Tag Archives: character flaws

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

Creating Characters by Alan Flanagan

As part of the Script Angel Writer’s Toolbox series, writer and script editor Alan Flanagan looks at the tricky task of building your characters.

Have you ever tried to be the most interesting person at a cocktail party? To look like the smartest person in your class? To make someone fall in love with you?

rp mcmurphy one flew over the cuckoos nest

It’s not fun, and yet as a writer you’re left with the Herculean task of making an audience care deeply about your characters, not just in ninety minutes but usually in under twenty — and ideally under ten.

So how do you build a human being without raiding your local graveyard?

Facts, Facts, Facts

When building any character, remember the iceberg rule. You need to know about ten times as much about your character as your audience will ever see.

Build a character profile, including their family history — parents and siblings definitely, grandparents can be helpful — and place of birth, their education, professional history, taste in lovers, taste in friends, taste in food. There are no right or wrong answers here, but you will find yourself forming a concrete version of this person from which it will be impossible to deviate when you sit down to write your script.

Remember, a character who feels specific is “universal”, but a character who feels non-specific is just “generic”.

Point Of View

Secondary to facts, an interesting exercise for a character profile can be to question your character on various facets of their lives. This isn’t just about their biggest fear or their proudest achievement, but their personal opinion on anything from Afghanistan to Miley Cyrus. Everyone has an opinion on big issues, even if (tellingly) that opinion is no opinion at all.

Character & Plot

Often the main reason we get into this business is because of our desire to spin a good yarn. But by building a concrete character you will time and again see opportunities for the facts of your characters life to intersect beautifully with your story.

For example, consider a character’s profession. Think of how Memento‘s Leonard used his background as an insurance investigator to anchor his sense of self. Or how American Beauty‘s Carolyn Burnham was so perfectly encapsulated by her zealous cleaning of a house. Profession can also helpfully delineate characters, as the multifarious characters in Orphan Black (all played by the same actress) find differences in being a cop, or a drug dealer, or a researcher.

And that’s just profession, which is one tiny detail in your list of facts. Think of what else a character profile can offer you.

The Stereotype Trap

“Write what you know”, right? While every writer draws on their own experience — whether they intend to or not — it’s important to bear in mind what that phrase means.

Having read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, it’s clear that the characters writers are bringing to the screen are predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly straight, predominately… predominant. Do you want to see a character you’ve seen a million times, or one whose story you’ve never seen before?

It also says something about how we see the “write what you know” dynamic. “What you know” isn’t about your gender, sexuality, race — it’s about humanity, and that doesn’t see such simple boundaries.

Next time you’re working on a script, consider how a character would work if you flipped their gender, changed their ethnicity, gave them a disability. It won’t change their character outright, nor should it, but it may throw up unusual character moments and interesting plot points you hadn’t considered.

Bringing Your Character To Life

Once you’ve nailed down everything about your character, the obvious question is how to get them down on paper. Here a couple of key elements come into play:

First Moment: On the page a reader is usually being bombarded by characters and information, so it’s vital that the first sight we get of a character is a fair approximation of who they are. Do they come crashing through a window? Tumbling out of their neighbour’s wife’s bed? Cowering from a knock at the door? Far too many characters enter a script doing nothing, or doing something that is either bland or a poor indication of who they are.

Look: This is packaged with the above, but consider how your character looks. Avoid commenting on their attractiveness, because it tells us nothing — what is a “pretty” girl? Instead, rely on unusual adjectives — “sly”, “clipped”, “bullish” — and focus on what part of a person’s look really tells us about them. Are their shoes scuffed? Is their hair pulled back painfully? Chewed nails? Smeared lipstick? Red eyes? Gleaming pocket watch? Be specific but be concise.

Dialogue: Writing good dialogue is a difficult, some might say impossible, skill to learn. It relies on a combination of brevity, levity, plot necessities and a true voice that comes from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

What you can decide straight off is the general style of a character’s voice. Think of their background, their education, their attitude to life. Are they all long words and dripping bon mots? Or are they constantly dropping their g’s and speaking in metaphors? Are they clipped, one-word robots or loquacious, excited know-it-alls?

Relationships: Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. If you want to define your character early and well, put them in a situation with someone they are deeply connected to. It could be by hatred, by love, by family, by law, but deep relationships breed deep reactions — showing who your character really is.

The Wants & Needs: In drama, as in life, people want things. And in drama as in life, this often doesn’t correspond with what they really need.

When we introduce a character, we not only introduce their personality, but we implicitly introduce their flaws, and what they really want and need in their lives. In any scene, a character should be aiming to achieve something – and a scene without goals and change is a dead fish.

But on a wider scale, any story should look to exploit its character’s flaws and needs. This could be done traditionally but subversively, as in Frozen where the hidden need is a sisterly connection. Or a flaw could be exploited to teach a lesson, as in Requiem For A Dream‘s series of interlocking tragedies. Or a character’s flaws could be cured, but then undermined, as in Chinatown‘s reforming of its protagonist, only to have him lose everything in the end.

Always remember that audiences aren’t looking for someone to like, they’re looking for someone to love. And we only love people we feel we know, people who are beautiful and damaged and as flawed as we are. Anything less will ring hollow.

Bio: Alan Flanagan is a writer and script editor who works for Big Finish Productions on the series ‘Dark Shadows’, as well as script editing for Canadian festival WildSound and being artistic director of theatre company Refractive Lens. Twitter: @parallelevision

Alan is currently performing his one-man show Dupont & Davenport at the Edinburgh Fringe, which tackles what happens when we can’t tell the difference between grief and love, and how we let someone go when technology makes it almost impossible. It runs until Friday 8th August, 1.25pm, at George Next Door, 9-11 George IV Bridge.