Friday, January 1, 2010
THE CHARACTERS ARE YOU!
"The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings." - Martin Buber
Screenwriters that understand character-based drama - and there are very few of them - are acutely aware of the preeminence of character. It is the characters and their actions that build and release emotional energy both within and outside the story.
Unfortunately, in speaking of character, too many film storytellers automatically think that what is being referred to is the dramatis personae of the actual script. This is a limited and limiting point of view, and encourages a form of chauvinism that creates destructive and frustrating prejudices and misunderstandings for any screenwriter who seeks a closer, more intimate relationship with the characters necessary for finding the emotional potency that lies buried in the language of the screenplay.
To enter the lives of the characters in the script, one must be entered by them! But one must also be entered by one's audience, and by one's tribe, whilst all the time being sensitive to one's "multifariousness", and those hidden characters that we harbour and nurture behind the curtain of the ego.
Dramatic characters are characters that move - they act, and through their actions are changed. The on-going dialogic amongst ALL the characters responsible for birthing a dramatic screen story is informed by an emotional logic that, when in evidence, makes us - the screenwriter/character - see and feel the "truth" of what is being enacted and expressed. It is both a humbling and inspiring experience.
In speaking of the ACTION one must constantly be aware that the movement of authentic characters is both external and internal.
A character acts in order to achieve a desired objective in the physical world, something which we can see and/or hear. But in effective drama there is always an emotional component to this striving... which one grasps imaginatively by a sensitive "reading" of the what is implied by what is seen and heard.
A boxer wants to win the heavyweight title so that he can be "somebody", but the reason he wants to be somebody is so he can get his girl back. What he really wants is love. What we see is him fighting the fight of his life, losing, and his girlfriend watching the fight on the television with an expression that tells us she she cares more about him than anyone else in the world.
All drama begins with a character who becomes disconnected from something important to him or her, a disconnection that gives rise to pain (or suffering), risk and a sense of urgency, forcing the character to ACT in order to put an end to the suffering, and achieve both the outer objective and the inner goal or fulfillment of the character's emotional need or desire. In most stories the character succeeds, but not always. Vide: Chinatown.
So who are these characters that people the worlds of dramatic screen storytelling?
Where do they live when they're not actually strutting their stuff on a screen or in a script?
The short answer is they are YOU.
Characters are aspects of our selves. In fact, we are teeming with them!
In recent times, a range of teachers, philosophers, psychologists and others have attempted to delineate the basic character types found within the human family. The ideas of Freud, Maslow and others are well known. Less known is the contribution of Aboriginal "skin systems" to our understanding of human nature - an area that is ripe for study for any one with a modicum of imagination and a yearning for real adventure.
More recently, a Bolivian teacher, Oscar Ichazo, began assembling various notions derived from indigenous peoples, Sufi teachings and the work of George Gurdjieff. One of the outcomes of his research and thought was the development of a system of personality types, collected under the now well-known designation, Ennegrams.
For Ichazo, there were essentially nine archetypes, corresponding to the Divine Forms or Platonic Solids, qualities of existence that are essential, that cannot be broken down into constituent parts.
Interestingly, Plato's idea maintained enough freshness to be taken up by Plotinus in his central work, The Enneads, which ultimately found its way into the meditations of early Christian mystics exploring the notion of pure consciousness. Later, these Divine forms became distorted into the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth.
In discovering new ways of dealing with old problems, one can do worse than return to the wisdom of the Ancestors, which apparently is what Ichazo did. It would seem that his translations and interpretations of the ancient intuitions and insights have a contribution to make to our understanding of dramatic characters and the stories.
It might be interesting to have a look at the script you are working on now and see what character types are at play within your story.
The Nine Types
Number One - The Reformer
Highly responsible characters with a sensitivity to the suffering of others and a strong desire to improve the conditions they encounter. They are idealists, fighting for their ideals. They are mindful of right and wrong and will "play it by the book" in order to ensure that their efforts cannot be undermined by officialdom or by any insinuation of moral laxity. They believe they are "good" people, and do not easily express anger or, when they do, never do it overtly. Nevertheless, they do harbour resentment for those that don’t share their ideals or a commitment to working hard for a good cause. This resentment is frequently expressed with sarcasm, eye-ball rolling and severe, disapproving looks. They often come across as highly critical and judgemental because they invariably focus on mistakes. They are also hard on themselves, and maintain a ruthless inner who keeps a running commentary about their own shortcomings and how they are measuring up. Morals are important to them and they can be excellent models for admirable behaviour. They have a penchant for details but some time cannot see the forest for the trees.
Number Two - The Helper
Group-minded, tuned in to the feelings of others, they love nothing more than TO SERVE, sometime to the point of being irritating. They love giving advice. even when it is not wanted. They like to be acknowledged for their service, and are easily offended or hurt when not appreciated for their efforts. Their concern with helping others often means they overlook their own needs, and are reluctant to accept help from others. They give much more easily than they take, which can make them seem prideful. They are not averse to talking about themselves. and may dominate a conversation without even being aware of it. The know how to "work a room" flitting from one person to another with ease, depending on their emotional whims and where they feel they can be of most use. They are the power behind the throne; and enjoy the thick of office politics. They are nurturers - the consummate parent type. Their sensitivity can make them effective mentors. Indeed, any occupation that demands attention to the needs of others, especially the less fortunate, is the perfect niche for the Helper.
Number Three – The Achiever
Hard workers with lots of energy. They are goal oriented, with a tendency to neglect personal relationships and feelings. They enjoy success, especially the material rewards it brings, whether it is a new car, a fur coat, or a European holiday. Failure is not a word they acknowledge - setbacks are minor inconveniences on the way to greater achievements. They love projecting a winning image, and are prepared to lie to themselves and others about their situation in order to present the sort of image they deem useful to their plans. They are zealous in seeking recognition, and will willingly accept or take all the credit for a project without acknowledging others. Their competitiveness is both their strength and their weakness. They are astute when it comes to reading the desires of others... but only because it will give them the edge or enable them to manipulate a situation for their own ends. Confusing image with substance, they frequently project a lack of depth and integrity. They can be highly efficient - even if they have to cut corners, and naturally enthusiastic. They have a facility for rallying others to their cause, and can be effective team leaders.
Number Four - The Individualist
This is the tragic romantic - the character that lives with a feeling that they are missing something essential. They are full of envy and long for something that might fulfill them. They believe that life is a puzzle and that their is a missing piece that - if only they could find it, would answer all their suffering with joy. They believe in ideal relationships. Mr or Miss Right is possible. A great job worthy of their talents is possible. A different lifestyle is possible. Alas, if only! They are geniuses when it comes to identifying and analyzing their inner emotional landscape, they are obsessed with it, and love exploring the emotional landscape of those in whom they are interested. They crave meaningful connections with others, but are often their own worst enemies owing to the fact that so few people seem to understand their truly unique feelings and perceptions. Wanting some kind of meaning in their lives, they will often resort to living in dreams. They place great significance upon synchronistic meetings, personal rituals, signs and omens. They are not afraid to deal with issues such as death and grief since these also add relevance their life. They are lovers of beauty, and, given the chance, will always surround themselves with visually pleasing physical environments.
Number Five - The Observer
This character is the consummate ascetic, the minimalist, the survivalist, that can make do with very little - they prize their solitariness and privacy more than almost anything. They enjoy their own company. It gives them time to think about life and follow up their own, private passions. They may seem cold; they are often abrupt with others. They hate messy, emotional situations, and will avoid them at all costs. They are prone to keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves,a nd, as a consequence, are often difficult to read. They are reflective and the fruits of their reflections can make them interesting and stimulating conversationalists in the "right" company. They prefer discussions in depth.Ideas are important to them. It is a great honor to them to be respected for their practical suggestions and intellectual theories. They are specialists, and masters of whatever craft they choose. For them, comfort is associated with planning. They don't like surprises. They can synthesise details into coherent systems or theories and are keen observers of others' behaviour. They can provide sound and useful consul to others. They are succinct.
Number Six - The Guardian
They tend to be worriers, constantly scanning the horizon - like mercats - for any sign of potential danger. They crave safety and security, but their response to threats is not always predictable. Depending on circumstances they may either draw back challenge them head-on. Trust is an issue; they want to trust others, yet may put off potential collaborators because of a natural suspiciousness. Authority figures are especially suspect; they feel uneasy around those they perceive to have power over them. They have a hard time making decisions. They don't mind joining groups, which helps them ward off feelings of loneliness. They see the world in terms of allies or foes, those who support them (friends) and those who might oppose them (enemies). They are highly opinionated and enjoy arguing their point of view. They are psychic and sensitive to potential problems, which makes them great at troubleshooting and preparing for crises and difficulties. They make very loyal friends and great benefactors of others less fortunate than themselves.
Number Seven - The Enthusiast
They like to make plans for future opportunities to entertain themselves. This focus produces a gluttonous craving for amusing diversions that shield them from life's painful realities. As a result they shy away from responsibilities, which might limit their freedom to experience all the pleasant possibilities life can offer. They keep their options open, resist commitments. They are elusive and hate being pinned down. They can, nevertheless, see limitless potential, and love brainstorming ideas for new projects. They have vision. Unfortunately they can become easily bored, and so are not as good at following through and completing the work they have started. Synthesizers of diverse theories, they can be very persuasive in convincing others to follow their dream. They enjoy the sound the own voice and have narcissistic tendencies, demanding excessive attention. Nonchalant and irreverent, they dislike rigid hierarchical structures with routine work, preferring ad hoc teams and multiple tasks. Upbeat and optimistic they can be wonderful comedians and improvisers who have the ability to spread joy and laughter.
Number Eight – The Controller
The controller character comes on strong, fully engaged with others. This character doesn;t mind confronting others if there is a disagreement. If they become angry they don’t hesitate to express their feelings forcefully and can intimidate others with their ferocity. They are often gifted leaders, they take command of situations and rule over territory they have carved out for themselves. They can become too controlling by acting as the sole authority and invading others’ boundaries. Their animal magnetism and lust for life can manifest as excess in different areas of their life, e.g., long working hours, high-risk adventures, sensate pleasures and rollicking good times. Because they perceive situations in black and white terms they tend to reject others’ perceptions and only see their version of reality. Blunt talkers, they hate to feel manipulated and expect people to give them the straight goods. They make great advocates who aren’t afraid to break the rules or confront those in authority. Concerned with issues of justice and fairness, they will seek revenge if they feel wronged. Inside they feel vulnerable but rarely let others see it. They can move mountains for causes they support.
Number Nine - The Mediator
The main problem for the Mediator is prioritizing tasks. They readily lose focus and are side-tracked by unimportant details. Concerned with conserving energy, they tend to be slow moving and methodical. Their slothful nature craves familiar routines and creature comforts. They go with the flow, which means they have a hard time accepting changes and setting goals. They become stubborn if pushed to move faster or work harder, tending to merge with others’ agendas, then losing sight of their own needs. When this happens it's easier for them to identify what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. They prefer consensus to making decisions on their own. They enjoy ruminating more than deciding, and on philosophical considerations, a natural penchant, is also a way to put off making a decision and taking conflict is anathema to them; they will avoid it at all costs. They will also avoid problems, maintaining that everything will work out if everyone stays amiable and connected. Unaware of their own power, they can easily concede to others to avoid any disagreements. They can see all sides of an issue. They are able to spread goodwill and harmony amongst the discord of others.
Any careful reading of the above character types will make the reader aware that each of us, at different times during any typical day, manifest many of the traits of every one of these character types. It is a misreading of these types to presume that any human being can be reduced simply to type no matter how convenient it may seem. This proviso, however, not be construed as a damning criticism of the basic system or as a reason to dismiss it out of hand. The point is: we ARE all of these characters (and more) - which is what enables us to write effective dramatic scripts with characters of much greater diversity than what might otherwise be the case if we were to work merely out of the confines of our own, narrow ego.
The ego is but one specialised bundle of imaginary solutions by which we penetrate the phenomenal world - the realm of the projected imagination. Each of us during any typical day of our lives, in our various interactions with various people, is a "mediator;", a "helper", an "enthusiast", etc. etc. In finding and contributing to the birth of dramatic stories, it is our challenge not to deny, judge, censor or fear these others that inhabit our being, but to allow them their time and place in the sun of the story that seeks to shine out, fully embodied by characters and character actions. Understanding one's characters IS understanding one's selves.