The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

4. Character Starts with the Animal

So you have an audience, you can tell a story, and you can make it interesting. I'm guessing, at this point you'll need characters to fill this story. And while you will certainly have some idea of character during story creation, you really need to drill down and understand your characters at a primal level if you hope to make your story affecting and real.

Make no mistake, we are physical animals first and foremost. Beneath our intellect is a powerful and primal urge. This is the urge to stay alive. The urge to procreate. This undercurrent influences us in odd ways, and in the case of screenwriting when characters are put under maximum strain, the animal rears its head unless he or she has the wherewithal to suppress it. Humans are also pack animals and share a lot in common with wolves and gorillas to name two.

There are the dominant and there are the submissive. Overriding it all is the need to belong to a pack and a society. This basic need is what advertising thrives on. It's the source of brand loyalty. It's why we all want to belong. Even if we reject our group and its values, we seek out like-minded brethren to consort with. On a side note there is a fascinating documentary about a colony of baboons and how the ones under the thumb of the alpha exhibit a lot of stress and they compared it to human beings in a corporate setting. Excellent stuff.

OK, so we have the animal. So what makes us different than an ape or a wolf or a cat? Intelligence is certainly key. Intelligence makes everything possible, but to me there is a key element that makes us different. Animals are slave to their instincts. Humans can be heavily influenced by instinct, but what makes us different from all others is that we are self-aware. Dolphins and whales are smart. Whales even have bigger brains than we do, but I don't know that they are self-aware. "I think, therefore I am." doesn't cross their minds. I don't know that they can choose to act counter to their instinct. Being self-aware gives us free will, and free will lets us do whatever the hell we want. Free will introduces ethics. It introduces the possibility of right and wrong. It gives us the ability to make judgments.

But the intellect isn't separate from the animal. If it was we'd all be Spock. It is intertwined and the most dangerous aspect of ourselves because it becomes difficult to tell how emotion affects the intellect. This is the space of rationalization, of justifying in our minds what we want. I saw an interview with Louis Farrakhan a number of years ago. I don't know that I care for some of his ideals, but he said one thing that stuck with me (paraphrased): "A man is incapable of doing wrong. In order to do wrong he must first justify it as the right thing." This is the selfish nature of the animal manipulating the intellect to get what it wants. I think this is the source of the most interesting character moments.

Everyday I get quotes from famous people. Sometimes, I think they shed light on the human endeavor. I'd like to share one of them. I can't remember the author, but to paraphrase: "If something makes sense to you, you require only the most circumstantial evidence to claim it as fact, but if something doesn't make sense to you, you require overwhelming evidence to accept it as truth." Ideally, we take all information on face value and judge it. If it happens to be against what we previously believed we simply change our belief. People don't work that way. Often times people will cling to their beliefs long after they've been thoroughly and systematically disproven. They will cling to the very shred of any anomaly as a way to continue their belief. Never underestimate anyone's ability to maintain their belief system. People can write themselves out of any corner. It's both amazing and disheartening.

I think that by understanding the human animal we, as writers, can sculpt more realistic characters in our screenplays. Perhaps, in the process, we can shed a light on ourselves*.

* That would be too easy.