Tag Archives: creating characters

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

Book Review: The Art of Screenplays by Robin Mukherjee

Screenwriting is a creative process and like all creative things, it’s a bit messy. Not that you’d think it reading some of the screenwriting books out there. Robin Mukherjee’s The Art of Screenplays: A Writer’s Guide is a rare thing – a screenwriting book that talks about story structure but never loses sight of what it’s really like to be a writer, in the middle of that messy, exciting, sometimes bewildering creative process.

book review - the art of screenplays - robin mukherjeeThe book covers the key areas of screenplay development; how to gather, ferment and communicate story, understanding structure through observation, exploring character, developing theme and the art of writing dialogue. It’s all in there and you’ll learn everything you need to know to craft your polished script but in a way that resonates with you.

His section on the early stage of developing a story was particularly helpful because it reflects that very random, bitty part of the process that so many screenwriting books skip over. It’s hugely reassuring to hear that you’re not alone in starting with moments and scenes and ideas and characters and plot beats all in a confused muddle and not necessarily even part of the same piece of work. Yes, the finished screenplay will have a very particular form and shape and there are expectations it probably should meet if it’s to ‘wow’ the industry. But The Art of Screenplays dives in to the swamp of ideas and ‘stuff’ with you and helps you to navigate your own way from the creative muddle to that finished script.

It’s become one of the books I recommended most often to writers. Because it’s written by such an experienced screenwriter, it really speaks to writers. So many screenwriting books are analytical; they are great at dissecting what makes up a successful screenplay, so you know what you’re aiming for. Some even take you through the process, step by step, in a very specific order – first you have your concept, then you add some characters, and so on until, voila – you’ve crafted the perfect script! But none of that has ever felt connected to the experience of actually creating something original.

It is also one of the most beautifully written books about screenwriting that I’ve ever read. So often our screenwriting books are dry, bullet-pointy affairs. This is not. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It’s a book you will learn a lot from whilst, I hope, having actually enjoyed reading it.

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.