Tag Archives: creating a central character

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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Creating An Original TV Drama Series

We all know that writing a killer feature film script is hard but how about creating a pilot script for a drama series; something that will be compelling not just over an hour, or a series of hours, but over years?

downton abbey

I’ve been working a lot recently with a couple of talented Script Angel clients who are creating original tv series on spec. Developing a new series is an ambitious undertaking and not something I’d usually recommend early-stage writers to attempt. After all, creating a single protagonist story over ninety minutes is challenge enough. But my writers love television drama; they are avid viewers, know the medium and envisage a career writing for it. In the UK you can’t impress a television exec with a spec of their own show, so writers have to create something original in order to demonstrate their abilities both to create original shows and to write on existing shows.

It’s reminded me of the challenges we face in developing that pilot episode script, which must do so much more than just entertain in its own right.

1) Be consistent. You might only be expected to write the script for episode one on spec (please don’t waste time writing the others) but in order to write the pilot you have to know your show inside and out. The pilot script must look and feel just like any other episode in the show. Having sat on the other side of the fence I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a pilot script that feels like one kind of show and then reading the series proposal which is pitching something entirely different! You need to have a clear vision for the series and the pilot episode must sell that vision.

2) Where to start? So how do you begin to shape your original Drama Series? The characters and setting will play a major role in the success or otherwise of your series. However, knowing what story form your show will take will help you to begin envisioning what your episodes will look and feel like.

3) The episodic series. Drama series can take two distinct forms. The first is the ‘episodic’ series, sometimes referred to as ‘story of the week’, whereby there is a new story each week and it concludes at the end of the episode. There are regular characters who return each week and often a recurring setting but the primary plot driving each episode is set-up and paid-off within one episode. One advantage is that viewers can miss episodes and still enjoy the show – you don’t need to have seen last week in order to enjoy this week. Most crime dramas take this form whereby the crime is investigated and ‘solved’ at the end of the episode; CSI, Sherlock, Castle, NCIS, Death in Paradise and also Call the Midwife.

4) The serialised series. In this form we tell stories over multiple episodes. These shows usually have a central character but also a significant ensemble cast around them in order to spread the story weight over multiple hours. Most episodes will move stories on for a number of regular characters. This is where a whole new skill-set comes into play as you develop multi-protagonist storylining. Examples include Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Breaking Bad.

5) The best of both? Of course you can combine the two and it’s typical for even episodic series to have a serialised element for their regular characters. Many of the UK’s long-running one-hour shows (Casualty, Holby City) started as almost purely episodic but became more serialised over the years in order to give the regular characters more rewarding material, thus also rewarding long-term viewers. Indeed, in the current climate it would be unusual for an episodic series to have no serialised element for its regular characters.

6) The story engine. Figuring out where your show will sit on this story form spectrum will help to determine where the drama will come from in your episodes. What is the central conflict at the heart of your show? Deciding how much screen-time is spent on the story of the week (if there is one) and how much on unfolding series-long story arcs will help you know what your pilot episode and all subsequent episodes will look like and where to focus your attention in developing the show. Of course, both your characters and your stories need to be awesome but in a serialised series the characters are even more important because they are your story engine.

7) Have a central character. Even with an ensemble cast we almost always come in to the show through one main character. Over time the show might expand out to give more weight to other characters but you can bet your bottom dollar the show didn’t start like that. If you go back to the pilot episodes of any long-running show it’s very clear who the focus of that episode is. Casualty today might look like an ensemble show with no lead character but the pilot episode was entirely focused on male nurse Charlie Fairhead. Downton Abbey began life focused on Lord Grantham, The Paradise centred on shop girl Denise, Orange Is The New Black focuses on Piper, Mr Selfridge might have a great ensemble cast but the title of the show tells you who is at its heart. You might have lots of great characters but we need to watch that first episode and know ‘whose story is this?’ The answer should be the same for the rest of the series.

8) Make them flawed. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than a boring central character whose most apt description is ‘nice’. While in a long-running series you may never complete your characters’ journeys as you would in a feature film story, you still need to know what that ending would be. Knowing your character’s flaws allows you to exploit them dramatically. The theme of the show (what it’s really about) is usually dramatised through your central character’s flaw. Your central character also needs to be in opposition to something / somebody and preferably to lots of things to give you an abundance of story riches to choose from.

9) Where are we? The story world, precinct or setting can have a major influence on your show, particularly on its tone and style. DCI Banks and Death In Paradise might both be cop shows but with one set in Yorkshire and the other on a Caribbean island they couldn’t be more different.

10) Establishing tone. Be consistent and make sure that your stories, characters, setting and writing style all work together to create a show that has a clear tone. Is it light and warm, easily consumable like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Castle or NCIS, or tough and challenging but rewarding like Peaky Blinders, The Wire, True Detective or The Americans.

Putting all that together is hard. You need a story engine that can run for years. Your characters need to be flawed enough to be interesting but with enough redeeming qualities that we’ll keep watching them. But if you get it right, and the pilot script is executed well enough to sell that coherent vision, then you could really impress and, who knows, even get your show commissioned!