Tag Archives: psychology

Character Development – Psychology for Screenwriters

Over recent months screenwriter and business psychologist Phil Lowe (@grumpyrabbit) has been blogging about how different psychology and personality theories can be used by screenwriters to develop characters. Here is a quick run-down of what’s on offer in this series of articles:

Temperament theory goes right back to the ancient Greeks and divides us into four temperaments; The Guardian, The Artisan, The Idealist and the Rational.

Canadian psychoanalyst Eric Berne looked at people’s dominant drivers, dividing them into five primary types; Be Perfect, Please People, Hurry Up, Be Strong or Try Hard.

The Strengths Deployment Inventory assesses people according to their motivational value system; Altruistic-Nurturing, Assertive-Directing or Analytic-Autonomising.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

The FIRO-B theory assesses a character’s preference when interacting with others; their desire for Inclusion, Control or Affection.

When placed in a conflict situation, is your character competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating?

Phil rounds up other character starting points here, including a character’s emotional intelligence using the EQ-I, the Enneagram (offering a different selection of personality types) and your character’s basic energy using the Insights Wheel.

Finally, you can find out  how your characters react to change.

If you have any other character development tools based in psychology or personality theories, we’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

Psychology for Screenwriters: Character Starting Points by Phil Lowe

I’ve reached the end of my series looking at how to use psychological models to build convincing characters with real dramatic potential. In this final blog, I wanted to mention a few which didn’t make the cut for various reasons, but which remind us firstly that there are several different ways to get a fix on your character, and secondly that there are a lot of models out there. This is more of a whistle stop tour than you’ve been used to from me, so you’ll need to do some further research on those you find interesting.

What’s your character’s emotional makeup? The EQ-I

I think I deserve some kind of award for doing a whole series based on business psychology without using the buzzphrase “emotional intelligence”. Sadly, my winning run ends here, with a model that helps you think about how your character’s emotional literacy affects their interpersonal effectiveness.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - EQi2.0Model(SM)

Writers are supposed to be masters of cause and effect, and this model is built around it. Start at the top of the wheel: the better I know myself and my emotions, the better I can express to others how I’m feeling, the better the quality of my interpersonal relationships, the more effective decisions I can make, the less stressed I am. If you were a management client of mine in my day job, that’s the virtuous circle I’d be helping you to build. Of course, in my other guise as a writer, the last thing I want is for my characters to develop world class emotional literacy. I want them to be so hideously un-self-aware that they express themselves clumsily, destroy relationships, make disastrous decisions and stress themselves to the limit. This model gives you lots of options to mess with your characters’ heads.

Each component of the cycle in the diagram has three sub headings, and the full questionnaire would give you a rating on each. This is where it gets subtle. The EQ-i is great for looking at the contradictions that can hold a character back. Look under Self-perception: what if a character were to score high on Self-Actualisation (setting ambitious goals and wanting to achieve) but low on Self Regard (not believing themselves to be capable of achieving those goals)? Apart from thinking “hey, they sound like a writer”, you can see how just that one contradiction could give you a simple way into a character’s internal conflict.

A quick example: Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) in the current ITV series Black Work. She combines high Independence (the ability to act without referral to others, in theory a good thing) with low Impulse Control (she doesn’t think before charging off on a whim) – which, as a policewoman, is unlikely to help her stay out of trouble and turns her Independence score into a liability.

What “type” of person is your character? The Enneagram

This is already popular with many writers. I don’t use it in my own professional coaching work, but I hear it recommended regularly. Like temperament theory it has roots in models of personality going back over a thousand years.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - enneagram

The advantage of using this model to build character is it helps you get round the danger of making your character such a recognisable type that they become a cliché. Here’s where the lines on the diagram come in. You start with the character’s basic type (choose your label from the nine on offer), but each type will be nuanced by traits of the type that sits to either side, and also by the types to which the lines connect them. For good measure, under stress they will appear like a warped version of a type that is opposite to them.

A quick example: Sarah Travers (Cara Theobold) in the current BBC1 series The Syndicate. She is primarily a Helper (a servant who is also looking to be loved), with hints of Reformer and Achiever (she wants to do the right thing, as well as she can). The lines to Individualist and Challenger create a tension in her relationship with Sean – yes, she’s looking for love and security, but she can be suddenly and fiercely independent when crossed – and it’s Challenger which the Enneagram predicts is most likely to appear under stress, which gives her character its steely edge and stops her coming across as too good to be true.

What’s your character’s basic energy with other people? The Insights Wheel

The Insights model draws on the same Jungian psychology as the Myers-Briggs, another model popular with writers (but, sadly, more complicated to describe in a few words). This is another useful model when you want to get a quick fix on a character. In the real world, sales people use it to develop a hypothesis about a potential client they’re meeting by focusing on, initially, a choice of four basic “energies”: Cool blue (detached, reflective and objective thinker); Earth Green (quiet, values and relationship driven); Fiery Red (action oriented, reality-driven) and Sunshine Yellow (radiant, friendly and enthusiastic). Allow for the possibility of crossover energies between these four and you get the wheel below, with eight energies.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil lowe - insights-eight-type-colour-wheel

A quick example: Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in the first series of True Detective was an interesting example of an Earth Green, reminding us that “relationship oriented” for the introspective Green is very different from the outgoing, black slapping relationship orientation of the Sunshine Yellow. Rust is a dark, brooding, apparently isolated character, but his orientation towards personal values and authenticity in relationships was what brought him into conflict with his opposite in this model, the Fiery Red “Director” Martin Hart. Rust at first glance might not seem to fit the label “Supporter” in the diagram, but that’s the danger of making assumptions about labels – in his own way, Rust will support someone whose integrity he trusts.

So, the tour ends; and my head of Marketing reminds me to remind you to have a look back over my blogs in this series, and cherry pick those models which resonate most with you. Like the personalities in the models I’ve covered, as writers we are as distinctive as our characters, and your most authentic work will come from working with a model you feel at home with. There’s certainly no shortage of them. As always, approach with caution and please don’t psychoanalyse your friends, but if you’re working with fictional characters, anything that helps is fair game.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Mapping Character Change Using Psychological Theory by Phil Lowe

I’ve tended to focus in this series on personality models which emphasise how different we all are, as it’s generally the differences between characters which lead to drama. But let’s break the rule for the last in the series and look at a model which says we are all exactly the same when it comes to responding to a change in our circumstances – and which creates drama through a battle we have with our own psyche.

If you’re doing your job as a writer, your characters will spend a lot of time wrestling with some kind of change: losing a job, getting a job, receiving bad news, meeting a new partner, finishing with an existing partner, having an accident, being betrayed… Without change there is no drama. And our ability to understand the impact of change on a person comes from the “transition curve”, courtesy of a doctor who took one of the most dramatic changes of all – dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness – and used it to map how we respond to any change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made extensive studies of the reactions of terminally ill patients on learning the facts about their condition. When she put her observations together, she found that each and every terminally ill individual went through a series of identifiable stages in the process of coping, or attempting to cope, with the reality of death. If you were to plot the stages over time, and graph them according to how positive one feels, you get the curve below.

character changeAfter a brief period of shock, you see that the curve goes upwards. How can such bad news result in a positive reaction? The answer is that the positive feelings are essentially self-deluding, for this is the stage of Denial. The stance here is ‘It isn’t true: the tests must be wrong; I’ve never felt better.’

If the patient can be convinced of the reality of the situation, this positive stance is wiped out at a stroke and the patient advances quickly to the next stage, Anger. This is emotion born of frustration and impotence, and all logic is abandoned, before a semblance of apparent logic returns in the stage of Bargaining. The archetypal example of Bargaining is doing a deal with God (“Cure me and I’ll do good deeds for the rest of my life”). And when Bargaining doesn’t work, then Depression takes over (“I can’t cope with this, I might as well give up now.”)

If the patient can be coaxed beyond this, they reach the point of Acceptance, the point at which one decides to face what is happening and use the remainder of one’s time positively. This will require some experimentation, until the truly positive final step is achieved and the patient has a way of living which is authentic and embraces their condition.

Notice anything, narrative structure enthusiasts? Is this not a little like the arc of a character through a story? Is the stage of Acceptance not unlike that moment at the end of Act Two (or Act Four, if you’re trying to impress the new head of BBC Drama) when a character accepts the need to change and sets off to make what s/he has learned about him- or herself work? Does the Denial stage not bear a passing resemblance to the “refusal of the call” stage of the Hero’s Journey? Because what does a good story do if not present your protagonist with an enforced change, and then watch how they come to terms with it? This is why the transition curve is so powerful – it connects us with a deep human truth which unites us all, and which is reflected in stories told throughout history.

But before you start making all your characters terminally ill, this curve applies to any change, even positive ones. What does every lottery winner say? “This win won’t change me” (while you smugly think “hah, you’ve clearly never read about Denial being the first reaction to change – you’re going to suffer, mother****er”. Or maybe that’s just me). It doesn’t even have to be used in the service of Drama. Sitcoms rely heavily on Denial, Anger and Bargaining stages: The battle against the need to change is a staple of British comedy, from One Foot In The Grave to Fawlty Towers. Of course in a sitcom the character mustn’t change, so they are doomed never to reach Acceptance.

A comedy told as a complete story, though, will go through the whole curve. In the recent Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the alpha male obsessive foreign agent, is driven first by Denial (ignoring the rule to stay out of the mission), then Anger (becoming more and more of a loose cannon), Bargaining (as he tries to make an unnecessary partnership with Susan Cooper work) and finally, the Acceptance that Susan has done a good job. We leave him experimenting with a new phase as… I won’t spoil the ending for you. RomComs are another great example: the characters spend much of the film in Denial, Anger or Bargaining, as they each resist the call to change represented by their relationship antagonist. The film’s crisis is the point where they must Accept their need for each other, whereupon one of them runs to the airport and… you get the point.

So whatever genre you work in, ensuring that no character experiences change without triggering the transition curve will bring great authenticity to your script. And don’t only think about the major change that runs through the arc of the story; within one block of dialogue, if it’s doing its job properly, a character will be pushed out of his or her comfort zone and will inevitably display at least some Denial, pushing back to try and preserve the status quo.

This is my last blog in the series – but like any human being, I will go straight to Denial and do another farewell one shortly.

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 Your Character Mix Using Temperament Theory by Phil Lowe

After last month’s look at what drives your character, this time we’re back to the fundamentals of personality, thanks to an old chestnut that goes right back to the ancient Greeks – the idea that the human race can be divided into four temperaments (“temperament” being defined here as “a configuration of observable personality traits”). The most famous four-way classification came from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who believed that an imbalance of bodily fluids (hold the “ewww”s, we’re not going there) caused each of us to be one of Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic or Sanguine.

Character mix - Four temperamentsIn the 1970s David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates popularised temperament theory by linking it to arguably the most widely used personality questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (also a favourite of writers). Presumably because of some drama of their own, Keirsey and Bates went their separate ways; for our purposes I’m going to use the terminology from the former’s most recent work on the subject. As always, think about a character or group of characters you’re working on as we take a whistle stop tour of the four temperaments.

The Guardian: Guardians see themselves as dependable, loyal, and hard working. They are “good citizens”, conservatives (with a small “c”) who respect authority and like structure. In a relationship they are supportive, as leaders they go for stability. George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life is a great example of a Guardian protagonist, holding tradition and community together in the face of a greedy antagonist.

The Artisan: Artisans, like Guardians, dwell in the real world, but are constantly changing it rather than preserving it; they tend to take a playful, sometimes unconventional approach to what they do, and are prone to spontaneous and impulsive behaviour. They make great troubleshooters and adaptable companions. The narrative energy in Far From The Madding Crowd comes from Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) trying to remain an Artisan in a world which expects women to be Guardians. She shuns convention, and behaves with an inconsistency which confounds the men in her life.

The Idealist: Ideas rather than reality are the concern of Idealists, and the ideas they work with are to do with the growth and development of people and society. They work from intuition and are happy dwelling on deep philosophical questions about the nature of existence – so they can be intense as friends or lovers. Where the Artisan will take you on an unexpected but practical journey, the Idealist will take you on a limitless spiritual one. Tom Hollander’s eponymous character in Rev and Giselle (Amy Adams) in Enchanted both demonstrate the Idealist’s struggle to bring harmony and optimism to the grimy imperfect world they inhabit.

The Rational: Problem solvers, lovers of complexity, seekers after knowledge – the Rationals share with the Idealists an impulse to turn away from the here and now, but in the Rationals’ case it’s in order to build logical theories and models. The old joke (don’t get too excited) about a scientist who takes apart a thing that works in practice to make sure it works in theory (OK, you can stop guffawing now) could have been said of a Rational, who is likely to be ingenious, sceptical and independent. They don’t have to be maverick, but in drama they often are: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) in Age Of Ultron allows his quest for scientific perfection to get in the way of his fellow superheroes’ unity.

Fictional characters are not interesting in themselves, but become interesting when they rub up against other characters who are not like them. And this is where temperament theory can give you a quick and simple way of testing the variety of your character mix, since the last thing you want is a group of characters seeing the world the same way. I’ve been thinking about the BBC series W1A, and how skilfully writer John Morton subtly differentiates characters who at first glance are all doing the same thing – talking bollocks and passing the buck.

In a typical meeting scene, the obvious Guardian is Neil Reid (David Westhead), rejecting anything that isn’t practical; but Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) also acts as a Guardian, aiming to build consensus and make things work in practice. Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) plays a largely Artisan role, spontaneously introducing new schemes and threatening the existing order. Purists might say she doesn’t dwell sufficiently in the real world to be a true Artisan; an alternative candidate is Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), the producer who will always pull a creative but implementable idea out of the hat. The resident Rational is Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish) whose laser stare is generally followed with a focused demolition of a proposal; and the Idealist in the perennial meeting is Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), totally divorced from the real world but relentlessly positive in taking everyone somewhere nebulous. Outside of the meeting room, hapless intern Will (Hugh Skinner) is also an Idealist, totally impractical but always looking for a chance to bond.

The joy of being a writer rather than a psychologist is you aren’t trying to help characters make the best of their personal traits; until we get to Act Three, we’re far more interested in characters bringing out the worst of their temperaments. It could be through comic exaggeration, as in W1A; or through meeting opposition from a different temperament: a Guardian trying to get an Idealist to be pragmatic, or a Rational trying to cope with an Artisan’s unpredictable spontaneity. Remember, there are more than four types of people in the world, so be careful of cliche; but if you have four main characters and are looking for a starting point to differentiate them, temperament theory can be a lifesaver.

For more on David Keirsey’s work on temperament, visit www.keirsey.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.

What Drives Your Characters? By Phil Lowe

Regular readers of this guest blog will have realised by now that the world of psychology – where I work when I’m not writing – has limitless models to offer those of us who struggle to create believable characters. It’s been a few months since I last covered a motivation-related model (You can’t have forgotten surely?) so this time I bring you one of the simplest ever devised.

character driversEric Berne, a Canadian psychoanalyst, has made several contributions to the world of personality profiling. Rather fittingly for someone whose models are a gift to writers, he regarded our lives as a script written for us by our parents. His book Games People Play is worth a read; it looks at how we pay off our psychological needs through the way we set up our dealings with others. He is also the father of Transactional Analysis (known to cod psychologists as “that Parent-Adult-Child model”), which I may return to in a future blog. Today, though, we’re looking at his related work on personal “drivers”.

Each of us has at least one driver – so called because these are the scripts in our subconscious that drive our fundamental approach to life and work. Think of them as the messages you heard most often when you were little; instructions designed to set you up for life (“I will be OK as long as I…”), but which can hinder as well as help. Fictional characters, generally being more dysfunctional up than the average, frequently suffer from excessive or inappropriate use of them. There are five drivers, and for each I’ve suggested an example from film or TV:

Be Perfect. If this is your primary driver, you’re likely to be driven by the idea that nothing you do is ever good enough; you set high standards for yourself and others, and criticise yourself if you don’t meet them. You value achievement, success, being right. In your head is a voice saying “Don’t mess this up”. Miranda (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada shows how this driver can be an antagonistic force; her high standards cause repeated problems for our heroine Andy.

Please People. This driver seeks the approval of others, making you considerate, kind and service oriented. “Don’t upset people” is the warning; you might be easily persuaded and avoid conflict. Please say you’re not too hip to have seen Elf; if you are, ask your cognoscenti friends about the character of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who just wants to make everyone happy, and as a result is obliging in the extreme.

Hurry Up. If this is the main voice in your head, you may always have lots of things on the go, be generally impatient with yourself and others, and feel like there are never enough hours in the day. You’d rather get on with the job than talk about it (“Don’t waste time”). After Elf, my head’s stuck in family entertainment so I have to give a nod to Twitchy the squirrel in the animation Hoodwinked, whose inability to do anything slowly is a hindrance to the others, until it becomes useful in Act Three (sorry, no plot spoilers).

Be Strong. This driver will prompt you to control your emotions and never to show weakness. You’re unlikely to ask for help, and look to be the one that others depend on. Remember the scene in American Beauty where Carolyn (Annette Bening) starts crying and responds by slapping herself round the face and telling herself to stop? A typical Be Strong reaction (if a little de trop for the average office worker) and a glimpse at the ghosts of her parents speaking to her as a child.

Try Hard. (Wouldn’t Die Hard have been a very different film with this as a title? But I digress.) This driver discourages you from ever letting go of something. Maybe this time it’ll work…? You might start more things than you finish, because it’s more important to try than to succeed. As a result you are full of persistence and determination. Stories in which an apparently weak protagonist takes on the system frequently rely on our hero or heroine possessing this driver; and it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy thriller – witness Elle (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde.

Of course, the first thing they teach you at writing school is never to create one dimensional characters – so do what most people’s upbringing does and give your character two drivers. Back to Buddy the elf: he wants to please people; he also Tries Hard and keeps going. This makes him a more interesting (and funnier) protagonist because nothing puts him off. His biological father discovers that like a punchbag, he just swings back from every blow trying to be even more helpful. Replace the Try Hard with Be Strong and you get DS Miller (Olivia Coleman) in Broadchurch, whose impulse to Please People and defer to others vies with an impulse to not show weakness. The warrior patriarch Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in Game of Thrones combines Be Strong with Be Perfect, and demonstrates in the process how parents’ own drivers are passed on: his messages to his children tend to be that they are weak and “not good enough”.

Remember there’s not much point giving your characters a driver if it’s not going to cause problems for themselves and others. And also remember they may mask their true driver, only for it to show through when they least want it to. But do at least give it a go, otherwise you won’t be good enough/I’ll be cross/It’ll take you twice as long/You’re weak/You won’t be giving it your best shot (delete whichever don’t apply to your own drivers).

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Emotional Truth

The recent furore over the current EastEnders storyline has got me thinking about what it is that we want from a drama and why this story has caused such uproar. For me the power of great drama lies in its emotional truth and I wonder if that is where the problem lies in this particular instance.

EastEnders has a great tradition of tackling difficult stories and doing so with sensitivity and integrity and no one is criticising the show for tackling the deeply tragic Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Cot Death).  As a mother of young children there was nothing more frightening than the idea of looking in on them wrapped safely in their cots when they were newborn babies and finding them dead. It is surely the most shocking and harrowing experience imaginable and EastEnders has every right to play such a story.

I don’t have any problem with harrowing stories about babies and my understanding about the majority of complaints is that they too don’t have a problem with the Cot Death story. I vividly remember watching the superb ‘This Little Life’ when expecting my first baby and although I wept through almost all of it I had nothing but admiration for those who produced it and for the BBC for showing it.

What some people (and it’s by no means certain what percentage of the audience those complaining represent) are finding unpalatable and unbelievable is the decision to use this story as a spring board for the much more rare baby-swap.

I wonder if there are two issues causing this reaction to the baby-swap element of the story.  The first is the emotional truth of the story. Having worked on returning drama series (medical and crime) and developing original dramas I firmly believe that drama should not be confined to the probable.  As long as it’s possible then it’s fine by me. What follows, particularly when tackling rarer types of behaviour (murder, stealing someone’s baby), is the tricky job of getting the psychology right so that you take the audience with you and they absolutely believe that this character would have behaved in this way in these particular circumstances.  In ‘Blue Murder’ we were telling the stories of ordinary people (not psychopaths) who were driven to murder. The hardest bit for me was always making sure that we believed that our character who had committed the murder would have done so in those circumstances. A huge amount of work went into character psychology and backstory in order to create the circumstances that would make the act of murder believable.

I am in no doubt that the hard-working team at ‘EastEnders’  did the research and tried hard to create those circumstances. For some reason (and not having not seen every episode that Ronnie has appeared in I can’t be sure either way) it feels as if they haven’t quite managed to carry all of their audience with them on Ronnie’s journey from bereaved mother to baby-stealer. I am sure that many in the audience have absolutely been carried and firmly believe the truth of Ronnie’s behaviour but clearly for some her behaviour has broken that bond of emotional truth and consequently feels contrived and implausible.

I also wonder if the other element causing such unease is the slight feeling that the show is using the Cot Death story simply as a means to play the baby-swap story. On a personal level, the combination of these two stories gives the impression that the show doesn’t feel that the Cot Death on its own is emotionally dramatic enough and so feels the need to ratchet up the drama.

We should be applauding EastEnders for tacking Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and I’m sure the story will have helped to raise awareness of this tragic occurence.  For me the furore reminds us of two important things. First that our audiences don’t watch our dramas passively but rather are emotionally invested and this is particularly true of returning drama series. The success of our dramas is down to that intense level of engagement.  Second that as storytellers we have a responsibility to tell stories that at their heart have an emotional truth to them. It’s a tricky balancing act – too much insight into a character’s unhinged state and we signal where our story is going, too little and we won’t believe their behaviour.

We should always remind ourselves that we make an emotional bond with our audience and if we play stories which break that bond we risk alienating the very people we seek to engage. However, self-censorship is a dangerous thing, we cannot please all of the people all of the time and we should never be afraid to tackle difficult and challenging stories. Be bold, be brave and be truthful.