Characters as ‘profound individuals’: Part 2

April 12th, 2012 by

Following up on my pervious post about characters as “profound individuals,” I thought it would be interesting to consider the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and his influential book “I and Thou” (“Ich und Du”).

I and Thou (or You) is Buber’s central thesis on human existence as encounter.There are two modes of consciousness through which we, as individuals, engage with ‘reality’: Ich-Es (I-It) and Ich-Du (I-You).

The I-It mode is typified by the objectification of people and nature. The “I” in this mode perceives itself as an individual, over and against the subjects of its perception. As Buber puts it, “The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).”

The I-You mode represents a more “authentic” experience of an individual’s encounter with the ‘other’ because these beings meet one another in a mutual and holistic manner. As Buber says, “The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive–i.e., without any “of” clause).”

To Buber, while we live in the I-It mode most of the time in our ‘ordinary’ world of experience, our goal is move our interactions to the level of I-You. As Buber writes, “The purpose of relation is the relation itself—touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by a breath of eternal life.” In an I-It encounter, Buber says we have a “monologue”; in an I-You encounter, we have a “dialogue”, where genuine communication can take place.

Now let’s look at the I-It and I-You modes as a metaphor for screenwriting, specifically what we should be doing in terms of character development.

When we first ‘meet’ our characters, we know very little about them. Whatever specifics we manage to dredge up help to shape their narrative function – Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster – and vice versa. In this part of the process, we encounter them as I-It for we do not know enough about them to relate to them in a mutual manner. Indeed, we do not believe them to be ‘alive’, therefore, such a holistic encounter would not be possible.

But as we learn more and more about each character, as we deepen our understanding of them, we can, indeed, should move to an I-You relationship.

Here’s how I put it in one of my online Screenwriting Master Class forum discussions:

“Buber said that most people interact with the world in this type of relationship – ‘I and It’. We objectify the ‘other’, which puts us at a distance from them. Whereas we should seek to have relationships that work with this paradigm – ‘I and Thou’, two individuals in a direct relationship.  Not typifying or stereotyping, turning them into an ‘It’, but having the courage and honesty to experience them as they are – a profound individual just like us.”

If you think that through, then logically I am suggesting that as writers, we reach a point with our characters where they have as much right to their existence as we do. They are our peers. This enables us to move beyond a monologue and engage in a genuine dialogue with them.


This is where we need to get with our characters. Again my thoughts from the online forum:

“We as writers need to move from relating to our characters as ‘It’ – the Protagonist, the Mentor character, the guy who works in a bank, etc., and get deep enough into them where they become a ‘Thou’. They become a profound individual just like us. The value of the script diary is that you’re ENGAGING the characters in an I and Thou dialogue. You and them in conversation, and the more you dialogue with them, moving beyond stereotype and typecasting, the more you experience their specificity, their uniqueness. That’s when they become ‘Thou’, that’s when they exercise their right to free will, and start doing whatever they want to do.”

To do anything less than honor our characters by digging deep enough into them so that they emerge as profound individuals is to run the severe risk of creating inauthentic characters. We need to respect their intentions, desires and voice in order to let their authentic nature come through.

We need to engage in an “I-You” dialogue with each character.

That is where compelling characters derive, where we can uncover and discover profound individuals.

For more on Martin Buber, go here.

[Originally posted February 25, 2009]

Note: As I suggested in the previous post, the degree of depth we get into with our characters is relative to the specifics of the story and its genre. An action may not require as much time spent delving into a character’s inner workings as compared to a drama. That said there is zero excuse for creating stereotypical or surface level characters in any type of movie, unless it’s a spoof or satire commenting on character types.

As suggested two posts ago, Bridesmaids benefited hugely with an entertaining, funny yet nuanced look at the story’s Protagonist Annie.

There is no downside to learning more about your characters and lots of upside. Engage them in an I and You relationship. You will be amazed at how alive your writing and stories become.

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