My Influences, Inspirations & Indebtedness

People often ask me “how did you come up with all this Emotional Toolbox stuff?”  In a live seminar or workshop I can take a moment to explain to what and to whom I am indebted and how I have built on the ideas or concepts that inspired me.  I decided to take some time to talk about my influences on this website– something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now.

Probably the biggest single influence on my work has been my four years of graduate study with Professor Howard Suber, UCLA’s (and in my opinion, the world’s) foremost film theorist.  His ideas about character development, film structure, the role of myth, classic storytelling, how heroes are made and broken, scene structure, persona, conflict, deception, transformation, transcendence and pattern recognition are present and deeply grounded at the base of all my work.  Prof. Suber’s books, The Power of Film, Letters to a Young Filmmaker, and his website are HERE. Thanks also to all the great teachers and colleagues at UCLA who have supported me and helped me clarify my own thinking.

The Character Map was developed over ten years of trial and error with my UCLA graduate students.  The diamond shape is key because it represents or symbolizes dynamic tension.  In many cultures and traditions the diamond is a visual representation of the self or the soul.

“…The Self is symbolized with special frequency in the form of a stone…. The nuclear center, the Self, also appears as a crystal…. The crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme opposites – of matter and spirit.”
– M.-L. von Franz, “The Process of Individuation,” in Man and his Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung

“…The Self is symbolized with special frequency in the form of a stone…. The nuclear center, the Self, also appears as a crystal…. The crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme opposites – of matter and spirit.”

– M.-L. von Franz, “The Process of Individuation,” in Man and his Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung

Jung developed a four quadrant diamond to help define personality.  I use the diamond construct somewhat differently, based on six questions, to map both how a character is transformed over the course of a story and the tensions and conflicts involved in that transformation.

This map is a visual representation of the character’s emotional journey and how the character reaches for his or her highest truest self or falls to the dark side (ending in tragedy).  The diamond shape charts the struggle between what the character wants and what the character needs– the tension between and the opposite polarities of matter (and material or worldly success) and the spirit (transcendence, authenticity, and balance).

I believe all plot comes from character.  Although all practitioners have contributed greatly to our understand of film and story, I differ from Robert McKee, John Truby, and other advocates of specific structural steps.  I believe there is a danger in focusing on a fixed structural construct in that a character can often be shoe-horned into a plot structure to serve the writer’s purpose (and not to illuminate the character’s individual emotional transformation).  In addition, we live in a post structural society.  Social, political, and even dramatic structures are being broken down and remade.  Writers are playing with time, point of view, multi-character focus, and non-linear narrative in ways that make traditional story structure of less use.

I believe every story should simply have a beginning, middle and end.  With a clearly constructed Character Map, it doesn’t matter in what order you tell the story– the character will still make sense and “feel real” no matter how the plot is structured.

In general, audiences are much more forgiving of lapses in plot that create logic problems than emotional lapses that create inauthentic characters.  If a character is original, true, vivid and emotionally compelling it doesn’t much matter what he or she does.  The character can still be compulsively watchable.  If a character doesn’t “feel real” or is emotionally inauthentic by and large you’ve lost the audience.  You can have perfect plot structure and still play to an empty theater because the audience isn’t invested emotionally in the story.

Building on the the Character Map are my Nine Character Types.  I am not a trained psychologist, although I do look at the inner conflicts in a character and his or her psychological make up.  A psychologist looks at human personality in all of its contradictions and complexity.  I look at how to condense and concentrate the character to his or her essence in a screenplay or teleplay.  I ask, “what is most true about the character?”  Then I look at how the story highlights, underlines, and supports these most essential  qualities. (Or detracts from or muddles them.)

In this area I am particularly indebted to the ancient Sufi Enneagram system (which has been updated by more modern adherents).  This system divides personalities into nine types but I personally have found the system, in its entirety, most useful for psychologists and too complicated for use in building fictional characters within the limitations of television and film writing.  The system’s use of wings, sub-types, instinctual centers, and stress and security points exposes the human personality in all its vast array of contradictions and complications.  Life is chaotic and confusing.  Stories are not.

I have reformulated this more complicated approach into a process that looks at a streamlined group of dynamic tensions– immediate tactics (how does the character respond when surprised), long term orientation (how does the character’s philosophy of life and love shape their overall responses), and strategic approach (how does the character respond to challenges they anticipate or go after the things they want).

Everyone who works in the film and television industries stands on the shoulders of those who came before them.  Each person adds their contribution to the body of knowledge and ways of working.  The Character Map and the streamlined dramatic use of the Nine Character Types is my contribution.

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