Tag Archives: character psychology

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.

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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