Tag Archives: character development

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.

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

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

Screenwriting Craft – Using Your Inner Critic

We all know that you can’t create original, interesting stuff with you inner critic whispering in your ear. I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where people were judging ideas before the ink was dry on the flipchart paper, stifling creativity and giving nothing the chance to grow or develop. Creativity comes from a freedom to fail, or at least to suggest something which might be bonkers but which might spark an idea that is perfect.

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

The freedom to think and generate ideas without judgement is crucial to creativity. So learning to banish your inner critic is a vital part of the creative process. But that inner critic, that voice that says ‘that’s rubbish!’ can also be your best friend if you learn to harness it.

Creating stories is not a linear process. Some screenwriting books might make it sound like you are supposed to come up with things in a sequential order;  decide what you want to say (theme), create a character with a flaw that needs to be overcome (internal journey) and a want that will drive the story forward (quest/goal), craft a plot that will create obstacles to achieving that goal.

But no writer I’ve ever worked with actually creates like that. Stories develop more organically than that. There’s a moment that you observed on the bus when some guy was arguing with his mate. There’s that film you watched last week that got you thinking about how differently people grieve and what loss is. There’s that person at work whose sunny disposition got you wondering if he’s compensating for some terrible trauma at home. There’s that newspaper article that got you thinking ‘what if we really could go on holiday to the moon?’

It’s a jumble of thoughts and images and people and moments and ideas. To begin with, it doesn’t make any sense. Now is not the time to worry that it makes no sense. Now is the time to run with those moments and ideas and see where they take you. Banish your inner critic.

But eventually, those ideas and characters and story moments begin to take shape. You find connections. Characters are starting to change because of the situations you’re putting them in.  You’re beginning to discover which character or story has the most resonance for you. For some writers this is when you’re outlining your story. For others the urge to get the scenes down on paper is overwhelming and you’re already bashing out a first draft of the script.

Either way, this is the time to invite your inner critic back into the room and ask for their help. This is when they come into their own. We’ve all watched films and tv shows that we’ve secretly (or maybe even publicly) slagged off. Critiquing material already out there is part of the learning process. We can not only say ‘that didn’t move me’ but we can see the mechanics underneath that caused that failure; I didn’t care about the character, the story world logic wasn’t consistent, the dialogue didn’t ring true.

That instinct and skill you’ve developed for recognising the flaws in other people’s work, you now need to bring to our own. Our inner critic has a tendency to just tell you ‘it’s crap’ but if you question them, you can find out why. What exactly about this isn’t working or needs to be better?

That nagging doubt in your head that the subplot isn’t really connected to the main story, that sequence you had fun writing isn’t actually moving the story on, that character you know you don’t really know – you’re probably right. If you secretly know it’s a problem, chances are, it is and a producer, script reader or script editor, with their strong story instincts, tonnes of experience and finely tuned script analysis skills, definitely won’t miss it. So, now’s the time to listen to that inner critic, the one telling you ‘you can do better’, hone in on those weaknesses and address them.

Those tangents, those bits left over from when the idea was focused in a slightly different area, you know they need to go. You do have to kill your darlings, to cut the moments and characters you’ve so lovingly created, because you know that this script will be better, stronger, more powerful without them. But they’re not gone forever, they’ve just waiting in that bottom drawer of ideas saved for another day, for another story set in another time and place.