“Just as a personality structure can be disclosed through psychoanalysis, the shape of a scene’s inner life can be uncovered through a similar inquiry.” Robert McKee
There’s no question that Psychology & Story are connected. I know. I’ve lived in the headspace of Story for over 4o years. As a psychoanalyst, I listen to my patients tell their stories and find words for how those stories reveal what makes them tick. Using movies and their characters, I can show you what I do, help you deepen your understanding of character development and its psychology, and tell you what “makes or breaks” a character’s story. Sometimes it’s easy to “get it.” Sometimes it’s not.
Do you want to know whether the story you’re writing speaks to us, your audience? Here’s what you need to do. Put yourself in the shoes of your characters’ childhoods and it’s there that you’ll awaken the subtext.
That’s where story and psychology connect.
A character’s inner life begins in a childhood’s primitive urges, fantasies, experiences, and traumas.
It’s the truth of an inner life that brings a film alive, impels a character to do what they do (or don’t), and makes someone relatable. That’s the subtext, where, to a psychoanalyst like me, the unconscious story speaks the loudest and is most clear.
Many of you know this, but maybe it bears repeating. Subtext informs behavior, fantasies, longings, conflicts, successes, or failures in love and life. Those cries and whispers, lingering ghosts living inside, drive your story. Yet, most stories don’t come together without struggle or doubt. Not all characters easily or palatably divulge their roots.
Get Into Your Inner Life To Know Your Character’s
In Joseph Campbell’s words: “The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind … the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives.”
Can we let these vapors in, unwanted or not; allow a character to speak? After all, the feeling-impact of any character’s story means unearthing the roots, the tangles and webs, woven out of childhood memories, experiences, trauma, hurt, and disappointments. And, that means knowing your own.
As Campbell says: “We remain fixated to the unexorcised images of our infancy, and thus disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood.” If we know where a character (or for me, a patient) is stuck, we can go on their journey, one that has its own shapes and sounds, colors and images. That’s where psychology and subtext unite.
Roy Schafer, Ph.D., (December 14, 1922 – August 5, 2018), an American psychoanalyst, who highlighted the idea of narrative and wrote about “re-telling a life” says this: “… in any and every telling of anything … there’s always more than one way to tell it.” We are all different. Every character is different. And, that in a nutshell is, and depends on, the subtext. Knowing your own, is key.
Speaking to the Subtext
“Different people construct experiences of the same event differently, each for reasons of his or her own. Many of these reasons originate early in life and therefore give rise to primitive forms of emotional and cognitive experience, and these persist unconsciously and influentially into adult life. They also add individual coloring to otherwise standardized responses to the conventions of one’s culture.” This, too, Schafer tells us.
Yes, the subtext is the real story, the life that brews below the surface; the life we as an audience must feel. “As a director, what I’m trying to do is “just find the life, ” says Deborah Chow, director, “The Sin” and “The Reckoning,” in Disney+, The Mandalorian.
That “life” makes a character stand out, draws us into a film, and helps us to relate. We may be different, but deep in our feelings, we’re not. Not in our complexities or hidden struggles. “Give me the same thing, only different,” Blake Snyder counsels us wisely.
We all have hidden stories. We come to film and TV to find them, in a medium that is us but at a comfortably safe distance. As Robert McKee says: “Like radio transmitters, one subconscious tunes to another as our instincts sense the churnings within characters; in the echoes of a character’s thoughts, we hear our own …”
Writing for believable and relatable subtext is what matters. A character’s “history,” behavior, symptoms, and conflicts in love, life, and with themselves, must fit together. That’s the not-so-easy challenge, but a necessary one. Psychological truth lives there.
History Matters In Psychology & Story
T.C. Boyle, known for writing character-driven fiction, speaks of the writer’s role in a recent LA Times Festival of Books interview on his new novel, The Harder They Come. Here is what he says “This is the beauty of fiction. We may not like these characters, but we inhabit them.”
It’s so true. Knowing how to empathically live inside a character’s experience (or in my work, a client’s) is the only way to know them. And, to do so, the writer must not only listen to their characters’ intentions but also know their history.
History matters – that is if your audience is going to resonate and find some truth. If a writer doesn’t know where their characters have been and what historical forces are still acting upon them, their stories will either be one-dimensional, fall flat, or go nowhere.
Here are two examples, one from film and one TV, that could have used a script therapist to flesh out a character’s history: Jane Bannon’s character in Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 Wind River and 5 characters in John Ridley’s 2015-2017 TV series American Crime. And, also, a play, Buyer & Cellar, where an actor considered his personal history and the character worked.
How do you best reveal the puzzle pieces of a character? In McKee’s language: Listen for and write to “the depths of the unsaid and unsayable.” There you find a character’s entangled intricacies (and our own) – the unconscious story just below the surface.
There, too, you find the story of what creates their inner conflicts, getting in the way of who they want to be. From this we, and the characters we create, must break free.
There Is No Story Without Conflict
“There is no story without conflict.” (McKee) Conflict is what trips us up and brings some of you to my office…
McKee nails it again: “There is no story without conflict.” It’s true, conflict is what trips us up and brings some of you to my office. And, every day, I tune my eyes and ears towards the unconscious sources of those conflicts. We all live inside conflict we can’t see. It’s what makes us human, tears us apart. and from what we need help to heal.
How do you tell, that story? What is your character doing (or not doing) and why? How did it all start? What’s the Ariadne’s thread? Your audience wants to “retell” the story inside themselves: to understand the conflict’s origins, to know how change is possible.
To change means battling the psyche’s Minotaur to save the Child self, the one living in the subtext of long ago. Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each character is unhappy for different reasons. So, find those reasons, the roots of them, the ways your character tries to manage or escape.
Managing Conflict For Better Or Worse?
We do different things with conflict. Run from it. Get overtaken by it, stuck in it, paralyzed by it, or we repeat our original stories. Behaviors driven by conflict interfere with what we want and need. We become depressed, hopeless, driven to alcohol or drugs to find a “way out.” We get angry and explode. We’re terrified of how we feel.
Conflict – specific and individual – is what propels each of our stories. It’s what makes a character real. Yet, what is it that brings resolution? Or what creates such fear that opposing forces lead us to self-destruction or bring us to the precipice of a wrong turn?
We can’t answer this unless we discover what makes any one person do what they do. That’s why, to me, we have to be what Ingmar Bergman was, I know I do in my own work. “He’s a camera. He looks at you and sees everything.” And, because he did and could, through Bergman’s films, we feel.
Truth Is in the Feelings
“Concentrate only on that which is feeling … then nothing of this will not be true and right.” (Bergman)
Bergman said this about his writing process, on January 9, 1978, in a workbook entry from his Munich years: “I think what’s needed is to undo every kind of commonsense logic, every conceivable chain of cause and effect and concentrate only on that which is feeling and feeling and feeling, then nothing of this will not be true and right.”
Every serious writer writes from feeling. That’s essential or stories don’t hold. So, being open to feeling is a quest for every writer, actor, and for me, a psychoanalyst. Truth is in feelings. The title of psychoanalyst Michael Eigen’s book tells it all: “Feeling Matters.”
“Movies are intricately made emotion machines,” quips Blake Snyder. Might it, then, be that feeling is necessary to creativity, to telling a story, to making us feel it? Perhaps, we can take it from some of the best – the importance of using feeling to create:
Susan Sontag: “If only I could feel about sex as I do about, writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”
Jack Kerouac: “Something that you feel will find its own form.” “No time for poetry but exactly what is.” “Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog.”
Anais Nin: “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
Sigmund Freud: “our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds … not a little of this effect is due to a writer’s enabling us … to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.”
Making Connections From Feelings
As a writer, you communicate your unconscious world, and we, your viewers, know and relate; making connections between past, present, and a hoped-for future. These connections aren’t intellectual (nor is psychoanalysis, by the way), but rooted in feeling.
Story, characters, and psychology are all impelled by: emotions. But effective story narrative, characters, and psychotherapy need an additional ingredient: an “on the mark” understanding of the roots and reverberations for distinct emotional reactions.
This understanding comes out of experience, intuition, and empathy. The capacity to feel into what another person feels and to know why, makes for a powerful story. It’s also a needed element in good therapy, satisfying relationships, and in, self-compassion.
McKee, again, says it like it is: “the source of all fine character writing is rooted in self-knowledge.” Anton Chekhov said too: ‘Everything I know about human nature I learned from me.” We open ourselves. It’s not easy. Feelings and past experiences can interfere.
Having Trouble with Subtext? Making It Real
“Ingmar Bergman was not interested in saving souls, but in baring them. [He] made a spectacle of spirit and his own version of its mysteries, what he called ‘the administration of the unspeakable’.” Bergman was always willing to lay bare his own tortured soul. (Lahr, The Demon-Lover, in The New Yorker, May 31, 1999)
We all live with the unimaginable and unspeakable. It’s my task and yours to find words that reach and speak to those unspeakable experiences. Bergman wasn’t afraid of going into the darkness of his own traumas, to find their faces and mirrors in his characters. This is what makes character development work.
But being real is hard for many of us. We risk judgment, we judge ourselves, we get stuck in “should-s” or “should-nots.” Yet, isn’t it when a character is most real, most raw, that we can truly relate? What is it that makes them real or doesn’t? If they aren’t, why not?
As Pedro Pascal says of The Mandalorian: “We’re all terrified of taking our armor off.” Can you? It’s important. Otherwise, a character will be armored too and could have the fate of the film Addicted’s woefully unrealistic characters.
If you can live inside a character (and yourself), your character’s psychology will ring true.
Characters As Mirrors & Self-Acceptance
That means going into your own scary and painful feelings, those darker ones where many characters live. If you can, we feel with you. We’re touched. We root for them to change. Because, as Blake Snyder in Save The Cat enlightens us: “liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.”
That includes ourselves! You have to be willing, as Bergman did, to look into the mirrors of your characters and accept those parts of yourself. That’s the key to making it real.
And, that’s where psychology comes in. When narrative gets stuck or the subtext won’t reveal itself, ask yourself: where are you stuck? If you can’t figure it out and need to understand the deeper stirrings of your character, that’s what I do. I’m here to help. Contact me here.