Character Development Keys

March 25th, 2014 by

If there’s one question I get asked about screenwriting theory more than any other it’s what’s my deal with character archetypes? Here’s your chance to find out what that deal is with the Screenwriting Master Class course: Character Development Keys.

It’s a 1-week online class where you do pretty much everything on your own time schedule: download and read lectures, review and post comments on the public forums, upload ideas and optional writing exercises. You want to do that in bed in your pajamas sipping coffee? Be my guest!

There is one teleconference which is live, but I record and upload that, so you can even check that out on your own time, too.

As to the course itself, there are seven lectures written by yours truly:

1: Character Archetypes and Story Structure
2: Protagonist
3: Nemesis
4: Attractor
5: Mentor
6: Trickster
7: Switch Protagonist

The study script for the course: The Dark Knight, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane. If you’re a fan of this movie, that alone is probably reason enough to take this class because you will understand the film in a whole new way, through the lens of character archetypes.

In addition, you will get the opportunity to put the theories you learn into action by workshopping one of your own stories.

And as a bonus: I’ll be presenting a set of character development tools I have assembled over the years to help you dig into characters even further to uncover their unique personalities and voice.

This is a great chance to immerse yourself in what I consider to be one of the most fascinating and helpful ways of approaching character development and indeed, the story-crafting process as a whole: character archetypes.

All of that in only 1-week. The course runs begins Monday, March 31. And again, you can do the entire course in your pajamas! Sucking down caffeine! Devouring chocolate bon bons! The beauty of the online experience!

For more information, go here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Reader Question: Does a Mentor always have to be right?

August 6th, 2013 by

A question from Annika:

In your five archetypes that populate almost every movie, does the Mentor always have to be right? If the issue at hand came down to heart versus head and the protagonist should be using their heart more, could being under the influence of a mentor, who approaches things from a head-centered space, actually be working against them? So, basically, can the Mentor and Attractor work against each other?

In answer to your first question, there are no rules in screenwriting, nor with archetypes. They are simply tools to help us develop and understand our stories. So can a Mentor be wrong? Yes.

Re your second question: Can a Mentor and Attractor work against each other? Sure. A perfect example is in The Shawshank Redemption. I consider that to be a Dual Protagonist narrative with Andy and Red each having their own Hero’s Journey. Looking at the story through Red’s perspective, here’s how I see the character archetype lineup:

Protagonist – Red
Nemesis – Institutionalization
Attractor – Andy
Mentor – Brooks
Trickster – Freedom (when he gets released from prison)

Brooks (played wonderfully by James Whitmore) represents what I call dark wisdom in that he’s a Mentor who shows Red the wrong path. How? By gaining his freedom, then choosing to commit suicide. The fact that when Red is released, he goes to work in the same grocery store as Brooks, lives in the same halfway house, and face the same choice Brooks does — find a way to live with freedom or turn against it — spotlights Brooks as Mentor. Indeed Red is sorely tempted to, at least, commit a crime and get sent back to prison:

	INT -- RED'S ROOM -- NIGHT

	Red lies smoking in bed. Unable to sleep. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Terrible thing, to live in fear. 
		Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all 
		too well. All I want is to be back 
		where things make sense. Where I 
		won't have to be afraid all the time. 

	He glances up at the ceiling beam. "Brooks Hatlen was here." 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Only one thing stops me. A promise 
		I made to Andy. 

And what was that promise?

				ANDY 
			(turns back) 
		Red, if you ever get out of here, 
		do me a favor. There's this big 
		hayfield up near Buxton. You know 
		where Buxton is? 

				RED 
			(nods) 
		Lots of hayfields there. 

				ANDY 
		One in particular. Got a long rock 
		wall with a big oak at the north 
		end. Like something out of a Robert 
		Frost poem. It's where I asked my 
		wife to marry me. We'd gone for a 
		picnic. We made love under that 
		tree. I asked and she said yes. 
			(beat) 
		Promise me, Red. If you ever get 
		out, find that spot. In the base of 
		that wall you'll find a rock that 
		has no earthly business in a Maine 
		hayfield. A piece of black volcanic 
		glass. You'll find something buried 
		under it I want you to have. 

				RED 
		What? What's buried there? 

				ANDY 
		You'll just have to pry up that 
		rock and see. 

	Andy turns and walks away. 

Right there we see the choice crystallized: Go the route of the Mentor (Brooks) or Attractor (Andy). And Red’s connection to Andy proves stronger than the dark wisdom of Brooks.

Sometimes in a story, the Protagonist faces a choice: Follow their head or follow their heart. In cases like that, we can use the Mentor and Attractor archetype to physicalize that choice.

[Originally posted May 14, 2011]

Tools, not rules

May 27th, 2013 by

In my current Write a Worthy Nemesis class, the subject arose about Helen’s character in Bridesmaids. Throughout the story, she functions as a Nemesis in relation to Annie, who is the Protagonist. But by the end, Helen mends her ways and joins together with the other bridesmaids to help save Lillian’s wedding, even going so far as to help nudge along the budding romance between Annie and Nathan. Michelle, a writer in the class, asked:

I’m glad you mentioned Helen as the Nemesis in Bridesmaids in this lecture. I’ve heard/read a lot that the Nemesis doesn’t arc in the end (for the most part). They get hit by the karma train and that’s that. In Bridesmaids, Helen and Annie end up teaming together, becoming friends in the end. It makes me wonder if she is first Nemesis and then trickster?

That spawned an energetic discussion and had me digging back into some lectures I’d written years ago, so I posted this:

I used to be pretty hard-assed about a character never changing their primary archetype function. The real reasons for this was I found two things with young writers: (1) They didn’t take the time to really drill down into their key characters to determine what was at their root, what was their core essence. That almost always indicates what their narrative function [archetype] is. Instead they would say, “Oh, he’s a Trickster-Mentor-Attractor.” That doesn’t provide clarity, rather confusion. (2) Per this last point, some would get confused, rather than helped by using archetypes.

So I’d just say flat-out: Whatever primary archetype your character is, they are throughout. They may change masks, but their primary archetype never changes.

That sounds an awful lot like a rule, doesn’t it? And over time, I have found myself moving further and further away from anything that sounds like a rule.

Stories are organic. We need to find our way into their heart and soul to make them come alive.

With screenwriting gurus trumpeting so many formulas and paradigms, that has led to a proliferation of formulaic scripts.

So I have strained out anything I say that can be construed as a rule. Principles, yes. Conventional wisdom, yes. Rules, no.

Circling back, is it possible for a character to change primary archetypes in a screenplay? While atypical, it can happen.

If we look at Bridesmaids and consider Helen’s character as a Nemesis, when she turns at the end, does she transform into a Trickster or more aptly an Attractor? You could make that argument.

Again archetypes are tools, not rules. [Mantra time!]

So that is a brief summary of how my thinking has evolved, mostly in response to the formulaic tripe that comprises a vast majority of the screenplays written in large part due to these formulas and paradigms that have been promulgated, and the writer not going into their story sufficiently enough to connect with the characters and allow them to breathe life into the narrative.

Archetypes are wonderful, but like anything else, when we try to codify them into rules, we run the risk of strangling creativity, spontaneity and squeezing the life-blood out of our stories.

So whatever approach you have to writing, archetypes or otherwise, remember: They are tools, not rules.

U. of Tennessee appearance: Friday, March 1, 2013

February 25th, 2013 by

For any of you GITS readers who happen to live near Knoxville, Tennessee, I will be speaking there this Friday.

maland_myers

If the Hero’s Journey can be said to be a universal structure for story, is there an associated structure of character types? By analyzing several movies, we will explore five primary character archetypes and key concepts articulated by Carl Jung as they relate to narrative, film analysis, and screenwriting. It’s a synthesis of the foundation to character-based screenwriting and much of what I do in the way of teaching at Screenwriting Master Class and the ongoing conversation about the craft here on the blog.

The event this Friday will be an hour-long presentation followed by a Q&A, then reception, and it’s open free to the public.

By the way, if you are affiliated with a film studies or screenwriting program at a university or college, and might be interested in a presentation like this one, get in touch with me. I am passionate about these ideas because I believe they can help take us away from formulaic writing by focusing our attention first and foremost on characters, everything in our stories flowing from there. It’s also a fresh way to do film analysis. So I am excited to promote these concepts wherever I can.

For those of you who will happen to be in Tennessee on Friday, hope to see you there!

Are you good at writing characters?

February 18th, 2013 by

Do your characters come to ‘life’ when you write them?

Do they feel real, compelling, and lift up off the page?

Do they make sense and work together to support your story?

Do you know how to discover what each of their narrative functions is?

In sum, are you good at writing characters?

If so, perhaps you don’t need my new class Character Development Keys.

If not, this unique 1-week online writing class may be just what the doctor ordered. And you don’t even need health insurance to take the class!

The course is part of my Craft series of eight classes aimed at helping writers drill down into specific aspects of the writing practice. Dealing with characters is something we not only have to do on a daily basis, but should do well in order to find the heart and soul of our stories.

Moreover in my approach to character-based screenwriting, by going into your characters, that’s where the story reveals itself, everything from the nuances of each individual to big pictures items like Plotline, subplots, themes, and so on.

In this 1-week online course, you will learn about five archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — and use them to develop your story’s characters and help them come to life.

  • From questionnaires to confessionals to free association, you will learn keys to crafting coherent, compelling and charismatic characters.
  • Workshop some of your own story’s characters and develop them by digging into their respective narrative functions.

Seven lectures written by me, special insider tips, a Character Development Tools sheet, daily forum Q&As, workshop your story with my feedback and comments from classmates, a live teleconference, and most importantly the understanding to become empowered as a writer in working with characters.

Almost nothing excites an agent, manager, producer or studio executive more than reading a script with fully realized, three-dimensional, and compelling characters. Character Development Keys not only helps you to delve into your characters and understand them more thoroughly, it gives you an awareness to help bring your characters — and your story — to life.

The class starts Monday, February 25. I will only be teaching it one time in 2013, so enroll now by going here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you… and your characters!

The Heroine’s Journey: Part 3

April 18th, 2012 by

In a continuing series this week exploring The Hero’s Journey and possible variations on that theme from a feminine perspective, author Kim Hudson (“The Virgin’s Promise”) posted a comment the other day I thought worth spotlighting in its entirety:

The Hero’s journey and the Heroine’s are the same thing to me just as we all have a masculine and a feminine side we can all be heroes. The point is we all have a feminine side as well and we re trying to figure out what that looks like. Thanks to Joseph Campbell we have a really good idea of how to write heroes. Ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call and the eventual crossing of the threshold to a foreign land where the adventure begins. This is the quest to push back the boundaries of mortality and know that you can survive in the bigger world. The bigger the challenger the greater your knowledge of your power.

This is all very familiar, however, none of it gets to the feminine power. As others have noted what we generally see is the female as motivation for the Hero to be amazing. What we’re trying to get at is what does it look like when the feminine is being amazing.

This is the journey of the Virgin archetype. The name has been so misrepresented it is like a master plot to keep it from having an identity. The meaning of Virgin survives when we think of a Virgin forest. It means to be of value just for being yourself. The quest of the Virgin, the feminine, is to awaken to the seed of the divine in you, and bring it to life, despite what everyone else wants from you. It usually happens through spiritual, sexual or creative awakening whether you are an female or male. Great Virgin stories with male leads include The King’s Speech, Brokeback Mountain and Billy Elliot. Great female ones include An Education, Shakespeare in Love, Erin Brockovich, and Legally Blond.

This is the interesting part of the book Hunger Games which the movie left out. Katniss learns that she has the ability to connect to nature and be an amazing hunter (the result of her Virgin Journey). She feels alive when she hunts. Which makes the rewards of the games mean nothing to her. So what is the point of the story?

The Virgin’s journey has 13 beats (see The Virgin’s Promise at mwp.com) and is the awakening of your talent, your authentic nature. It starts in a dependent world, as we all do, where she pays a price for her dependence, usually making herself small to belong,until one day she finds an opportunity to taste what it feels like to be true to herself and she takes it. She admits to herself that she wants something more from life. Now she finds a Secret World where she can grow in her understanding of who she is and moves back and forth between her Secret and Dependent worlds. Creative, sexual or spiritual awakening happens here and it can only flourish in an atmosphere where the Virgin feels safe and loved (unlike the Hero who thrives on progressive challenge). When she has grown into her potential she emerges from the cocoon like a butterfly and presents herself. There is a backlash and she has to choose whether she has the right to inconvenience people, to take up some space in the world, or she will go back to conforming. She decides she has to be true to herself and in the end everyone benefits from knowing the gift she has to bring.

There is a feminine story, but it is not a heroine story. That is the female version of the hero. The feminine story is to explore your interior world and bring it to life, the journey of the Virgin.

This language is quite familiar to me and if any of you have been paying attention to my various movie analyses and my take on the Protagonist metamorphosis, you will see the parallels. I will pick up on that in a concluding post in this series tomorrow. In the meantime, what are your thoughts about this take: The Virgin’s journey?

For background, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The Heroine’s Journey: Part 1

April 16th, 2012 by

Last week I posted this, featuring an article by Caroline Heldman in which she made this point:

“The Hunger Games” is Hollywood’s wake-up call that female action hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT).

Fighting fuck toys are hyper-sexualized female protagonists who are able to “kick ass” (and kill) with the best of them. The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency, weds it to normalized male violence, and appropriates it for the male gaze.

From an ethical standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the damage girls and women sustain growing up in a society with ubiquitous images of sex objects, but they’re not. From a business standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the money they could be making with better female action heroes, but so far, they seem pretty clueless.

Hollywood rolls out FFTs every few years that generally don’t perform well at the box office (think Lara Croft, Elektra, Cat Woman, Sucker Punch), leading executives to wrongly conclude that female action leads aren’t bankable. The problem isn’t their sex. The problem is their portrayal as sex objects, and objects aren’t convincing protagonists. Subjects “act” while objects are “acted upon,” so reducing a female action hero to an object, even sporadically, diminishes her ability to believably carry a storyline. The FFT might have an enviable swagger and do cool stunts, but she’s ultimately a bit of a joke [emphasis added].

In comments, we had an interesting discussion that suggested to me this is a subject worth exploring further. As a self-avowed acolyte of Joseph Campbell and longtime student of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” I am well-acquainted with The Hero’s Journey. I am also quite aware of how Campbell’s ideas about it have often been reduced to formula, a trend I attempted to respond to here, here, here, here, and here.

There is also this: It is a hero’s journey. As much as we may prefer to think of that as gender non-specific, there is plenty of literature and commentary on the subject that suggests the masculine identity of the hero is reflected in the details of the journey, but that there is another way to think of hero archetypes — from a female perspective.

A good recent example is an AlterNet article by Lynn Parramore titled: “Heroine With a Thousand Faces: The Rise of the Female Savior”. Some excerpts:

Hard times were made for heroes. In the face of oppression, it’s natural to want a savior – an intermediary to carry our hopes and dreams of overturning The System. From the wreckage of the Great Depression, a slew of caped crusaders rose, like Superman, corruption-busting Batman, Captain America, and The Shadow, who knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”

Male heroes abound in our culture, virile figures who dazzle us with their wits and brawn. But lately, they just don’t seem to be getting the job done. The cowboy is looking ragged. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero turned governor, turns out to be a run-of-the-mill womanizer and cheat. Far from battling global financiers, Barack Obama bends to the will of bankers. As a network of lawless capitalists and their political puppets squeezes and starves the world’s citizens from Cairo to California, Superman seems to have fled the scene.

Somebody else has leapt onstage. And she’s not wearing a codpiece.

In the most familiar dramas, epics and action stories, women play a small part — usually as idols, temptresses and servants. But the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, with their ass-kicking female protagonists, raises the question: Has the era of the female hero arrived? If so, why now? And what is she trying to tell us?

—-

The traditional presentation of the Young Girl in literature can be summed up in the formula She-Who-Waits. Between childhood and adulthood, the young woman must wait for a male liberator to save her from evil. The male is endowed with riches, power, connections, and moral authority, and it is in the best interests of the girl to become his apprentice or love interest.

But what if there aren’t any male heroes to wait for?

The new narratives presented in the Millennium trilogy and The Hunger Games present apocalyptic realms where grief and rage haunt a population crushed by wealthy and malevolent forces. Men in authority positions are mostly corrupt, and the good men have been shorn of their power. Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist is a down-and-out, middle-aged journalist who has been framed by a powerful financier. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s male reality-show partner Peeta, with his diminutive name, is a beaten-down teenage boy with scant confidence in his physical prowess and mental acumen.

—-

The Young Girl must be transformed if she is to carry the hero’s burden. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar is far less a creature of the male gaze than her predecessors. Defiant, gaunt and sporting a spiky mohawk and prickly Goth accessories, she is an open challenge to the fantasy of soft curves and patriarchal expectations of feminine compliance. A computer hacker, she is resistance incarnate. The psychologically complex Lisbeth echoes the resourcefulness and survival instinct of fairy tale women, who often achieve their ends through masquerade and dissimulation.

Lisbeth’s purpose is not only to survive, but to challenge corporate wealth amassed at the expense of the common good. A victim of rapists, she becomes a superhero, a female Robin Hood who plunders plutocrats and outwits corrupt bureaucrats and policemen.

—-

Like Lisbeth Salander, Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen faces a world in which the state has become corrupted and the people are perceived merely as sources of wealth extraction for elites. Collins, a television writer, is not an overtly political figure in the mold of Larsson, but she has expressed the impact of her father’s service in Vietnam on her view of the brutality and absurdity of war, and she cites his experience of the privations of the Great Depression as inspiration for the survival themes in her books. The Hunger Games appeals to anxieties about government corruption on both the left and the right, manifested in fears of surveillance and a hunger for revolt.

Armed with her Mockingjay emblem – a bird symbol of rebellion that suggests a satirical, subversive stance toward The System – Katniss is tasked with surviving a state-sponsored reality show killing match in which she must rely on both her physical skill and intellect in order to return to her impoverished coal-mining district. Only when Katniss pantomimes compliance before the television camera does she conform to conventional expectations of feminine eroticism. For her, the femininity of curls and frilly dresses is pure artifice — a mask of survival. Her romantic entanglements are equally ambiguous: her life depends on enacting a love affair with Peeta, but while she cares for the hapless boy, she is no lovestruck teenage girl. When she is released into the woods, Katniss is outfitted as Artemis, the hunter– as likely to slay men as to love them.

Both Lisbeth and Katniss extend the limits of what is possible in the stifling worlds they inhabit. Notably, both women display violence – they show, through their physical aggression, the ultimate proof of their subjectivity. They are committed to their own survival — quite the opposite of the martyrdom and physical sacrifice traditionally demanded of female saviors. But they also show openness to collaboration with both men and women that points to the limitations of the lone-cowboy-hero model and the traditional gender dynamic of male dominance/female servitude.

For these female characters, the waiting game of young womanhood is supplanted by active conquest, and the path is opened for independent, strong-willed and admirable heroines. The ethical, intelligent, fearless female becomes the preeminent challenge to sinister, intangible forces. Mold-breaking female protagonists subvert the rules of a rigged game in a way that is all the more thrilling and cathartic for their break with tradition.

There are many layers to this subject and many points of entry to discuss it. Simply looking at it from the perspective of screenwriting, we would be blind not to notice the remarkable success of Lisbeth and Katniss as heroine figures in the Millennium and “Hunger Game” series. At the very least we can probably all agree on this: In a culture of movies, TV series, and books dominated by male Protagonists, there can be something especially interesting approaching a story from the vantage point of a female Protagonist. We have seen male heroes in male hero roles for decades. Starting with a female hero — a S-Hero as they are sometimes called — can provide a unique, even fresh approach to these type of sagas.

But there are so many other questions:

* Is The Heroine’s Journey the same as The Hero’s Journey?

* If so, how and what?

* Is a female hero substantively any different from a male hero?

* If a female follows the path of a Hero’s Journey, does that not make them in essence a ‘male’ character?

* Likewise if there is, indeed, an equivalent Heroine’s Journey, if a male followed that path, would that not make them in essence a ‘female’ character?

* Why are most heroes in stories males?

* Are there things writers can learn about writing a male hero by studying female heroes?

* Are there things writers can learn about writing a female hero by studying male heroes?

What I propose to do is open the floor to a discussion of this subject on all fronts. I start with Parramore’s article to frame the discussion, and have several more to use as the centerpiece of posts over the course of this week.

What I’m hoping for is a wide-ranging and beneficial conversation about The Hero’s Journey and The Heroine’s Journey, grounded in a question aimed specifically at writers: Are there unique opportunities in today’s culture to write stories with a female Protagonist?

I ask this question not because I’m trying to be politically correct, rather as noted above, you’d have to be stupid not to see the enormous success of “The Hunger Games” and the Millennium series. Something is going on. Perhaps it’s as simple as Lisbeth and Katniss being two well-drawn Protagonists, regardless of gender. Or maybe there is something more at work, that in the Zeitgeist, there is an opening, even a desire to see stories with female heroes.

If there is, what can we learn this week to help us understand the unique dynamics at play? Are these stories that have to be shaped in a precise way to fly with Hollywood or are we free to cut loose with conventions if we choose to write stories with female heroes?

For the rest of Parramore’s article, go here.

HT to my good friend and Jung scholar Morgan Gould for forwarding me the article.

Tomorrow: A closer look at The Heroine’s Journey.

“Universal themes” in Pixar movies

March 15th, 2012 by

From a discussion in my current “Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling” class, Ben O’Rourke raised the subject of affect images: images that bypass logic and thinking and hit us right in the gut. My response:

“Affect images” is an interesting idea connecting to writing of any sort, but perhaps especially in relation to Pixar. After all their background as storytellers is grounded in animation, so they are visual by instinct and training.

That might go a long way toward explaining a basic relationship to “images.” But what about the “affect” part?

Here when you talk about images that “hit us right in the gut,” I think what we see going on in large part with Pixar movies is their use, most likely consciously so, of universal themes, or what Jung called “archetypes”.

Here is a nice overview of Jung’s ideas in this regard:

Archetypes constitute the structure of the collective unconscious – they are psychic innate dispositions to experience and represent basic human behavior and situations. Thus mother-child relationship is governed by the mother archetype. Father-child – by the father archetype. Birth, death, power and failure are controlled by archetypes. The religious and mystique experiences are also governed by archetypes.

The most important of all is the Self, which is the archetype of the Center of the psychic person, his/her totality or wholeness. The Center is made of the unity of conscious and unconscious reached through the individuation process.

Archetypes manifest themselves through archetypal images (in all the cultures and religious doctrines), in dreams and visions. Therefore a great deal of Jungian interest in psyche focuses on dreams and symbols interpretation in order to discover the compensation induced by archetypes as marks of psyche transformation.

The collective unconscious is an universal datum, that is, every human being is endowed with this psychic archetype-layer since his/her birth. One can not acquire this strata by education or other conscious effort because it is innate.

We may also describe it as a universal library of human knowledge, or the sage in man, the very transcendental wisdom that guides mankind.

The themes [or archetypes] are universal not only because of their omnipresence in the human experience, Jung claimed that we all share them as a “universal datum” — the collective unconscious — since our birth.

So when we as writers use certain narrative images in our stories, those images can elicit a response – or ‘affect’ – in readers or viewers based on their own individual life experience and their connection to this collective unconscious.

Whether you subscribe to this latter notion or not, the simple fact is universal themes are powerful narrative agents. Just one quick look at Pixar movies demonstrates their embrace of this idea with themes like life, death, family, father, mother, The Other, and so on laced throughout their stories.

In Friday’s lecture, we will consider a universal theme that is present in almost every Pixar movie: separation.

Perhaps the theme that is most central to Pixar movies is identity. Think about their movies in relation to the question: Who am I? This is a question with which we deal as human beings our entire lives, but perhaps most especially as a child when we go through so many changes on all fronts. Pixar movies are always aimed at children, then at everyone else, so it should not be surprising they traffic in this fundamental question of self-identity.

But a further key to how they handle this particular universal them is the fact they almost always frame the question through relationships. That is one reason why, I think, they have so many stories with strange sojourners [Lecture 4], characters finding self-definition in relationship to other characters [you will note how often Mary Coleman uses the word "relationship" in our conversation].

So to sum up, this idea of “affect images” is a good one re Pixar for at least two reasons. First “images” speaks to the visual nature of movies. Second “affect” opens a door to how stories resonate with us and Pixar’s use of universal themes to do precisely that.

Because Pixar movies are animated and they are rated PG, people may tend to think of them as “family” movies in the sense that they are skewed young. I think we can flip that take on the term “family” in relation to Pixar to mean universal in that their films speak to the human family: boys, girls, men, women. It’s a plus, I believe, that their target audience is children because that forces them to deal with concrete, identifiable story themes and narrative dynamics. That doesn’t mean they are simple, rather in Pixar’s hands they burrow deep into basic themes to find a universe of meaning.

By the way, if you are not a parent or somehow have bypassed Pixar movies because you may think they are skewed young, I encourage you to check them out. And if I may make a suggestion, start with Up or Finding Nemo which deal with some big themes in a uniquely Pixar way: directly and yet with sophistication.

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

October 28th, 2011 by

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we explored Hollywood’s default business strategy of ‘similar but different’ from the vantage point of movie studios. In the fourth post here, we shifted the perspective to the writer’s side of things by considering powerful tools available to writers — archetypes — how they can be used to transform a ‘similar but different’ story into its own unique and compelling narrative.

But that’s only part of the story. Character archetypes and narrative archetypes do not exist in a vacuum. Properly understood, they serve a story’s central organizing principle: its psychological journey.

In any script, there are the events that transpire in the External World, the domain of what the reader can see (Action) and hear (Dialogue). I call this the Plotline.

There are also a related movements that occur in the Internal World, the domain of what the reader can sense (Intention) and interpret (Subtext). I call this the Themeline.

The Plotline and Themeline comprise the two realms of the Screenplay Universe.

Throughout the course of a story, events in the External World impact characters. They process and assimilate what happens which causes a change in their attitude in the Internal World. In turn that shift in perspective gets reflected in how they act back in the External World.

So throughout a story, there is this recurring dynamic — action, reaction, action, reaction — that plays out like a dance between Plotline and Themeline.

The result of that is the Psychological Journey. A character begins the story in one Psyche State and over time through a series of actions and reactions ends up in quite another Psyche State.

[Almost all movies feature a Protagonist going through some sort of metamorphosis].

To the degree we as writers create a compelling psychological journey [or set of psychological journeys] in a story, the more likely we are to entice the reader into our story universe. Furthermore a ‘similar but different’ story can evolve into a compelling experience for a reader. In other words, the specifics of a character’s psychological journey can transform a familiar narrative into a unique one.

Yesterday we looked at the Coen brothers’ remake True Grit to explore that story’s use of character and narrative archetypes. Today let’s examine another remake — the most obvious example of the ‘similar but different’ mentality — with the script we have been analyzing this week: The Thing.

In the 1951 original (The Thing From Another World), the story’s psychological journey was focused on the group of men and women banding together to successfully defeat an alien force. The psychological journey of the remake is substantially different:

* Unlike the original, the remake’s take on the Thing is that the alien has the capability to enter into a human’s body and transform itself into an imitative version of its host. This sets into motion the primary component of the story’s psychological journey for its characters: Paranoia. Who has been ‘infected’? Who is for us? Who is against us? Have I been infected? Is my or their behavior a sign of the infection?

* Instead of a more typical Hero’s Journey as reflected in the 1951 version of the movie, where the crew defeats the Thing, the remake is a much darker affair: alien kills humans, humans kill humans, humans kill alien. Eventually as witness in the story’s denouement, what is left is two human beings [MacReady and Childs] playing a game of chess, awaiting their eventual death either due to Antarctica’s unrelenting winter or the emergence of the alien presence in one or both of the characters.

In effect, every character in The Thing plays a Trickster — at points they are allies, at other points enemies — until eventually their real nature is revealed.

In terms of narrative archetypes — the tribe versus outsider, underdog, Hero’s Journey, metamorphosis [with an alien twist] — each of these dynamics serve the story’s psychological journey, the devastating impact of paranoia and inevitable decline into violence. In other words the remake of The Thing is a transformed movie experience precisely because of its radically different psychological journey.

To sum up our own journey through this series of posits this week, while we may be inclined to look at Hollywood’s fixation on ‘similar but different’ movies as a negative, I would encourage us to keep in mind movies like True Grit and The Thing, remakes which use elements — character archetypes, narrative archetypes, psychological journey — that demonstrate how writers have the opportunity with any story to transform that which is familiar into that which is unique.

As writers, we have the tools to do this. All that’s required is an understanding of those tools, careful use of them, creativity, and the passion to create distinctive stories.