As a writer, behaving like a psychologist, you are always probing more deeply inside your character's skin, always questioning his behavior. You are searching for reasons for his actions and creating motivation for them. Let's suppose your character is hungry. Being hungry will motivate him to find food to eat.
Hunger is the stimulus and finding food is his response to hunger. This is easy enough to understand. He might simply open the refrigerator or freezer and grab something to eat. If they are both empty he could go to a restaurant or store and buy some food. These are easy solutions to the problem of being hungry. But what if he doesn't have any food in his home? What if he doesn't have a home? What if he doesn't have any money to purchase food? What will he do?
Now you must consider not only a character's motivation (hunger), you must also consider his internal make-up. If he is amoral or asocial he might rob a bank, break into a house or mug a person to get money for food. If he is moralistic and doesn't believe in breaking the law, he might ask his friends to lend him some money for food. If he is resourceful, he might go fishing or hunting and use his environment to find food. If he is conniving or he manipulates others, he might devise a scheme to bring him a quick buck for food.
His value system, his beliefs, his past experiences, his abilities, and his personality will determine his behavior when he is faced with a specific stimulus like hunger. Yet, there is another aspect to his motivation. It is the degree of hunger that will determine to what lengths he will go to obtain food. With this in mind, don't ever say, "My character would never steal," or "My character would never have an affair."
Given the right set of circumstances, enough desperation, and a hostile environment, you can motivate your character to steal in a way that would be believable. It's amazing what human beings are capable of doing under the right circumstances, especially in life and death situations. If you give your characters the proper motivation and the right situation, anything is possible for them to do, especially if they are desperate.
The way your character satisfies his needs depends on what choices and circumstances are available to him at a given time. What if he is hungry and happens to be in prison or in the armed forces? In each case he is at the mercy of other people and his behavior is restricted by his superiors and their rules and regulations. Obviously, he is unable to make the choices he would like to make, because there would be harmful consequences to his actions.
Remember not only to deal with your character's need, but also with how he behaves in getting his need met. This depends on the desperation of the need, the environment and his value and belief system. The most important determination for his behavior will be the many characteristics and traits that make up his personality. The more complex your character, the more varied his personality traits. These internal character traits will create conflicts within your character and keep him from being a stock character.
After you have developed the past history for your character and his complete character biography, you will want to study the relationship between his outer self and his internal self.
"What is the relationship between your character's physical appearance and his emotional state?"
"Where does he live and how does his environment affect his self-esteem?"
Start looking for cause-and-effect connections between all aspects of your character's life. Look for connections between your character's inner life and outer world. Is your character playing a role or is he being authentic?
Another type of frustration your character can encounter is outside of himself. The frustration could be environmental and could include: lack of money, sickness, lack of employment, or lack of friends, just to name a few. These types of frustrations are the external obstacles that create conflict for your character. They are the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of him reaching his goal. He must overcome them to succeed.
How your character deals with his internal and external frustrations will depend on the psychology of your character. Sometimes reducing a frustration can be easy. If your character is always late, he can make an effort to be on time, especially if he is threatened with losing his job for tardiness. If he is unable to pay his bills because he spends too much money he can start a budget and economize. He reduces his frustration and overcomes the obstacle.
Yet, there are some cases where the conflict persists even though he desperately wants to solve it. Suppose he is a drug addict or an alcoholic. He is threatened with losing his wife and his job, unless he quits his addiction. He may desperately want to quit drugs or alcohol and he may suffer from terrible feelings of guilt and self-disgust when he can't quit.
He is not in control and may ask himself, "Why can't I stop this destructive habit?"
He swears over and over he'll never do it again ... and yet... he can't stop. Your character is suffering from an internal conflict that he can't resolve even though he desperately wants to. He might continue this behavior until something from his environment motivates him to change. Perhaps his wife and children leave him or his buddy dies from an overdose. These circumstances might be strong enough to motivate him into his giving up his addiction.
On the other hand, he might fall to the bottom of the barrel and end up on skid row, a beaten, defeated addict. How he will act or react will be determined by the psychological make-up that you have created for his character. Your audience will understand and believe in your character, as he reveals himself under pressure, only if you have done a good job in making his actions believable and consistent with his personality.
Your audience will root for your character and sympathize with his plight, even in cases where he doesn't succeed, as long as your character struggles. It is the struggle that is of prime importance when dealing with obstacles he must overcome that stand in the way of his goal.
Read books on abnormal psychology. Observe people around you, at work, home, and play. Put yourself inside your character's head and get to understand what he thinks and feels. Peel the layers of protective covering away as you put your character under pressure. Strip your character of his defenses and watch what he does.
Presently, the motion picture industries are dealing with sensitive issues such as child abuse, wife abuse, suicide, sexual abuse, addiction, divorce, homosexuality, personality disorders, and many mental health issues. I am often called in as a consultant to work with writers, producers and directors, on specific psychological aspects of their scripts and their characters, to make certain they are treated accurately and realistic.
For you as a screenwriter it is not enough just to deal with these issues. You must know the effects of different abuses on the victim and her family. What happens to the wife and children of an alcoholic? What are the long term effects of sexual molestation? How does a child behave who is a victim of child abuse? What happens to the survivors of a suicide victim? How are adult children of alcoholics affected by their parents drinking? What are the characteristics of a co-dependent couple? How do people cope after divorce?
All of these issues must be dealt with honestly and openly. That is why people in the industry consult with professionals in the mental health field, so when these issues are the subject of the film, the characters will behave in a realistic way.
A year ago, I worked with a woman who was writing a screenplay about adoption. After she completed her script she came to see me, because she wasn't satisfied with her script. I was amazed at how inaccurate her portrayal of her leading character, a young woman who recently discovered she was adopted. The writer hadn't put any emotion into the main character, in fact, the young woman wasn't emotionally confused or torn about discovering that the parents she'd loved and known weren't her birth parents.
The writer wasn't able to give her main character emotions because she not only hadn't done research on the psychological effects of adoption, but also had no idea what happens to an adopted child on an emotional level. Her main characters emotional behavior was so unrealistic that her entire script didn't work.
Before I worked with her on character development, I first worked with her on her own emotions, taking her back to the time, when she discovered a family secret and how she'd felt when she realized the truth. I had her do some free writing about the experience and her feelings of shock and betrayal.
She eventually was able to get in touch with those painful memories and then was freed up emotionally to put her real feelings into her female character. Suddenly, she was behaving in a realistic and credible manner, because the screenwriter was able to put the truth of her own emotions into her character. She added layers to her and made her script very powerful and emotionally truthful.
With today's worldly and sophisticated audiences, you must have knowledge of such psychological issues as death, divorce, rape, incest, alcoholism, abuse and dysfunctional relationships to name a few. These and other mental health issues are frequently written about in today's scripts, especially the real life stories on television, which usually have to do with murder, mayhem, death, divorce and dysfunction. You have to get in touch with your own psychological issues, so you'll be able to put them into your characters, just so the characters will be portrayed in an accurate and realistic way.
You must do your research if you write about serious topics that have deep psychological effects on the victim and other members of the family. You must know what happens to people when they experience disturbing or deviant behavior, and realistically show the ramifications of these experiences on your characters.
Most good writers are good psychologists. Think of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, Tolstoy, to name a few. These writers understood the human condition. They were psychologists probing the inner depths of their characters and dealing with their frailties, fears, and frustrations. Each one of these writers had a wonderful knowledge of human nature. They created memorable characters who have withstood the test of time.
There is much more to writing a story then creating a plot and characters. When you begin to understand the psychology of your characters, you will be on the road to building complex, interesting characters who will be remembered long after your work is completed.
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