Category Archives: Character

Character Development – Psychology for Screenwriters

Over recent months screenwriter and business psychologist Phil Lowe (@grumpyrabbit) has been blogging about how different psychology and personality theories can be used by screenwriters to develop characters. Here is a quick run-down of what’s on offer in this series of articles:

Temperament theory goes right back to the ancient Greeks and divides us into four temperaments; The Guardian, The Artisan, The Idealist and the Rational.

Canadian psychoanalyst Eric Berne looked at people’s dominant drivers, dividing them into five primary types; Be Perfect, Please People, Hurry Up, Be Strong or Try Hard.

The Strengths Deployment Inventory assesses people according to their motivational value system; Altruistic-Nurturing, Assertive-Directing or Analytic-Autonomising.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

The FIRO-B theory assesses a character’s preference when interacting with others; their desire for Inclusion, Control or Affection.

When placed in a conflict situation, is your character competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating?

Phil rounds up other character starting points here, including a character’s emotional intelligence using the EQ-I, the Enneagram (offering a different selection of personality types) and your character’s basic energy using the Insights Wheel.

Finally, you can find out  how your characters react to change.

If you have any other character development tools based in psychology or personality theories, we’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

Advertisements

Psychology for Screenwriters: Character Starting Points by Phil Lowe

I’ve reached the end of my series looking at how to use psychological models to build convincing characters with real dramatic potential. In this final blog, I wanted to mention a few which didn’t make the cut for various reasons, but which remind us firstly that there are several different ways to get a fix on your character, and secondly that there are a lot of models out there. This is more of a whistle stop tour than you’ve been used to from me, so you’ll need to do some further research on those you find interesting.

What’s your character’s emotional makeup? The EQ-I

I think I deserve some kind of award for doing a whole series based on business psychology without using the buzzphrase “emotional intelligence”. Sadly, my winning run ends here, with a model that helps you think about how your character’s emotional literacy affects their interpersonal effectiveness.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - EQi2.0Model(SM)

Writers are supposed to be masters of cause and effect, and this model is built around it. Start at the top of the wheel: the better I know myself and my emotions, the better I can express to others how I’m feeling, the better the quality of my interpersonal relationships, the more effective decisions I can make, the less stressed I am. If you were a management client of mine in my day job, that’s the virtuous circle I’d be helping you to build. Of course, in my other guise as a writer, the last thing I want is for my characters to develop world class emotional literacy. I want them to be so hideously un-self-aware that they express themselves clumsily, destroy relationships, make disastrous decisions and stress themselves to the limit. This model gives you lots of options to mess with your characters’ heads.

Each component of the cycle in the diagram has three sub headings, and the full questionnaire would give you a rating on each. This is where it gets subtle. The EQ-i is great for looking at the contradictions that can hold a character back. Look under Self-perception: what if a character were to score high on Self-Actualisation (setting ambitious goals and wanting to achieve) but low on Self Regard (not believing themselves to be capable of achieving those goals)? Apart from thinking “hey, they sound like a writer”, you can see how just that one contradiction could give you a simple way into a character’s internal conflict.

A quick example: Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) in the current ITV series Black Work. She combines high Independence (the ability to act without referral to others, in theory a good thing) with low Impulse Control (she doesn’t think before charging off on a whim) – which, as a policewoman, is unlikely to help her stay out of trouble and turns her Independence score into a liability.

What “type” of person is your character? The Enneagram

This is already popular with many writers. I don’t use it in my own professional coaching work, but I hear it recommended regularly. Like temperament theory it has roots in models of personality going back over a thousand years.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - enneagram

The advantage of using this model to build character is it helps you get round the danger of making your character such a recognisable type that they become a cliché. Here’s where the lines on the diagram come in. You start with the character’s basic type (choose your label from the nine on offer), but each type will be nuanced by traits of the type that sits to either side, and also by the types to which the lines connect them. For good measure, under stress they will appear like a warped version of a type that is opposite to them.

A quick example: Sarah Travers (Cara Theobold) in the current BBC1 series The Syndicate. She is primarily a Helper (a servant who is also looking to be loved), with hints of Reformer and Achiever (she wants to do the right thing, as well as she can). The lines to Individualist and Challenger create a tension in her relationship with Sean – yes, she’s looking for love and security, but she can be suddenly and fiercely independent when crossed – and it’s Challenger which the Enneagram predicts is most likely to appear under stress, which gives her character its steely edge and stops her coming across as too good to be true.

What’s your character’s basic energy with other people? The Insights Wheel

The Insights model draws on the same Jungian psychology as the Myers-Briggs, another model popular with writers (but, sadly, more complicated to describe in a few words). This is another useful model when you want to get a quick fix on a character. In the real world, sales people use it to develop a hypothesis about a potential client they’re meeting by focusing on, initially, a choice of four basic “energies”: Cool blue (detached, reflective and objective thinker); Earth Green (quiet, values and relationship driven); Fiery Red (action oriented, reality-driven) and Sunshine Yellow (radiant, friendly and enthusiastic). Allow for the possibility of crossover energies between these four and you get the wheel below, with eight energies.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil lowe - insights-eight-type-colour-wheel

A quick example: Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in the first series of True Detective was an interesting example of an Earth Green, reminding us that “relationship oriented” for the introspective Green is very different from the outgoing, black slapping relationship orientation of the Sunshine Yellow. Rust is a dark, brooding, apparently isolated character, but his orientation towards personal values and authenticity in relationships was what brought him into conflict with his opposite in this model, the Fiery Red “Director” Martin Hart. Rust at first glance might not seem to fit the label “Supporter” in the diagram, but that’s the danger of making assumptions about labels – in his own way, Rust will support someone whose integrity he trusts.

So, the tour ends; and my head of Marketing reminds me to remind you to have a look back over my blogs in this series, and cherry pick those models which resonate most with you. Like the personalities in the models I’ve covered, as writers we are as distinctive as our characters, and your most authentic work will come from working with a model you feel at home with. There’s certainly no shortage of them. As always, approach with caution and please don’t psychoanalyse your friends, but if you’re working with fictional characters, anything that helps is fair game.

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

Mapping Character Change Using Psychological Theory by Phil Lowe

I’ve tended to focus in this series on personality models which emphasise how different we all are, as it’s generally the differences between characters which lead to drama. But let’s break the rule for the last in the series and look at a model which says we are all exactly the same when it comes to responding to a change in our circumstances – and which creates drama through a battle we have with our own psyche.

If you’re doing your job as a writer, your characters will spend a lot of time wrestling with some kind of change: losing a job, getting a job, receiving bad news, meeting a new partner, finishing with an existing partner, having an accident, being betrayed… Without change there is no drama. And our ability to understand the impact of change on a person comes from the “transition curve”, courtesy of a doctor who took one of the most dramatic changes of all – dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness – and used it to map how we respond to any change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made extensive studies of the reactions of terminally ill patients on learning the facts about their condition. When she put her observations together, she found that each and every terminally ill individual went through a series of identifiable stages in the process of coping, or attempting to cope, with the reality of death. If you were to plot the stages over time, and graph them according to how positive one feels, you get the curve below.

character changeAfter a brief period of shock, you see that the curve goes upwards. How can such bad news result in a positive reaction? The answer is that the positive feelings are essentially self-deluding, for this is the stage of Denial. The stance here is ‘It isn’t true: the tests must be wrong; I’ve never felt better.’

If the patient can be convinced of the reality of the situation, this positive stance is wiped out at a stroke and the patient advances quickly to the next stage, Anger. This is emotion born of frustration and impotence, and all logic is abandoned, before a semblance of apparent logic returns in the stage of Bargaining. The archetypal example of Bargaining is doing a deal with God (“Cure me and I’ll do good deeds for the rest of my life”). And when Bargaining doesn’t work, then Depression takes over (“I can’t cope with this, I might as well give up now.”)

If the patient can be coaxed beyond this, they reach the point of Acceptance, the point at which one decides to face what is happening and use the remainder of one’s time positively. This will require some experimentation, until the truly positive final step is achieved and the patient has a way of living which is authentic and embraces their condition.

Notice anything, narrative structure enthusiasts? Is this not a little like the arc of a character through a story? Is the stage of Acceptance not unlike that moment at the end of Act Two (or Act Four, if you’re trying to impress the new head of BBC Drama) when a character accepts the need to change and sets off to make what s/he has learned about him- or herself work? Does the Denial stage not bear a passing resemblance to the “refusal of the call” stage of the Hero’s Journey? Because what does a good story do if not present your protagonist with an enforced change, and then watch how they come to terms with it? This is why the transition curve is so powerful – it connects us with a deep human truth which unites us all, and which is reflected in stories told throughout history.

But before you start making all your characters terminally ill, this curve applies to any change, even positive ones. What does every lottery winner say? “This win won’t change me” (while you smugly think “hah, you’ve clearly never read about Denial being the first reaction to change – you’re going to suffer, mother****er”. Or maybe that’s just me). It doesn’t even have to be used in the service of Drama. Sitcoms rely heavily on Denial, Anger and Bargaining stages: The battle against the need to change is a staple of British comedy, from One Foot In The Grave to Fawlty Towers. Of course in a sitcom the character mustn’t change, so they are doomed never to reach Acceptance.

A comedy told as a complete story, though, will go through the whole curve. In the recent Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the alpha male obsessive foreign agent, is driven first by Denial (ignoring the rule to stay out of the mission), then Anger (becoming more and more of a loose cannon), Bargaining (as he tries to make an unnecessary partnership with Susan Cooper work) and finally, the Acceptance that Susan has done a good job. We leave him experimenting with a new phase as… I won’t spoil the ending for you. RomComs are another great example: the characters spend much of the film in Denial, Anger or Bargaining, as they each resist the call to change represented by their relationship antagonist. The film’s crisis is the point where they must Accept their need for each other, whereupon one of them runs to the airport and… you get the point.

So whatever genre you work in, ensuring that no character experiences change without triggering the transition curve will bring great authenticity to your script. And don’t only think about the major change that runs through the arc of the story; within one block of dialogue, if it’s doing its job properly, a character will be pushed out of his or her comfort zone and will inevitably display at least some Denial, pushing back to try and preserve the status quo.

This is my last blog in the series – but like any human being, I will go straight to Denial and do another farewell one shortly.

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

Creating Your Character Mix Using Temperament Theory by Phil Lowe

After last month’s look at what drives your character, this time we’re back to the fundamentals of personality, thanks to an old chestnut that goes right back to the ancient Greeks – the idea that the human race can be divided into four temperaments (“temperament” being defined here as “a configuration of observable personality traits”). The most famous four-way classification came from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who believed that an imbalance of bodily fluids (hold the “ewww”s, we’re not going there) caused each of us to be one of Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic or Sanguine.

Character mix - Four temperamentsIn the 1970s David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates popularised temperament theory by linking it to arguably the most widely used personality questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (also a favourite of writers). Presumably because of some drama of their own, Keirsey and Bates went their separate ways; for our purposes I’m going to use the terminology from the former’s most recent work on the subject. As always, think about a character or group of characters you’re working on as we take a whistle stop tour of the four temperaments.

The Guardian: Guardians see themselves as dependable, loyal, and hard working. They are “good citizens”, conservatives (with a small “c”) who respect authority and like structure. In a relationship they are supportive, as leaders they go for stability. George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life is a great example of a Guardian protagonist, holding tradition and community together in the face of a greedy antagonist.

The Artisan: Artisans, like Guardians, dwell in the real world, but are constantly changing it rather than preserving it; they tend to take a playful, sometimes unconventional approach to what they do, and are prone to spontaneous and impulsive behaviour. They make great troubleshooters and adaptable companions. The narrative energy in Far From The Madding Crowd comes from Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) trying to remain an Artisan in a world which expects women to be Guardians. She shuns convention, and behaves with an inconsistency which confounds the men in her life.

The Idealist: Ideas rather than reality are the concern of Idealists, and the ideas they work with are to do with the growth and development of people and society. They work from intuition and are happy dwelling on deep philosophical questions about the nature of existence – so they can be intense as friends or lovers. Where the Artisan will take you on an unexpected but practical journey, the Idealist will take you on a limitless spiritual one. Tom Hollander’s eponymous character in Rev and Giselle (Amy Adams) in Enchanted both demonstrate the Idealist’s struggle to bring harmony and optimism to the grimy imperfect world they inhabit.

The Rational: Problem solvers, lovers of complexity, seekers after knowledge – the Rationals share with the Idealists an impulse to turn away from the here and now, but in the Rationals’ case it’s in order to build logical theories and models. The old joke (don’t get too excited) about a scientist who takes apart a thing that works in practice to make sure it works in theory (OK, you can stop guffawing now) could have been said of a Rational, who is likely to be ingenious, sceptical and independent. They don’t have to be maverick, but in drama they often are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) in Age Of Ultron allows his quest for scientific perfection to get in the way of his fellow superheroes’ unity.

Fictional characters are not interesting in themselves, but become interesting when they rub up against other characters who are not like them. And this is where temperament theory can give you a quick and simple way of testing the variety of your character mix, since the last thing you want is a group of characters seeing the world the same way. I’ve been thinking about the BBC series W1A, and how skilfully writer John Morton subtly differentiates characters who at first glance are all doing the same thing – talking bollocks and passing the buck.

In a typical meeting scene, the obvious Guardian is Neil Reid (David Westhead), rejecting anything that isn’t practical; but Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) also acts as a Guardian, aiming to build consensus and make things work in practice. Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) plays a largely Artisan role, spontaneously introducing new schemes and threatening the existing order. Purists might say she doesn’t dwell sufficiently in the real world to be a true Artisan; an alternative candidate is Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), the producer who will always pull a creative but implementable idea out of the hat. The resident Rational is Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish) whose laser stare is generally followed with a focused demolition of a proposal; and the Idealist in the perennial meeting is Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), totally divorced from the real world but relentlessly positive in taking everyone somewhere nebulous. Outside of the meeting room, hapless intern Will (Hugh Skinner) is also an Idealist, totally impractical but always looking for a chance to bond.

The joy of being a writer rather than a psychologist is you aren’t trying to help characters make the best of their personal traits; until we get to Act Three, we’re far more interested in characters bringing out the worst of their temperaments. It could be through comic exaggeration, as in W1A; or through meeting opposition from a different temperament: a Guardian trying to get an Idealist to be pragmatic, or a Rational trying to cope with an Artisan’s unpredictable spontaneity. Remember, there are more than four types of people in the world, so be careful of cliche; but if you have four main characters and are looking for a starting point to differentiate them, temperament theory can be a lifesaver.

For more on David Keirsey’s work on temperament, visit www.keirsey.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.

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.