Writing Character Motivation & Psychology

By | Friday, October 19, 2012 1 comment
A lot of my reading filters back into comics in some fashion. Art, technology, history, whatever... it's frequently in service to getting a better understanding of comics. One book I'm currently reading for exactly that purpose is Alexandra Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!). It's largely about the mechanics of writing and, while it's heavily geared towards movies, much of it is applicable to comics as well. (Not that I'm planning on writing a comic myself, mind you! This is so I have a better understanding of what writers are doing -- or trying to do -- in their comics.)

In any event, here's a passage I came across today, talking about how frequently a protagonist's main challenge in any given story is an echo of his/her own past...
This recreation and reliving of a past trauma is a staple of drama for a reason: a lot of psychologists would say that that's the human condition, the "repetition compulsion", Freud called it: we all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma(s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.
This is Batman seeking vengeance against the criminal who shot his parents, and Spider-Man stopping the burglar that eventually killed his Uncle Ben. You're probably familiar with the idea at some level, even if you've never had spelled out quite like that before.

One of the things Sokoloff returns to repeatedly in the book is making lists. Your top ten favorite movies, your top ten favorite heroes, your top ten favorite story endings, etc. His thinking, which he states quite plainly, is that you respond to a particular aspect of storytelling as an individual, and that will likely show up in your favorites. What type of stories do you prefer, what type of heroes are you attracted to. In making those lists, it becomes more evident where your preferences lie and you can study those particulars to make better use of them in your own writing since you clearly gravitate towards them anyway.

Here's a thought, then, that I haven't seen in the book yet. (Though I'm only on chapter eight; Sokoloff might touch on this later.) He asks you to make those lists as a reader/viewer. He doesn't ask what movie has the best cinematography or is the most tightly plotted, he asks what's your favorite. Though his thinking is get you to see patterns in your own reading/viewing preferences in order to better understand your own writing. But even though that quoted passage above was written to apply to your characters, it's based off very real psychiatry, so couldn't it apply to you as well?

What comic books are your favorites? Make a list of your personal top ten of all time. Are you seeing any patterns there? In theme? In character?

Now suppose you were writing a story with utilizing some of the same elements you saw patterned out in your lists. Suppose the plot of the story is something you're exceedingly familiar with: your own life right up to this very second. The only real difference is that, instead of you, your protagonist is a combination of your favorite heroes. Not any one of them in particular, but there's probably going to be some commonalities among many of them; make your character basically an amalgam of your top ten favorites. With that plot and that character, what would they do to get to the 'happily ever after' at the end of the story?

Now, why aren't you doing that?

I was reading Sokoloff's book to better understand and analyze the fiction I read, but it surprisingly turned out to have a self-help book embedded inside it.
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Tom Murphy said...

Hi - another useful book that works along similar lines is Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick (published by Michael Wiese).

It gives a quick breakdown of some of the major schools of thought and theories, and suggests how they can feed into your characters, plots etc.