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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Psychology Today

The other day, the Wave-inatrix was lucky enough to be invited to a conference given by Script Department client Jeff Cotton. I know it's hard to believe, looking at the picture of the Wave-inatrix but yes, I am the exhausted mama of two teenagers. Jeff's seminar was indispensable for parents.

Writer that I am, as I copiously took notes, I began to look and listen from a writing point of view. Jeff works with kids in the foster care and mental health system so many of them are in a great deal of psychic pain. When Jeff talked about triggers for teens and outlined them on the board, it struck me that this was also invaluable information for understanding characters. We all know it is common to run into psychological issues as a teenager and then tuck those issues neatly into a tiny package and carry that on into adulthood. So this stuff can easily apply to one of your characters.

Jeff outlined several themes of emotional trouble that can then be triggered:

Sexual abuse
Physical abuse

So if a child has issues of abandonment, simply turning off the light and shutting the bedroom door can be a trigger. If self-esteem is a theme underlying your troubled kid (or character) a rejection can be a huge trigger.

So it struck me that as part of our learning curve as writers, we need to really think about the psychology of our characters. Characters in movie scripts and people in real life are sort of like the difference between street makeup and theatrical makeup. Characters in movies are a bit exaggerated, right? Well, I don't know, I have some family members who are right straight out of Big Fish but maybe that's just me.

Lately, I have been doing an interesting exercise with my clients who are struggling with the flaw of their main character. I ask them - what is the flaw? And they say something like, she wants her father's approval. And I say that's not really a flaw. That might be one of her external wants. But that's not a flaw - that's normal.

So let's back up a step - what's the backstory, how did her father treat her as a child? Oh, let's say she had The Great Santini dad - oh okay, so she had an emotionally abusive father. So she wants her father's approval but really, she NEEDS it.

So how does she act that out, negatively, in the now? Let's say she's very distant from her father and she's an over-achieving narcissist who tramples anyone in her way. Gee, she's starting to sound like Tom Cruise in RAIN MAN. So you look for the backstory, the core of the emotional pain and then extrapolate that out into the now. A character who wants his or her father's approval who nicely, friendily seeks it just ain't an interesting character. Unless he or she snaps because of a trigger, or unless he or she has taken that desire, turned it inside-out and become very negative. Any attention is good attention, right?

I'm no psychology major (or even minor) but there's a lot to be said for thumbing through an issue of Psychology Today and giving some deeper thought to just what makes your character tick.

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1 comment:

Wenonah said...

Wow, talk about relevant - not fifteen minutes ago I sat down to figure out the back story of my hero in my next script and why she has a fear of "follow-through" and how it affects her and holds her back in life & her goal(s). I had to dig way deep for this one, but once the light bulb went off, the scenes and dialog potential for her are truly coming to life. Is this called Wave-a-vu?