My upcoming trade paperback, The Power of Truth: Creating Characters Who are Detectives, Secret Keepers, Skeptics, and More is in final galley form. The book discusses at length what a Power of Truth Story is and what the emotional parameters of Power of Truth character are.
Power of Truth characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, secretive enemies and concealed pitfalls. This character’s philosophy might be stated: “Everyone is hiding something.” “Trust no one.” “Question everything.” The story keeps these characters off balance, doubting those around them, and uncertain about their own perceptions.
A character driven by the Power of Truth is often the protagonist in mystery stories, mistaken or hijacked identity stories, investigative stories and detective stories. In an ensemble cast, these characters are frequently secret keepers, strategists, counselors or advisers. In whatever role they play, they look beneath the surface of things to discover what lies below or is somehow hidden from view. They believe that nothing is ever what it seems.
Many other different kinds of films and novels deal with investigation, crime, conspiracy, and deception. Not all of them are Power of Truth stories. The key is to determine what the mystery, the chase, the crime, or the investigation reveals about the main character: What is actually at the root of the illegal act, the murder, the conspiracy, the unusual phenomena, or the disturbing occurrence?
What does the solution — and how that solution is obtained — reveal about the protagonist’s view of the world, about his or her presumed place in the world or self-identified role, or about the character’s philosophy of life and love?
How is the protagonist’s essential human struggle portrayed over the course of the story? What does the story tells us about what that character values most highly?
The answers to these questions determine what kind of story it is and what kind of protagonist pursues this line of inquiry. Understanding and using story specifics and clearly delineating your character creates the kind of compelling story that are emotionally authentic and which “feel real” to audiences.
POWER OF CONSCIENCE STORIES
Erin Brockovich, To Kill a Mockingbird, Silkwood and The Insider all involve some kind of criminal conspiracy. In these stories a crime is committed or evidence is falsified or covered-up. The protagonist wants to expose these crimes and stop the wrongdoers. There is duplicity and deceit in each of these stories. But these stories are not Power of Truth stories. They explore the Power of Conscience.
Power of Conscience characters instinctively know when something is wrong, unjust, unfair, improper, corrupt, or morally out of line. Their judgment and response is swift and immutable. They are propelled forward by personal outrage and moral indignation, usually on another’s behalf.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Conscience character is to become morally bankrupt or become a failure in his or her own eyes (i.e. not living up to his or her own high standards).
In Erin Brockovich, To Kill a Mockingbird, Silkwood and The Insider the protagonist is clear about what happened (or is happening), what is morally right or wrong, and who is to blame. The story struggle, then, is primarily about what to do to right the wrong.
All of these stories revolve around the question: “If I am my brother’s keeper how far must I go on his behalf?”
The Power of Conscience character’s answer to the above question is usually: “All the way.”
Once the character has decided to right the wrong, the question becomes how to prevail. This character’s pursuit of justice costs him or her dearly. This character often damages, gives up, or loses his or her job, family, or other important relationships. He or she often suffers staggering personal or financial losses during the story journey.
Power of Conscience stories are primarily about law vs. justice; answering the call to one’s higher duty; standing up for one’s moral code; and, taking responsibility for or sacrificing for another’s welfare. These are very different issues from those at the core of Power of Truth stories.
POWER OF AMBITION STORIES
The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can and The Talented Mr. Ripley all involve crimes and cover-ups to a greater or lesser degree. An element of active deception is involved in all four stories. But, again, these stories are not Power of Truth stories. In the ETB method they are defined as novels or films that are driven by the Power of Ambition.
A character driven by the Power of Ambition can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit– or a lying, manipulative, deceitful backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life.
These kinds of protagonists can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one. Or they can be whores (real or metaphoric), frauds, fakers, or con artists, always on the hustle and one step ahead of the law. In any case, maintaining their status, popularity, illusion of success, or perceived social importance is key.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Ambition character is failing in the eyes of others or failing in the eyes of the world.
In The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the protagonist knows that what he or others are doing is wrong or illegal. Each protagonist proceeds anyway, in order to achieve or maintain the image of wealth, prestige, status, or position he so desperately craves.
All of these stories are primarily about how much a protagonist is willing to compromise morally, professionally, or personally for material or social gain.
As Power of Ambition characters abandon their moral scruples one by one to obtain their goal, they are willing to lie, cheat, steal, or even commit murder to get ahead. They are acutely aware of others’ opinions and are willing to use any kind of fraud, trick, or deception to maintain the illusion of their social standing or external success.
In the end, when these characters have nearly lost everything that matters on a human scale, they often reform their ways and “do the right thing.” If the story is a tragedy, they continue in their illegal or illicit ways until they and everything that matters to them is hollowed out, corrupted, or destroyed.
POWER OF WILL STORIES
The Godfather Trilogy, Scarface, The Last Seduction and The Sopranos all involve criminal activity, the suppression of evidence, and the murder of anyone who interferes. But not one of these are Power of Truth stories. In the ETB method, these are stories are propelled by the Power of Will.
Power of Will characters are strong, lusty, larger-than-life protagonists and ferocious, indomitable adversaries. They are absolutely ruthless, stop at nothing, and are willing to use extreme violence to achieve their objectives.
These characters are relentless and unyielding. They want it all. They mean to get it all and they know just how to do it. These are big characters who fill the screen with energy, determination, and the lust for life, sex, money, or power.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Will character is to be dominated, controlled, or emasculated by others.
The protagonists in The Godfather Trilogy, Scarface, The Last Seduction and The Sopranos do whatever wrong they must do to survive, to expand territory, or to conquer or dominate others. There is little struggle with morality. Everything comes down to the law of the jungle– kill or be killed. There is no ambiguity or uncertainty. Life is a battlefield. Might makes right. Winner takes all.
Never showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability is the key to every decision this character makes and every action a Power of Will protagonist takes.
These characters insist: “I had no choice. I had to protect myself, my empire, or my family.”
They sacrifice tenderness, kindness, any sense of mercy, or forgiveness to dominate the situation, This leads inevitably to the loss of their humanity, their soul, and often their lives.
Those who live by sword tend to die by the sword. The only salvation for these characters is to connect with innocence. They must become true protectors of the weak and vulnerable rather than preying on those who are an easy target.
POWER OF REASON STORIES
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Professional, and In the Bedroom all involve criminal activity, murder, and cover-ups. But none of these stories are Power of Truth stories either. In the ETB method these stories revolve around the Power of Reason.
A character driven by the Power of Reason is most often the expert, a technician, scientist, or professional observer in a story. These characters are calm, cool, and efficient problem-solvers who who often experience difficulty with personal and social interactions.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Reason character is to be overwhelmed by emotion, lose his or her objectivity, or to discover that the world is not a rational place.
Power of Reason stories are driven by logical deduction. These characters believe that there is a reasonable explanation for everything and emotion is the enemy of objectivity and rationality. They believe in science and hard facts. They don’t suffer fools and often experience some kind of profound alienation from society.
Dr. Gregory House, the medical detective and master diagnostician in the television series House, is another great example of this kind of character and story.
Dr. House investigates each medical mystery with keen powers of observation, a razor sharp intellect, and penetrating logical deductions. He is alienated from everyone and manages to alienate those around him. A patient is more of a puzzle to be solved than a human being to be nurtured and healed.
In Power of Reason stories, ambiguity and deception might be hiding the solution to the problem or the crime, but the protagonist is absolutely clear-headed, often to the point of near inhuman dispassion.
There is little personal or emotional investment in Power of Reason investigations. The problem or mystery is merely a difficult riddle to be unraveled.
Salvation for these characters lies in embracing spontaneity and admitting the strength of emotion, the power of the spirit and the spiritual, and the other intangible mysterious forces in life.
POWER OF EXCITEMENT STORIES
The early James Bond movies, the Indiana Jones movies, Cool Hand Luke, and Iron Man, all involve criminal activity, conspiracies by those intent on world domination or personal oppression, or evil destructive plots of one sort or another.
But not one of these are Power of Truth stories. In the ETB method these are Power of Excitement stories. Explosions, fast paced adrenaline rushes and last-minute escapes are hallmarks of these kinds of stories.
Power of Excitement stories are all about narrow escapes, the thrill of the chase, the next dangerous diversion, or another daring escapade. Whether risking twenty days in “the hole” or facing almost certain death by way of snakes, sharks, or an evil international cartel, main characters in Power of Excitement stories always remain witty, charming, and boyishly up-beat.
The worst thing that could happen to a Power of Excitement character is to be trapped, boxed in, cornered, limited, contained, or domesticated.
These characters are determined to remain free spirits, agents provocateur, and untamed “wild things.”
Power of Excitement characters are usually agents of chaos in rebellion against established authority. Their rakish push-the-envelop devil-may-care attitude shakes things up in a story. Their charm, ready wit, and natural talent as an escape artist or improvisor is what usually saves the day.
Deception, betrayal, and treachery are taken in stride with a smile or a smirk, an ironic comment, a snappy retort, or a careless shrug. These characters don’t seem to take anything or anyone too seriously.
In turn, they believe their charm, good humor, and amusing personality should entitle them to an infinite supply of forgiveness, unlimited “do-overs”, and countless “second chances.”
Power of Excitement stories are all about maintaining an almost adolescent refusal to be serious, grow up, or conform in any way to authority. These characters live for the thrill of getting in and out of trouble and tend not to learn very much along the way.
POWER OF LOVE STORIES
Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash, Rush Hour, and 48 Hours all involve criminal activity, murder, drugs, and cover-ups. But they aren’t Power of Truth stories either. These tales revolve around the Power of Love .
Male-driven Power of Love stories are buddy movies. The crime, the caper, or the conspiracy is secondary to the relationship between the two partners.
In each of these stories, the partners are different as night and day. They don’t like each other but are forced to work together because of some bureaucratic mix up, a boss’ order, or some other unavoidable situation.
Over the course of the story, the partners exchange “gifts”.
Each partner brings a different talent, a different perspective, a different background, or a different attitude which proves crucial to the partnership. These differences are key to the successful outcome of the case or the resolution of the puzzle.
Neither partner can achieve the objective, solve the mystery, or apprehend the criminal, without the other’s gifts or skills.
Over the course of the story, the two partners initially develop a grudging respect. This hard-earned friendship eventually turns into the kind of loyalty which makes each character willing to take a bullet for the other.
Any two kinds of characters can come together in a Power of Love story. The purpose of the crime or case (which typically is very forgettable) brings two distinct partners together in an unforgettable relationship.
POWER OF IDEALISM STORIES
I recently watched the film adapted from the play Equus. A young man inexplicably blinds six horses at the stable where he worked as an otherwise caring stable hand. He is committed to a mental institution and an experienced psychiatrist tries to solve the mystery and heal the boy.
The story involves duplicity, self-deception, and a horrific crime. But this isn’t a Power of Truth story, either. Equus is a Power of Idealism story in the ETB method.
A character driven by the Power of Idealism wants to stand out from the crowd, to be extraordinary, unique and special. These characters believe that life and love should involve a grand passion. They see the world in terms of sweeping epic poetry or as a struggle of operatic proportions.
Intensity of feeling– either good or bad– makes this character’s life worth living. Power of Idealism characters believe it is better to be in pain than to feel nothing at all. Being content and complacent feels like a slow death sentence to these characters.
The worst thing that could happen to Power of Idealism character is to be boring or bored, unexceptional, under-rated, mediocre, or completely ordinary.
Dr. Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), the psychiatrist in Equus, is a disillusioned Power of Idealism character. He wonders if healing the boy of his passion and madness, only to send him into a world of monotony and dull routine, is a noble thing to do.
This film is about the price of passion and whether pain is the price of being truly alive even if for only a horrifying or intensely mad moment.
Dr. Dysart says: “Passion, you see, can only be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created”.
WHO THE MAIN CHARACTER IS DETERMINES
WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT
The key to an emotionally satisfying story is to determine what the mystery, the chase, or the investigation reveals about the character.
What is at the root of the crime, the murder, the conspiracy, the unusual phenomena, or strange occurrence?
What does the solution, and how it is obtained, say about the protagonist’s view of the world, his or her philosophy, and essential human struggle?
The plot, the investigation, or the inquiry is the way a character reveals him or her self. Character is action. The actions a character takes over the course of the story tells the audience what the character truly values and what the hear of the story is.