Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing Memorable Characters: A Psychological Approach (Part 4)

Back story, cultural differences, gender perspectives and the curves that life throws at us are all essential components for developing character. In the previous three blogs I proposed that in writing memorable, multidimensional fictional characters the finishing touch in helping readers appreciate our creations is to expose the motivational core that drives each characters behavior. We employed Dr. Elias Porter’s  relationship awareness theory as the model for understanding motivational value systems.

The real source of motivation is internal. One may create an external focus as a measure of their self-worth, such as power, money, or the accumulation of material possessions, but the driving force is still to feel good about one’s self.

I’m motivated to find humor in every situation (eventually). When I was a teenager, I remember a classmate accusing me of not taking anything seriously. I find the greatest joy in life and am happiest when I’m laughing. My wife and I find lots to laugh about every day. Of course the object of our hilarity is often me. A current friend appeared totally shocked to hear that laughter was one of the most important ingredients in my marriage relationship. “About what?” he asked. How does one explain humor to someone who doesn’t have a sense for it.

I bring this up now for two reasons. First, because at times it is difficult to laugh - like now, for instance. My back is out and sitting at the computer is difficult. Writing is a task. When my heart is full of laughter I’m far more productive. Yesterday, I wrote a hysterically funny scene to my current thriller project, Black Ice. Maybe I used up all the ha-ha in me for a day or two.

Secondly, as writers we can make the motivational styles of our fictional creations more transparent by displaying their sense of humor or lack thereof.

We looked at the Assertive-Directing (Red) valued motivational style in Part 1 of this blog, as personified by the results-oriented, win at all costs, out-of-the-box problem-solvers like David Morrell’s  protagonist, Cavanaugh, or William Diehl’s Martin Vail. These characters know how to get around the system and never lose sight of their goals. Neither were very funny guys. Reds are often so concerned about finishing on top that even their humor can be a form of one-up-man-ship.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes depicted the Analytical-Autonomizing (Green) valued motivational style examined in Part 2. Holmes is intelligent, scientific, logical, fair-minded and practical; a data driven individual who strives to derive order out of chaos. So does the searcher for truth, Robert Langdon, in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. Neither of these guys will be going out on the comedy circuit any time soon. Greens often are very serious minded. Not that a green can’t be funny; it’s just that they tend to deliver their punch line in the same monotone and serious style as they do everything else. We have to think about what they said a bit before catching the joke. The deadpan comedy of Stephen Wright is Green. “The other day, I went to a tourist information center and asked them to tell me about some of the other people who were here last year.”

Part 3 addressed the Altruistic-Nurturing (Blue) style, which reflects an authentic caring for the protection, growth and wellbeing of other people. The tortured Johnny Smith will surrender his life to save humanity in Stephen King's The Dead Zone and the affable Tom Wingo, the self-sacrificing school teacher in Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, is above all else desirous of doing no harm. Both characters are also presented as playful and with a need to connect to others through humor. My wife is a Blue, has a loud and distinctive laugh that lights up any room, and is the best audience a fool like me can ask for. She’ll laugh at almost anything. Sharing laughter is just another way of bonding with others.

Relationship awareness theory also identifies four blended styles that combine two or more of the aforementioned three: Red/Green or Judicious Competing. Blue/Green or Cautious-Supporting, Red/Blue or Assertive Nurturing, and the Flexible-Cohering (Hub) style.

Today is a Red/Green or Judicious-Competing day. Why, because I say so? Green/Reds enjoy sarcasm as their particular brand of humor: it has the intelligence of the Green style and the cutting aggressiveness of the Red. Check out Will Smith’s character in Men In Black.

Dirk Pitt, the scientific adventurer provided us by Clive Cussler typifies the Judicious-Competing (Red/Green) motivational style. Pitt is intelligent, assertive, and natural leader who believes in fair play and is willing to help others without hesitation if the cause is just and fair. Red/Greens display a rational leadership style that can unemotionally assess risk and opportunities. They are decisive and proactive, and challenge opposition through a thoughtful process and strategy rather than on emotional impulse. Work smarter not harder, but also expediently. Smart humor; sarcastic, friendly teasing.

Mitch McDeere, the protagonist in The Firm by John Grisham, is a determined young attorney who clearly understands the rational use of power, seeks to compete on his own terms, and possesses an ability to plan complex and challenging strategies. He also wishes he had avoided acting impulsively. One wins through the use of cunning. Mitch combines the over the line Red and Green traits and so appears humorless. Life is a serious business.

A more action-oriented version of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, a (Green) Analytical-Autonomizing intellectual prototype, is Thomas Lourds, the thrill-seeking Harvard linguist and archeologist, protagonist in The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw. While Robert Langdon is an unwilling participant in adventure, Thomas Lourds thrives on it. Lot's of Red there to mix with the intellectual Green.

A film equivalent would be Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. Not known for his warmth and compassion, Indiana can be arrogant, abrasive, combative and rash to act when he overuses his Red style. The potential hazard of being a blend is amplifying the potential weakness associated with both styles. Blends need be doubly on guard against misapplying their strengths. When over-stepping or misusing his positive Green traits Indiana Jones can appear suspicious, cold, rigid, unfeeling and stubborn. His humor is often a biting sarcasm. Even without a very well defined touchy-feely side, however, he’s still really cool, and Mr. Rogers and I love him for just who he is.

The traumatized Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s popular Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gives us a glimpse of what can happen when a Red/Green is pushed to her limits. She’s an antisocial computer hacker with a lust for danger and propensity toward violence – well planned violence because Red/Greens are brilliant planners. She finds humor in wicked and ironic pranks. I’m being kind here; she's a nasty little devil.

Despite all the suffering Salander is forced to endure by the men in her life, she, nonetheless and against her rational intentions, falls in love with Mikael Blomkvist. See, we all have a little Blue in us. An important point.

Everyone is a combination of Red, Blue, and Green traits. It is rare – and probably psychologically unhealthy - to be totally absent of some aspects of all three primary styles. In all the thousands of persons to whom I’ve administered the Strength Deployment Inventory, I have seen very few zero or even single digit scores on any of the color scales (each scale ranges from 0 to 100). As humans we simply chose – or dare I suggest, are predisposed – to value one or more styles over any other.

It is convenient to make an evil character all bad with no redeeming qualities. However, wouldn’t it add a little flavor to the character by showing in what ways they find humor, to have them love and be totally committed to their dog, or dream about chocolate ice cream cones? I once sat next to a freakishly Blue woman at a dinner table who told me that every human being was basically good and that even Adolf Hitler loved dogs and small children. I don’t necessarily enjoy it but I do tolerate fools (because I realize that I, too, am one) and try to find humor in their foolishness. I told the woman that Adolf was still alive and babysitting our children that very evening. She didn’t laugh.

Allegedly, people who laugh a lot, live longer. The implication is that living longer is a good thing. So laugh long and prosper.

I’ll look forward with enthusiasm to hearing your thoughts regarding this blog. And once again, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you picked up one of my novels to read and if you liked it told your friends. Talk with you again next time.

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