has been positive.

HM: What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your scripts?

NG: I must say that I have had more success getting scripts read than those who say no from the outset. I am always appreciative of any industry figure who takes their time to read my scripts given that it is often an unsolicited approach. And I am always delighted when people take time to give feedback. To have people of that experience and with such demands on their time to be willing to do such a thing is a boost every time. The truth is no one is obliged to read anything and there are perfectly good reasons for people to say no.

It is hard for all writers to get read so when you do make sure that script is the best you can make it. However, to get the script read there is a need to sell you along with a commitment to screenwriting. Enrol in courses, enter good competitions, and attend industry events as your time and budget will allow.

HM: How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

NG: At the moment, I have two half-written scripts one of which will be completed when I am away with a couple of writer friends in a remote part of West Yorkshire next week. I am story lining an ambitious epic series, which is a mighty, complicated task to make it work and understandable. I also have a file of story ideas, which range from a sentence, a paragraph or a two page documents. I have also taken writing down scenes, scenario or sequence ideas which may end up in a script. I also have on-going book projects as well.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films? What attracts you to those media, as opposed to writing novels or radio?

NG: I prefer television drama because I love multi-episodic storytelling. There is nothing better than watching an emotionally engaging and inventive TV series. That is not to say I don’t like single self-contained stories. I do. Indeed, I have some story ideas that best suit the one-off show. I have a little experience in radio and I have written non-fiction books. I am writing, on the sly, a novel based on one of my scripts.

HM: Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment? Do you think that will change in the future?

NG: I am at the stage where it comes down to the script because the truth is I do not have an on screen credit. Unlike most of the books I’ve written, which have been pitches first, and then you are commissioned and given a modest advance. In the future, I hope the commission comes first from an idea and they pay me to write the script.

HM: How do you think getting an agent will change things for you? Will you still have to network / get yourself and your work out there?

NG: Based on a couple of sample scripts an indie has put me forward for one of their shows. The producers of that show will decide whether, based on the sample script, whether they think I maybe suited for the show. That probably would not have happened if I didn’t have an agent.

I am still going to continue doing what I have been doing because it has proved to be successful. What having an agent does is open you up to a wider set of industry figures that you previously didn’t have access to. It also means you can target your scripts to the right individual producer, production company or broadcaster. It gives the writer an endorsement and says to any producer that what they are going to read has had quality control. Networking remains important because you still have to show you are not an arse! That no matter how good your writing is, you are someone people will want to spend time and work with.

HM: What do you want to be doing in five years’ time? Do you have a plan of how to get there? Does your agent help in this?

NG: Ideally, I want to do this job for the rest of my working life and the only way to achieve that is to continue to have good ideas and write.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

NG: It is a long a commitment. Learn the craft and you can only learn that by doing it. Read the books, attend the courses but more than anything Write, Finish, Rewrite. Do not be afraid to put your work out there. It is unlikely to happen overnight and when you get the inevitable rejection (it happens to every writer) be miserable for no longer than eleven minutes (the length of the average TV act).

HM: Thanks Nicholas!

Nicholas Gibbs is represented by The Dench Arnold Agency and his book  “Writing Television Drama” is available to buy now. 

 

 

Creating Conflict Using Personality Theory by Phil Lowe

In this series of blogs, I’m bringing together my career as a writer with my “proper job” as a management coach and facilitator; I work by day with classic personality models which, by night, I use to help create authentic characters. In my last blog, I looked at a psychometric model called the SDI and how it can help you with character motivation. This time, I’m going to use a classic behavioural theory to unpick another staple of every story – conflict.

Model (c) K Thomas and R Kilmann

Model (c) K Thomas and R Kilmann

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory was developed in the early seventies by Kenneth Thomas and the appropriately named Ralph Kilmann. “Conflict” means any situation in which my needs, opinions, goals, differ from yours. Because what everyone wants in a conflict is to resolve it, I choose a “mode” – a strategy – that I believe will resolve the conflict most effectively in the immediate term. I could choose the most effective mode because I’m thoughtful and mature (great in life, useless in drama), or I could choose a mode which just makes things worse (hint: best choice for fictional characters).

There are five modes, plotted on two axes. The vertical axis asks to what extent it’s important to you in a conflict situation to get the outcome you want – this determines how “assertive” your approach is. The other axis asks how important it is to you that the other person gets the outcome they want; this determines how “cooperative” you will be. Think about a character you’re working on at the moment as we look at each mode in turn.

Competing is assertive and uncooperative; in other words, I focus on getting the outcome I want regardless of what you want. But don’t assume this mode always involves shouting, stabbing or blowing things up; a health and safety inspector who has found a breach of regulations in your office will adopt this mode in a quiet and reasonable way. And you don’t have to be powerful: the underdog’s refusal to be yoked is also Competing.

Accommodating is cooperative and unassertive. If I’m using this mode, I will agree to do things your way because what’s most important to me is you getting what you want. This isn’t necessarily because I’m a patsy; it depends on my long term goal. I might believe that conceding something now which isn’t so important to me will make me more likely to get what I want later.

Avoiding is neither assertive nor cooperative; I’m not focusing on the outcome at all. I’m delaying, parking, sidelining the conflict. It could be for good reasons (we need more information, or things are getting heated) or for bad (I don’t have the courage to say what I want, but I can’t bear to give in.)

These first three modes we can think of as primal and instinctive. Put in a corner, an animal will either fight (Competing), roll over (Accommodating) or run away (Avoiding), so it’s worth thinking about what your character’s default is, because it’ll almost certainly be one of these. (Note for loyal readers of this series: you can see how the SDI motivators Red, Blue and Green might fuel the choice of Competing, Accommodating and Avoiding respectively). The remaining two modes, then, are less instinctive because in using them, I have to focus on both what I want and what you want, which requires conscious effort. For this reason they are less inherently dramatic, but have their uses.

Compromising is an expedient mode: I get some of what I want, and you get some of what you want. We each give a bit, the conflict is not fully resolved, but enough to move on.

Collaborating has the aim of finding a resolution which fully meets the needs of both parties. As a result, it is a time consuming mode which requires lots of exploring of issues (i.e. talking), and this makes it problematic dramatically. Having said that, one character persuading another to collaborate rather than compete where the stakes are high can make for compelling drama.

So, what are your options? Well, if you like your scenes full of opposition, just have 90% of characters use the Competing mode. This is the basis of Game of Thrones, EastEnders and most action thrillers. Character development, though, is stymied by what is in effect a game of “yes it is/no it isn’t” (“You’re not my mother!” “Yes I am!!”). It’s when conflict modes shift over time that we get a sense of arc. Let’s look at a recent TV example, the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax.

Notice first how the premise carries conflict within it: a middle aged couple marry and unite two families. First, anything involving inheriting a step family means conflict; but also Alan and Celia are from different social classes, so conflict is hard wired in. Celia’s middle class family’s mode of choice is Competing, not because they are evil but because they are used to getting their own way. When Celia and Caroline square up to each other, we get an entertaining impasse (the lesbian wedding subplot of series three, leading to a bout of Avoiding). Meanwhile Caroline’s use of Competing is contrasted with her ex-husband John’s lack of assertiveness, which leads him to veer between Accommodating and Avoiding. Sally Wainwright gets drama from these less whizz-bang modes by making him try to assert himself (see his rambling proposal to Caroline that he move back in, which takes ages and leads to her simple “no”, which he Accommodates).

Gillian and her father Alan carry a working class sense of being at the bottom of the heap, and this is reflected in their tendency to work a triangle of modes between Accommodating, Avoiding and Compromising (Wainwright makes the latter mode dramatic in Series 3 by having Alan’s illegitimate son Gary make repeated demands of them; Alan’s final acceptance of the air tickets is a Compromise which we know can only be a partial resolution – tension results). Gillian dreams of Competing, but can never assert herself in the moment. In her we see the dramatic consequence of using Accommodating when you’d rather Compete: a series of passive-aggressive actions, like her fling with the ex-boyfriend. In her head she’s getting back at fiancé Robbie; but in practice she’s Avoiding – because it’s all behind his back. This stores up the tension which fuels the final episode in Series 3.

And that gives us a key to using these modes to give more depth and interest to your conflict: create a cause and effect chain. I’m in conflict with someone – I choose a mode without thinking – it doesn’t work – that makes me feel ((insert emotion here)) – so I change modes and try again. Like the textbook says, structure is character (unless you want to start a conflict about that…).

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory is published in the UK by www.opp.com, and in the US by www.cpp.com

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Want A Screenwriting Career? Here’s What You Need To Be Doing

If you have a passion for screenwriting and you want to make it your career, you’re already way ahead of the game because most people haven’t even figured out what they want yet, let alone how to get it.  And if you’ve finished your first draft screenplay, you’re ahead of the thousands of others who are still only thinking about writing theirs.

want a screenwriting careerSo you should give yourself a huge pat on the back for getting this far. But it’s a long road from your first draft of your first script to a screenwriting career so here’s my top tips for what to do to get there.

The good news is, there is a lot of help out there once you start looking for it. If you’re prepared to invest your time and a bit of money in your screenwriting career there is plenty of information, support and opportunities to help you develop your craft and your understanding of the business.

The Craft

Mastering the basics of screenwriting is tough. Writing a good story and telling it visually for the screen is no easy task. But there are lots of screenwriting books and articles out there to help you master the basics of formatting, story structure and characterisation.

But a good script isn’t enough anymore because the spec piles are awash with well crafted scripts written by people who have read all the books, studied the scripts of their favourite films, done a Screenwriting M.A and learnt the basics of screenwriting.

To stand out in that pile you need your script to be amazing. The first step is to get feedback, which might be from fellow writers (ideally ones more skilled than you are right now) or from a professional script analyst or script editor. But don’t just put it away in the drawer, USE IT! Rewrite your script. Put it away for a few days or weeks. Then read it again, alongside the notes you got on the last draft. Have you really addressed all of those notes? If not, rewrite again. Keep rewriting until your script is not just good but brilliant.  I’ll be doing a session for members of the London Writers Café later this year on ways to elevate your script so that it really wows.

The Business

However brilliant your spec script (or even a pile of brilliant spec scripts) it won’t get you a screenwriting career if no one in the industry has read it. So how do you get your writing noticed? It probably feels like a closed shop, an impenetrable fortress, but I promise you it isn’t. New writers are breaking in, getting signed by agents and getting their first commission all the time.

In the age of the internet there is no shortage of information about the industry and a myriad of opportunities to get yourself noticed. Read interviews with screenwriters who broke through in the last five years. Read the trade publications to keep abreast of spec sales and tv commissions – you can get a discounted membership to The Tracking Board by signing up for the Script Angel Newsletter.  Research screenwriting contests and producers looking for new material. Pick the brains of those working in the industry or come on my Screenwriting Craft and Career Workshop  (28 February 2015) to find out where producers and development executives look for new writing talent.

The help and advice is out there.  And if you put the work in to develop your craft and your understanding of the screenwriting industry, you can turn your hobby into a career.

 

Character Motivation Using Personality Theory by Phil Lowe

Every writer – alright, apart from Steven Moffat – has a day job; mine is as a management coach and facilitator, using psychological models to help people not just perform at their best, but also – to give one example – deal with conflict in the workplace. Even if your only experience of psychometric testing is completing a “What Kind of Best Friend Are You?” questionnaire in Just Seventeen magazine, you get the idea (I’m “Dependable Listener”, by the way).

As a writer, I use the same models to create characters who are not just authentic, but who are most likely to create drama when they encounter someone who is fundamentally different from them in some way.

Today I’m going to give you a whistle-stop tour of the Strengths Deployment Inventory, a questionnaire which helps identify someone’s primary motivation and how it might bring them into conflict with others. Oh, and because the world of business psychology, like writing, is big on Reputation, I have to do a quick health warning. Please don’t use this model to psychoanalyse your friends (not to their faces, anyway). I’m giving you a simplistic version on the understanding you will only let loose your embryonic knowledge on people who are fictional.

The SDI comes from the work of Elias Porter. Its underlying principle is: the primary motive of all human beings is a desire to feel worthwhile about ourselves. The reason life is so rich and dramatic is that we all try to feel worthwhile in different ways, according to our “motivational value system” (I’ll use MVS from here on). Porter plotted three primary – and potentially mutually exclusive – MVSs in the corners of the chart below:

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

You will see three distinct colours, plus some blends to take care of the rich variety of human personality. For simplicity, let’s start with the basics. Imagine you give your character this questionnaire and they come out as pure Blue, Green or Red. What does that mean?

Blue is known as the “Altruistic-Nurturing” MVS. This character feels worthwhile when they are taking care of others, contributing to the growth or welfare of individuals or groups. If other people feel good, they feel good too.

Red is “Assertive-Directing”. This character feels worthwhile when they are getting concrete results; they have an achievement orientation, and are comfortable taking the lead.

Green is called the “Analytic-Autonomising” MVS. Detached, analytical, individualistic; this character prizes logic and systematic thinking.

For convenience, imagine you have three main characters in your story, one of each colour. Here’s where you create conflict, and so drama. There’s a recent example in the BBC TV series The Missing. Tony Hughes is pure Red, driving forward in unrelenting pursuit of a result. Wait, though; surely any parent of a missing child would do that? Well his wife Emily doesn’t; she’s Green. Her impulse is to step back and proceed with caution, trusting that the system will work. Add in a Blue detective, Julien, who wants to take care of Tony, and our protagonist is repeatedly blocked from two sources: his wife seems detached and uncaring, and the detective keeps stopping him acting on impulse in case he makes things worse for himself.

But before you excitedly start writing pure colours into your story, take a breath and consider how easily we fall into tropes: nurses are Blue, soldiers are Red, boffins are Green (and always played by Benedict Cumberbatch). You can cut across this in three ways:

1) Choose an unlikely colour. A Blue accountant is much more interesting than a Green one. Writing an action hero? Obviously Red, right? Except one thing that made Die Hard so successful is that McLane, our hero, is motivated not by a drive to beat the competition but to mend a broken relationship. Granted, Bruce Willis doesn’t do a lot of visible nurturing in the movie (“Yippee-ki-yay, if that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience, motherf***er!”) but he has a Blue heart.

2) Have the character behave contrary to stereotype. Motivation is a fixed anchor, but the way a character behaves in its pursuit may vary. If your character is Green, don’t feel obliged to copy the kind of ‘route one’ behaviour exhibited by Mr Spock. How about Victor Meldrew in the sitcom One Foot In The Grave? What does he want? The same thing as Spock: to be left alone in a world where everything works as expected. (Wouldn’t Spock be much more interesting if he unexpectedly erupted: “I don’t believe it!!”? OK, maybe not, but you get the point.)

3) Blend in other colours: 99% of human beings are not a pure colour: we can be 50:50 blends (as illustrated on the triangle); in a zone between the three (known as The Hub, where the motivator is to be flexible to the needs of everyone else); or Dulux style, Green with a hint of Red/Blue. (In The Missing, the mainly Blue Julien Baptiste also has a hint of Red: he can’t let go of a case he couldn’t solve.) This gives you some inner conflict as well: how does the character resolve conflicting motivators?

All drama is conflict, allegedly, so make sure you share the colours around. Of course it’s de rigeur to have an antagonist of a different hue (and, in the case of RomComs and Bromances, your relationship antagonist is almost certain to have an opposite MVS) – but how about your protagonist’s ally? Inspector Morse was pure Green, so his sidekick Lewis was Blue. When Lewis got his own series, quelle surprise: he got a Green sidekick.

And don’t forget, your character is still allowed to change. Maybe a Blue learns how to behave a little more Red in order to stand up for what they believe in. Maybe when under pressure a Red’s motivation shifts – they stop pushing forward and turn Green, withdrawing to think things through and get the idea which helps them win. Or maybe they don’t change, hanging on to what has made them feel good in the past: the Blue may go all out to look after others, the Red becomes more competitive, and so on – this is what we call an “overdone strength” (polite way of saying “weakness”). At the crisis point, what is your character’s instinct: fight (Red), submit (Blue) or run away (Green)?

As a professional practitioner I am obliged to point out: other psychological models are available. As with narrative structure theories, it’s horses for courses. But the SDI can give you a quick and easy way of auditing the potential for conflict – or at least variety – between your fledgling characters. Happy colouring!

The Strengths Deployment Inventory is published  and licensed by http://www.personalstrengths.com

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist. He originally trained and worked as an actor and has a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Script Angel Expands Team

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that two new talented Script Analysts have joined the Script Angel team.

jumping for joy group of 4 - script angel team expandsPlease say a big ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ to Danielle Adams and Brad Johnson!

With my schedule now fully booked until June, I decided it was time to expand the Script Angel family in order to offer a high quality script feedback and development service to more writers.

Danielle Adams is an experienced Script Reader and joins us fresh off the second series of acclaimed ITV1 drama  Broadchurch. Danielle will offer feedback on feature films and UK television projects.

Brad Johnson is a talented screenwriter and script consultant whose own work has reached the semis of the prestigious Big Break Screenwriting Contest and placed 2nd in the Disney Fellowship.  Brad is based in the US and will offer feedback on feature films and US television series.

Both Danielle and Brad will offer Script Analysis Reports:

This is the perfect service if:
– You are looking for written notes evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your script.
– You would like the opportunity to discuss the written notes.
– You are looking for feedback on your script within the month.

This service provides:
– Danielle or Brad will read your script (up to 120 pages) plus supporting material (up to 2 pages).
– You will receive written notes (3 pages) assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the script and offering practical suggestions for how to improve it.
– We’ll arrange a 1-hour follow-up session via Skype to discuss the notes, provide clarification and brainstorm solutions to the issues identified in the notes.

Danielle and Brad will continue the Script Angel ethos of helping writers to produce high-quality spec scripts and improve their screenwriting skills by offering insightful analysis in a supportive environment.

Congratulations also to the brilliant Xandria Horton who is taking a break from Script Angel in order to join the script editing team of a television drama.

We’re now taking bookings for January and February for Script Analysis Reports from Danielle and Brad.

Please do email me ‘hayley@scriptangel.com’ for rates and further information.

Happy writing!

Hayley McKenzie