Thursday, December 30, 2010

Writing Memorable Characters: A Psychological Approach (Part 2)

I wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m.; that’s when my internal alarm clock buzzes – and when my high maintenance cat, Itty, demands to be fed. I’ve tried ignoring her but Itty kicks up such a racket, scratching at the glass shield on the fireplace or panels in the French doors and knocking as many objects as she can off of furniture. However, this morning I was bright-eyed at 3:45 a.m., my mind abuzz with ideas for today’s blog. I went out of my way to wake up the cat. It really pissed her off. Karma’s a bitch.

In Part 1, I proposed that an essential component of writing memorable characters involves allowing the reader to experience what is going on inside the minds of the characters we create. To do so requires going beyond projecting our own motivations or imposing our values on our creations. Painting a realistic portrait of each character involves slipping into their skin in order to understand the subtleties of their motivational style. This task, of course, is a lot easier for paranoid schizophrenics with multiple personalities. The rest of us need to work at it. Maybe I’m giving myself to much credit; my sanity has been questioned a time or two – or three.

Our last discussion employed the model of Relationship Awareness Theory and the Strength Deployment Inventory  developed by psychologist Elias H. Porter, Ph.D.  The basic premises of this approach professes that (1) motivation shapes behavior, (2) behavior is generically predictable both in normal circumstances and when the individual is faced with opposition or conflict when we understand one’s valued relating style, (3) misapplying or overusing a personal strength results in a character flaw, and (4) interpersonal conflict arises from the tendency to perceive and judge others through one’s own valued motivational style.

Today’s blog investigates the Analytical-Autonomizing (Green) valued motivational system that is in marked contrast to the goal-oriented, competitive, control-oriented Assertive-Directing (Red) style explored in Part1.

Sherlock Holmes, the methodical and intellectually curious creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, serves as the poster child for this second cadre. For purposes of this discussion, we’re talking about the literary, cerebral Sherlock Holmes not the latest U.S. film action-oriented iteration. (For a hilarious discussion on the difference between American and British films – or just to laugh until you choke - check out British comedian Eddie Izzard’s Dress To Kill DVD).

Holmes is on a constant quest for understanding and knowledge. Life is a puzzle to be solved, a truth to be discovered, and a theory to be proven through judicious and thoughtful observation and by the accumulation of objective facts. Introspective, cautious and thorough, our analytical-autonomizing types value self-sufficiency and independent thought above all else. One should meticulously think things through before taking action or jumping to conclusions. The journey, following the correct process, and getting things done right the first time far outweighs winning, competing, or achieving an end. Intellectual ideas may compete for prominence but competition between people is often viewed as a pointless waste of precious resources. Very thrifty.

Data and things are more intrinsically interesting than people; people’s behaviors are things to be studied and examined. That’s why Green fictional characters tend to be persons of science, college professors, or investigators. In The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, Robert Langdon is driven not by the need to win but to understand. He is not an adrenaline junkie seeking new challenges to overcome. Langdon would rather spend his time in a library or studying in the field, but instead is thrust into the middle of thrilling action in which he will resolutely use his rational and practical mind to unravel a mystery. He doesn’t need to physically best anyone; he derives a sense of meaning and self-esteem from intellectual accomplishment and persevering.

More action-oriented versions of this intellectual prototype create a different internal world. Thomas Lourds is a thrill-seeking Harvard linguist and archeologist, the protagonist in The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw. A film equivalent would be Indiana Jones. Both characters are green-red blends, a topic left for discussion in a future blog.

Greens are fair minded, principled, serious, and value being in control of one’s emotion - like Gene Roddenberry’s Spock. Quite honestly, I’ve never read one of the Star Trek novels but I loved the television series and once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

Does a single episode of the original television series ever pass without Leonard Nimoy’s Spock remarking that Vulcans were once a people ruled by their emotions and bent on self-destruction? That was a million years ago before they evolved. That’s right, we humans are a million year down the evolutionary ladder and behind the learning curve. He doesn’t say stupid but we know that’s what he means when he tells us we are irrational. Parents with a Green valued motivational style are likely to ask, "if all your friends jumped off a roof, would jump off the roof too?" Yes, they fear the rest of us are just that stupid and lacking of an internal compass. Spock is also in a constant internal battle with himself. Why? His mother was a human and he has within him the recessive gene predisposition toward emotionality.

One certain way to lose the respect of an Analtical-Autonomizing type is to react emotionally rather than logically; especially in a crisis.

I can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone three days ago but I’m hoping you’ll remember from Monday’s blog that within any personal strength can be found a potential weakness. If we overuse or apply a strength inappropriately, step over an invisible line in the sand, the trait becomes dysfunctional.

Captain Nemo, a recurring character in Jules Verne stories but most remembered for 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, is a cutting-edge scientist who sinks merchant vessels not because he is an evil man but rather to battle unchecked and ill-conceived progress that is destroying the environment and to protect humankind, especially the downtrodden. He is unbending in his principles and severed all ties with the world. Sherlock Holmes archenemy Dr. Moriarty is his intellectual peer, but uses his brilliance towards different ends.

Valuing non-emotional, reserved behavior, Greens can come across as cold and unfeeling. Dr. Temperance Brennan, the forensic anthropologist created by Kathy Reichs, is not as socially challenged nor terse as her television counterpart on Bones but Greens can be. The literary Brennan isn’t a cold fish but rather steels herself emotionally in order to practice her profession, an aspect hinted at in the television series but not essential to the character. In writing a novel, we have the luxury of hundreds of pages to draw a more sophisticated persona by allowing readers access to innermost thoughts and motivations. They may be set adrift by events but their personalities aren’t predetermined by what happens to them.

I’m a huge fan of the situational comedy, The Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon Cooper provides an excellent depiction of overusing and misapplying personal strengths. He is nit picking (analytical), stubborn (persevering), suspicious (cautious), and rigid (methodical). He prides himself in being his own person to the extent that he has no qualms about considering himself the most highly evolved person on the planet and maybe even a new species (that’s only because he hasn’t met me). While his intelligence quota cannot be measured, neither can his emotional quotient (but to the other extreme). He can be smug and condescending to all lesser beings. I'm talking about y'all now.

Struggling with the external markings of our character’s persona offers the writer lots of opportunities to generate psychological pitfalls. Greens need to be on guard against being so concerned with what is right or wrong, facts and issues, that they don’t pay enough attention to other people’s feelings. If neurotically cautious and self-controlling, they may find it difficult to trust in other people. By keeping their own thoughts and feelings to themselves, others may find it difficult to get to know them; thus concluding that they are secretive, unfeeling, indifferent, antisocial, or feeling superior. Greens, of course, believe that such conclusions are ill-founded and often don’t care what you might think anyway.

While our Reds (Assertive-Directing) types are bottom line, action and results oriented, Greens expect others to be as concerned with details, logic, quality and matters of principle as they are. Their answers can sound long-winded, judgmental, self-righteous and pontificating (no, not me – I mean other people) if they over apply their motivational style. Their self-sufficiency and independence can cut them off from others or push others away. My current project, Black Ice, starts off with my protagonist, a college professor of physics who is responsible for the death of her child in a car accident, living as a street person, feeling isolated and alienated from the rest of humanity.  The Green prototype often is their own worse judge and jury.

Greens also need to be on guard against their perfectionist tendencies and delaying decisions until all the facts are in. In my first novel, Embodiment of Evil, Alan Ciani is left impotent by his inability to act upon his current circumstances. He suffers from analysis paralysis, his world is lived in between his ears not on the real stage of life. Of course, in today’s world anyone who thinks for longer than fifteen seconds suffers from analysis paralysis. Real leaders take action – yesterday! ACT! ACT! ACT! This reality provides another excellent source of conflict in our stories for our Green protagonist.

In writing memorable characters, writers strive to help the reader understand what is going on inside the mind of our creations. Projecting our own motivations and imputing our values to others paints an inaccurate description of reality. By exposing the subtleties of their motivational style, we preserve the integrity of each personality.

Next time, we’ll examine another of the seven motivational styles. I hope that yow will visit with me again and please tell your friends about this blog. I’ll look forward with enthusiasm to hearing your thoughts regarding the blog content.

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