Movie Critiques
Top 20 Problems
Human Condition
What Kind World?
Read for Fun
Home Page
Reference Shelf
Story Ideas
 A Character Motivation Primer

Becoming Free to Explore

Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor

Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998 Dorian Scott Cole

Unique and original sells | Characters aren't real | Creating different points of view | The mindset traps | Don't we need religion and psycholgy? | Embrace psychology, don't throw it all in the trash | Destiny? | Why are we here? | A difficult role for every person | Applying life's roles to characters | Adding a social psychology perspective | What kind of world are we creating? | Discovering meaning | Defining normal; developing characters | Social and hedonist | Tragedy

Unique and original sells

Unique and original stories are what sell. They show us something new and different. They require unique and original characters, which lead to unique and original plots. But how do you create characters that are unique and original? By being able to step into a different frame of thought - a different set of beliefs and experience. This article is about what people believe about life. We tend to see things from our own point of view, and often never imagine that others can see things very differently. But seeing things differently can be very helpful in creating characters because it provides a basis for what motivates the character. This isn't about changing anyone's beliefs, but is about appreciating and understanding other's beliefs. 

I'm not the definitive expert on human motivation. But motivation has been a topic of serious inquiry and study most of my life. My first hint that something might be wrong was when I noticed the experts all say different things. I've tried a lot of what the definitive experts say is true. Following is what to me is "tried and true," and to which you can probably find some definitive expert who agrees.

Characters aren't real

If we were to write down all of the things that go into influencing a person, we would be writing all day just to nail down a few details. For example, we write a story in which Sara loses her marriage because she took a second job to buy home furnishings. At one point she decides not to buy a refrigerator on credit, leading to a big argument with her husband. 

What went into this decision? She was alarmed at the interest amount on the credit application. She saw her father agonize over making payments. Her refrigerator still works. She needs a new range worse. Her mother taught her to save up her money for what she needs. Her husband thinks they should use credit because they need so many things right away. He says they should skimp on gasoline and he should be getting a raise next month. But she can't feel good about any of those things. Her neighbor has all new kitchen appliances and a new living room outfit and two loans, but is always arguing over money. And on and on. Probably no single factor was primary.

Writers don't have the space to write about every motivation in a character's life. Writers clarify human motivations to single issues that can be dealt with within the time limits of a story. The Sara in the story would probably just tell her husband they aren't going to live with continuous arguments over money, like their neighbors, at which point they begin arguing like their neighbors and end in divorce. Money is one of the leading causes of divorce even though it is probably more of a symptom than the root problem of who controls things. So writers clarify the important things that motivate people, like power and money. When I create characters, I write a one-half to two page profile telling about the important influences in the person's life - those things that influence their behavior and decisions. I don't make every influence strictly plot related so they are more unique and interesting. 

Creating different points of view - So what is so hard about that?

Why do people create cardboard characters? Why is it so difficult to create someone with a different point of view and purpose in life who acts differently from others - a unique individual? Partly because characterization takes work which is outside the flow of putting one word of dialogue in front of another. And partly, I think, because it is very difficult to see others as being different from ourselves. 

Don't other people have the same wants and needs as we do? Aren't we all really the same? The cookie cutter character isn't really a blank to us, it is our self - an extension of our psyche (the essence of our mind - the butterfly, the hidden) that does what we want if we were that character, a mirror image of ourselves. "The writer is every character he creates," states this theory of writing. But does this create unique and honest characters? For the writer who creates characters every day, I think creating unique and honest ones is a larger step.

Unique and honest characters are ones who are capable of responding to the challenges we put them through - reacting and changing uniquely - to become a more unique person. But if every character is just an extension of our self, limited by a range of behavior and wants and needs we impose on them, which are only minimal extensions of our own, the character can't become unique. Can a character ever be totally unique? I doubt that very much. I see writers struggling to create unique characters and they typically just act differently - their actual motivations are missing. We usually don't understand why people act differently. It is very difficult to write about people and experiences about whom we have no knowledge. However, we can remove the blinders we wear about human behavior so they are not a limitation, and let our characters be free to grow.

The purpose of this section is to help free the writer who is trapped by mind sets and unable to explore character and situations because his field of vision isn't wide enough. This isn't a challenge to anyone's faith, (I carefully excluded my own beliefs from this section) or their personal views, or their way of life. But writers create characters with many dimensions: spiritual, social, psychological, physical, and physiological - all combined in the psyche of the character. For example, if you can only see one set of social values, then you can only give your character one set of social values. 

The mindset traps - how to get trapped and untrapped 

The approach I take in these pages is philosophical. "Yech! He's going to turn the air gray with intellectual hot air." I won't belabor you with philosophy, but when faced with Freud, who tied everything to hidden sexual motivation, then B.F. Skinner who can see man as only a mechanistic animal, we're not sure whether to use one in preference to the other, or merge them and see man as a sex machine. There has to be some way of understanding them, and that's philosophy. Philosophy is a much misunderstood science. It is often identified with those who strain endlessly over word definitions in order to void some belief system of all meaning; the seeker of truth for whom truth does not exist; the ultimate enemy of all religion. It is sometimes even misidentified as a religion. 

Those who speak of "their philosophy" arenít talking about philosophy as a belief system, but rather something they have acquired independently, supposedly through philosophical reasoning. Philosophy is not a system of beliefs of any kind. It's a system of inquiry. I like to think of philosophy as the science of knowing the right questions to ask. Philosophy is existential in that it embraces all, but promotes none. It is the thinking man's defense against being misled. Once you are reasonably certain of the absolutes in your life, you have a basis for asking questions that get to the heart of a matter. 

For example, if you are certain that your "truth" must include: Unselfish love, kindness toward others, the pursuit of ideals in godliness and right, self protection, the value of self, and the need for self growth, then these beliefs form a nucleus that other ideas can be compared to. If some other belief fell short, then the holder would know those beliefs had no place in his world - they were not truth - at least not for him. So a religion or view that seemed momentarily appealing, but under philosophical questioning was revealed to fundamentally oppose the above ideals, could be held at arm's length. However, the Klan could just as easily swear their beliefs were the ones listed above. But frame questions using the rigidness of philosophical inquiry and the Klan would present very narrow definitions to love, kindness, and ideals. 

Wait! Don't we need religion and psycholgy?

It is very helpful sometimes to buy into a system of thought so it can help you get from point A to B. It is also very easy to get trapped in systems which are appealing, but long term are detrimental. Writers today necessarily sit at the feet of modern psychology, more so than religion, sociology, or anthropology. Besides experience, psychology is probably the most useful tool a writer has. But we can become trapped by prevalent popular directions in psychology; for example, the so called yuppie psychology. It is comprised of stereotypical situations - cause and effect relationships - which are common to a number of people in similar circumstances, experiences, and in similar stages of growth. This isn't to say these subjects aren't worthy topics in stories, but they are stereotypes, and generally show us nothing new.

The images are easy to identify with: the repressed child within, sexual abuse, toxic parents who poison their kids, a sense that love will conquer all, codependent relationships which keep Johnny addicted to chemicals and Mary addicted to abuse, which they both learned from their parents. There is truth in all of these. But while these situations apply to many of the people who are going through them, the field of psychology doesn't generalize these psychological conditions to all the rest of the world. There is a clear danger in seeing others only through, for example, a favorite talk show hostís attitude about how things are. Writing about addiction serves a worthwhile purpose and is entertaining, but writing as if the entire world has an addictive personality will most likely prevent your script from ever being seen - it just doesn't hold water.

Embrace psychology, don't throw it all in the trash

I don't write about motivation from any one school of psychological thought. The psychoanalytic branch gives us a deep understanding of complex behavior and the inner workings of the subconscious mind, including the very important areas of personality integration and transformation. I happen to like Jung and prefer his overall view of personality to Freud, which was too sexually oriented. Yet insight often takes years to achieve and often doesn't resolve a problem. Insight only sets the stage for integration.

Carl Rogersí People Centered Psychology has proven to be an excellent tool for individual focus and personal growth. But was his theory as applicable to everyday behavior? Consider the views of the behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Skinner was right on target about many of the decisions we make being just stimulus response, and conditioning being a useful therapeutic tool. Once the motivation (or instinct) that created thumb sucking is long gone, we are stuck with a behavior we can't get rid of.

Often very pragmatic solutions - just do it - are far quicker and more effective, as with Gestalt psychology (not the Gestalt in psychology. "Gestalt psychology" is very pragmatic). When motivation for a behavior ceases in our psyche, but the behavior continues out of habit strength, it is often most effectively broken by just summoning the chutzpah to just stop it. Many other problems we encounter don't have any real solutions; understanding them doesn't help, and there are no effective coping mechanisms for them, so we must live with them. We get a little tougher, a little stronger - we build character. 

We are gravely mistaken if we think others don't influence who we are, our conflicts, and our decisions - we didn't develop as islands. Social Psychology is probably the psychology of the future. Isolate someone on an island with no hope of ever seeing another human and his life slowly becomes devoid of meaning. Every day is no more than a dance with survival. 

Possibly all of these theories may one day migrate into a new Cultural Psychology approach (see Bruner in "Reference Shelf"), especially as the melting pot becomes more diversified in its homogeneity and psychologists have to deal with cultural meaning systems that anthropologists have been describing for decades. A world of very insightful people from Adler to Zajonc have made significant contributions to psychology, and often grandmother had the most effective methods, and six-year-old Johnny can cut to the heart of a matter more easily than I. And every one of these have their failings.

My point is, psychology is a very effective tool in the quest for creating unique characters. Embrace the field of psychology but avoid the trap of falling for one. My biases are few. Like most people, I don't believe we are just psychological mechanisms. There is a difference between the brain and the mind. The brain is influenced by physical things - we live in a real world. And the mind is influenced by spiritual things: we are motivated by concepts, morals, and ethics, if not a "higher" connection. Yet in spite of physical or spiritual influences we can control ourselves and determine our own behavior. Spooky, huh? The brain is where we perceive both the physical and spiritual. In the following pages I hope to challenge your thinking so you can create characters who have a different mind set than yourself, whether it is psychological, spiritual, or social.


We are not all the same. Having had three children, I have seen definite tendencies in them from birth - not self-fulfilling prophesies that because I reacted a certain way to them, they became that way - but pronounced tendencies. Some people are unable to accept that. After all, babies are totally innocent creatures, absolutely new creations... aren't they? What you believe about babies, believe it or not, will affect your characterization. If you believe all people are born evil or born good, all of your characters are likely to mirror that. Well, if babies are born good or evil, then they aren't absolute new creations - they carry some baggage with them. We all seem to have that feeling of absolute destiny that somehow overshadows the innocence of babies. What is our destiny?

Some believe we are all born evil people and the goal of religion and growth is to overcome the evil within and become good in some measure, but we can never become perfect. How many movies do we see where a devil and an angel perch on the shoulder of the protagonist? If this is your view, you're probably going to have characters change for the better by admonishing them with strictures of right and wrong, and showing them the destructive results of their behavior. Or by using guilt to push them away from evil behavior while showing them benefits of good behavior. Right and wrong battle within them. 

Some believe we are all born with goodness inside and that the world - parents, siblings, peers, society, temptations - corrupts us. God is within us, therefore we canít be bad. How many movies do we see in which a basically good and innocent person goes wrong because of the influence of some evil person. He wasn't bad before he met the person. He ultimately turns the bad guy in and rescues himself with only a little help from his friends. There is that sense that he isn't at fault and all that is needed is to forgive him and put him back on the right road. You're probably going to have those characters change by rebelling against wrong and forcing others around them to change. Evil may tempt them, but they ultimately learn from it and survive. They are able to see the good within themselves and try to maintain it.

Others believe we are born as blank slates and begin writing experiences on them at birth. This person is much like a computer: garbage in, garbage out. Good things in.... This person is programmed by his parents, peers and environment, and his behavior is the result of his programming. If he is born to a den of thieves and murderers, he will naturally become one. This view relates more to the cognitive - pure science - perspective. This person is neither good nor bad, and learns right and wrong by experience. His life is not a struggle between good and evil, he just gathers experience and learns what works best. In this view the parents seem to have a major role in forming the child's beliefs and in what the child becomes. The child learns more directly by the parents molding and modeling. In a sense the parent owns the child and sees the child as a reflection of himself, which the child is. You will probably have this person learn by having them removed from the evil parents and reprogrammed by his new parents. He discovers less and has fewer insights with which to integrate his personality - he simply is written on by others. Least of all is he responsible for his own behavior (this is an oversimplification), which is simply the programming of others, so he isn't guilty. How many movies do we see in which Johnny is simply a product of his environment, so his behavior is excused?

Many believe we are reincarnated, carrying into this world a load of Karma and problems which will bring suffering we have earned in a past life. This person is no blank slate. This character's suffering will end when his Karma is spent in teaching him the needed lessons, and when through his own actions and maturity he climbs above this earthly plane and the suffering that focuses his experience. To some, Karma is a law akin to retribution. To others, Karma just brings conflicting people together to work things out. How many movies do we see in which the character seems to have no motivation from this life, but experiences come his way anyway? You will probably have this person learn by struggling through the experience as a survivor who faced a challenge that life brought him unbidden. He has changed from the experience, he is stronger. He can climb above his troubles.

Still others believe we define our relationships and experiences before we enter this world, so we live what we have scheduled for ourselves. This person changes and matures because he has experienced. This character may be less concerned with absolute right and wrong, and more concerned about the experience. The people he hurts or who hurt him or who help him, are all part of a play - very real at the time, but for a purpose. Only the experience and learning are ultimately important. How many movies do we see in which the protagonist struggles repeatedly with an experience until he finally comes to grips with it and integrates the new way of being? (Groundhog Day comes to mind.)

Then there are those who look to the stars for the influences that shape our lives and believe life is influenced by the date of birth and by the movement of planets in some cosmic rhythm which teaches cosmic lessons. This is a good wild card. There is no end of variety to the combinations of beliefs people come up with. For example, the ancient Mayan calendar sees the cyclical nature of the universe. While science has had a difficult time finding any evidence of astrological effects on personality (except the more mercurial personalities associated with scientists and their birth-month), there are some books on the market that do find a strong correlation for many natural cycles. 

Regardless of religious beliefs, some believe that after we have aged a few years, we are then products of our past, and our behavior is dictated by what we have become. We have no free choice, but must react from what we are. Others believe we always have free will to choose and that we are made to do nothing, by God, the stars, our situation, or our needs. What do you believe? What do you want to show? Can you create a character rich with motivation and personality that comes from one of these backgrounds?

Whatever you believe, when you look at the innocent face of a baby you are already seeing a great deal more there than you think. And when you create a character, you already have a great deal more there than you think. You have a lot of expectations of what that person's life is about and what influences will shape it. But now you can ask yourself what your character's belief system is and how will he learn. You can give them entirely different ways of looking at things and changing. 

Forget destiny, you mealy-mouth muse, just why are we here?

What is the purpose of our lives? Why are we here? During the earlier phases of my life, I felt I needed to be engaged in work that was a direct benefit to other people, such as repairing communications equipment or serving in the military. Later I could understand the value of indirect work, like managing. Then I got to the point I felt like I no longer needed to be of benefit to anyone, so I write. (Meditate on that one.) If you are prevented from seeing value in certain kinds of activities, then it is difficult to create real characters who do other things. Let's work on that.

Some would say we are here to serve God. But what does that mean? Are those folks here to sit under a toadstool night and day, praying, meditating, reading the Word of God? That would certainly leave one to wonder who is to cook, turn on the air conditioner, and entertain the mentally impoverished masses (like me). Can doing these other seemingly less spiritual things, and having fun, in some way also mean serving God?

Others might say we are here to serve each other. Relationships are the all important key to the universe, the only important activity in life. If so, then can an activity have important meaning to others? Who is here to defend the world in the military, build skyscrapers in remote cities, lead the nation, and devote night and day to gathering news? Some activities that people feel compelled to do, may necessarily exclude building relationships.

There are a great many who are here to serve themselves. They take without giving and have no concern for the welfare of others. The sun shines on them just the same. Monsters who have terrorized their own nations and attacked others, have led to the deaths of millions of people. What meaningful activity or relationship were they were supposed to be working on. 

Some believe we are here to learn. Does that mean they are to be career students at some university? Or does it mean collecting experiences like some collect bugs, just to know we have had them, regardless of who we use? What does learning mean, absorbing knowledge, having experiences, growing?

Some think we are here to accomplish some task. How would we reconcile that with the sage wisdom that everything we do comes to nothing - all we are is dust in the wind. Do our efforts mean so little? What about the day to day experience we have in doing things, and the others that we impact along the way?

We desperately need those beautiful writers who can show us the value of relationships. We also need those awesome writers who can show us the value of accomplishment. We need writers who can write passionately from their point of view. What we don't need is writers who are frustrated and stymied in their careers because they can only see life from one point of view, so can only create the same old character in the same old story over and over again.

No sure answer to why, but a difficult role for every person

Everyone ponders that great question, "Why are we here?" Our lives are often shaped by the people and institutions around us - parents, teachers, schools, religious institutions, ethnic groups, governments - until something finally gels and we begin to set the course of our own lives whether we know the final outcome or not. Few of us are struck over the head with a brick accompanied by some voice from the heavens saying, "Now I'm going to tell you why you are here." But understanding why we are here has a great deal to do with understanding human motivation. 

Implied by the very definition of why we are here is the state we are in. Are we happy? Suffering? Growing? What state should we be in, or seek to be in? Psychologist's offices are filled with people wanting to change the unhappy state they are in. Why all the unhappiness? Because people are sick? Because the world is a sick place? Because they had sick parents? Is it because life is about overcoming problems and growing, so we all have problems and we all have pain?

In his book Freedom and Destiny, Rollo May addressed the question about the role of psychology in people's lives. We would like to live without anxiety. He counters we should seek to live without paralyzing anxiety. Normal anxiety is a stimulant to a vital existence, is a source of energy, and is life enhancing. We would like people to see therapists to adjust themselves so they can live with society. He counters, the therapist is not the psychic policeman of society. We all want to be happy. He counters that happiness can be purchased only at the price of repressing and denying too many of the facts of life, working against mental health. Then what should we be seeking? He says, to be free to be aware of and to experience our possibilities.

That tells us nothing and everything. Nothing in the sense that nothing specific comes from it. Everything in the sense that "why we are here" is wide open - possibilities for humanity. Personally I like Rollo May's work, that's why I quote him. But now I'm going to throw rocks at him. What do psychologists really know? What can psychology tell us? Psychologists aren't here as religious leaders. Psychologists have a specific task to accomplish: helping people become what they wish. They devise the most appropriate framework for accomplishing that task. (Actually I think psychologists do have a responsibility toward their clients to help them see destructive forces in their lives, particularly behaviors and attitudes, and to guide them toward constructive attitudes and behaviors which let them confront their conflicts.) But if the framework requires having possibilities, does that mean we all have the same possibilities? 

Applying life's roles to characters

Do we all have the same possibilities? We generally all like to think so (all men - people - are created equal?). But what about the fifteen-year-old kid whose life is smashed by a drunken driver? What kind of possibilities does that kid have? What about a four-year-old child starving to death in Somalia? What possibilities does that kid have? Or the child struck down by a fatal disease, or a woman whose life is strangled from her by an oppressive husband who won't let her live - not really live; serving him, yes, doing something for herself, no? Or the child born so mentally incapacitated he can hardly function? I like the idea of possibilities, but it doesnít seem to be what life is about for a lot of people. 

Are some here simply to make others see? Are some here to love and give until they are depleted, spent, gone, for the sake of someone else? Try creating a character like that: Plain Jane is a doormat for her husband and kids. Her husband knocks her around, expects her to work like a slave, and teaches his kids to expect the same from her. In today's literary world, if you don't show why Jane is a doormat, script readers and the audience will tell you the character should stand up for herself. But in the real world there are many Janes, but why must there be? 

To continue, are some here to make us laugh because they have felt the pain themselves? Are some here to drift and take, and seemingly never give in return, their contribution to this world never revealed? Are some here just to cause pain, but never suffer themselves? Are some here just to end pain? Colorful characters often come from just these kinds of circumstances. Not the typical person who has a world of possibilities open to him, but the exceptional person who has limited possibilities, who can make us sympathetic and painfully aware of our own possibilities. 

Adding a social psychology or a sociology persepective

Heard any good slogans lately? Slogans are typically supposed to be bits of wisdom encapsulated in pithy words. Love is blind. Is it really, or is that just a phrase that we use to easily explain the behavior of people whose behavior is a little off. Slogans are often created by politicians as campaign vehicles because they know people will recite them without giving them much thought. Slogans have a lot in common with mind sets. Love conquers all. We get a popular idea stuck in our mind and suddenly we oversimplify everything in life with that one phrase. He's a bad husband, he beats her... Love conquers all. If the company won't give us a raise... Love conquers all. He wants to marry her, but she lives on the wrong side of the tracks... Love conquers all. Suddenly we have a simplistic solution for everything in life, and things require no more thought or action on our part. 

My purpose in this subsection is to shake you free from the typical mind sets most of us are stuck in, so you can write real characters instead of the fantasies we choose to see (also known as narratives and mini-narratives). We hear the fantasies in the slogans we recite to each other. "Love conquers all; all we need is love." What are the limitations of love? "Life is fair or we can make life fair." We have a very acute sense of fairness - especially when we want something someone else gets. Try giving candy to one child and not the other. Yet individual needs canít be addressed if society is all treated the same. "The law is just." Television reports on prosecution deals, police corruption, informants who continue to break the law, judges with an ax to grind, and racial and wealth bias are dispelling that notion. The law is not about fairness. Should it be? 

"Kids are products of their parents - bad kids are from bad and unloving parents, good kids are from good parents." "Most adults have problems because their parents ruined them while raising them." Iíll address these later. These are popular concepts and the way we want to see the world - assumptions people tend to generalize to everyone because they are true for some. Persuasive writing comes not from telling one side, but from telling the truth of both so the hearer can decide. A writer canít be blind to the truth, even if he wants to emphasize one aspect and write passionately about it.. 

Believing in fantasies about the world might best be explored through the following example. Freud, father of modern psychology, discovered that many of his patients sooner or later got around to having memories of childhood sexual abuse. Later he uncovered a common element to many of their memories. They were spurious and erroneous. The abuse had not happened - yet in the psyche of the client, it was real when she related it. History repeats itself in modern day with accounts mounting at an alarming rate of family horror stories in which members have been accused by children, or adult children, of abuse that never happened. In an era of openness and militance against abuse, such memories are often encouraged. Reminiscent of witch hunts? 

With the real incidence of women who were sexually abused as children at 25+%, and with the incidence of rape at one in four adult women, can we afford to discourage such memories? A writer can be totally polarized and write on one side or another of these issues. Or he can explore them in search of a more definitive explanation. For example, those who believe in reincarnation might answer that these victims are learning not to hate, and they may have been the perpetrators in another life. Thus as a society we need not address the issue - "everything is happening as it should" (that's a popular notion in circulation). 

Others might explore what feelings and perceived events were congealing in that personís psyche to create those memories, and why? What really goes on in the mind, the psyche? Are fear, sexual identity, and innate tendencies congealing into a complex containing a story that is projected onto all men, a symbol of the male archetype, in a negative (attitude) way? Why? Those who explore Jungian psychology might find this an interesting and revealing area.

From a larger perspective - social psychology and sociology, are the erroneous memories an expression of fear? What could generate such feelings? Failure of parents in some other area? Distrust of all men? Why? Too many news reports about abuse and other violent crime? Too many criminals escaping capture, prosecution, rehabilitation or incarceration? When lawlessness seems to run rampant and people figuratively lock themselves behind bars for protection - afraid to go to the store, parking garage, unlit area, or even go out at night or to drive through a neighborhood - what kind of psychological climate does that establish? That we live in a world which canít be trusted - no one in the world can be trusted, not even our own family? Do we live in a world which is so permissive that people are trained from childhood that they can get away with anything? Has ignoring economically troubled areas created so much hate and discontent that violent crime is inescapable? Do we have family structures that promote abuse of women? Do we have values in society - competitiveness, violent sports, material overemphasis (greed) - that encourage violence from a violent nature animal, while discouraging taming the beast? My screenplay, Cult of Superstition, available on this web site, examines these very questions.

Law and order are the politiciansí battle-cry. Victimís rights have swung to the forefront, and victims are consulted about what is the minimum "justice" they must see in a convictís sentence. Crime is on the rise and prisons canít be built fast enough. But I question if there is any such thing as justice, and not because of problems in the justice system. Once someone has done something against someone else, violating them, destroying their sense of security, can anything ever repair it? Especially if a death is involved. Correction doesn't seem to work, and the law is supposedly not about retribution. What does our overheated quest for justice accomplish other than to put politicians in office for crying, "justice.!"

Are we too permissive? Should Johnny be caned or have his hands cut off or be hung in public? One person in a TV news report who had been caned said he would never even think of doing the crime again. Does correction really work that way, or will the person's problem resurface in some other way, possibly worse but without drawing the attention of the cane? Our military leaders are the first to admit that force is a last resort because it is very ineffective for forcing your will on others. Kill a leader, create a martyr people will follow forever. Strip a nation of its pride and it will fight you another day to regain it. Punitive actions are force, and often engenders forcefulness - violence - in return. Like pouring oil on a fire to smother it, force can suddenly ferociously return. But some people respect only force. When is force effective, and when does violence teach violence?

Abuse of all types should be stopped, but if punitive actions are considered abuse, what are the effective alternatives? Teachers no longer have control of their classrooms and live in fear of attacks by children. Parents are afraid to correct their children because any child knows he can run to the courts and cry abuse. The juvenile justice systems are throwing up their hands in despair because they have no effective tools for dealing with delinquent teens. Out of a feeling that incarceration or punitive action will "teach and generate violence," their hands have been tied. Is it better to allow unrestrained violence and destruction by teens to put the entire world in fear, isolation and turmoil, teaching these ways of life to aging teens because we permit them to do it, than to allow a child delinquent to "suffer." Is this even the real problem? Read on.

Childhood is described as humanitiesí most formative years, when people are most susceptible to learning values and behaviors. Personality development in psychology hardly looks beyond the childhood years. When children become adults, they are not as susceptible to "unlearning" violence. If people are taught violence, they learn violence. Ah, but the latest concern is over showing TV violence without showing corresponding consequences. So when a violent dictator takes on the world by force, we then have license to sit in our living rooms and enjoy the show while the Air Force drops a bomb down his chimney. Whether or not we have to do it, should we enjoy it? 

Are delinquent teens only acting out and they just need more love. Why should their behavior be dismissed and permitted? What harm will it cause? Psychologists and studies regularly change positions on such things. Recent studies have shown that people really don't need to express their anger, not even by watching a violent football game. They don't suffer any ill effects from it. But have we taught people in childhood - because some psychologist said so - that they must express their anger to get rid of it? After all, isn't undiffused anger a time-bomb?

Children without limits do what has value to them, which means whatever they can get away with, because children have internalized few social values and many begin value testing - questioning validity and pushing limits - at a very early age. 

How much range do children need in order to test and internalize their values? I can see the caption now, "Johnny broke into the White House, found the nuclear switch, and blew up the world, but parent says itís OK, he learned a good lesson from it." Weíre all dead. Everyone needs permissiveness in the form of patient love, understanding, and tolerance. Every society also must have its rules that canít be broken without penalty. But more than these things, people need frameworks to operate within, to know the limits of societyís tolerance that they absolutely must work within. Do our justice system and other institutions reflect this? Is this the real problem? Read on.

What kind of world are we creating?

It's not easy to see things from the perspective of another person. That's psychology. How much more difficult it is to look at the world from a much wider perspective and ask what kind of impact the world has on one person. The sixties generation put every value and every rule in doubt. We (the world) gained the opportunity to question everything and decide for ourselves what is valuable and works, and what isn't or doesn't. We have thrown some ideas out, confirmed some, and have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our world. But we have to continue asking ourselves what kind of world we are creating. I'm going to focus on our young at this point because I think the world we are creating is reflected in our young. 

A personal example: I put my children into excellent elementary schools where teachers cared and helped them learn how to learn, and gave them a hunger for knowledge (some of it they hated). As a family, we held the value of education high and encouraged our children to learn. Then we moved and again sought the best public schools. In the affluent area we chose, it turned out 80% of the children were from broken homes, abuse was prevalent, and most kids knew the value of money and power and how to work the system to get their own way. Many of these children had aggressively sought out the limits of the range of behavior society will tolerate. Ask them, and they could tell you their "rights" chapter and verse. No matter what they did, there was nothing anyone could do about it, and they had plenty of evidence around them that the courts could do nothing directly to them - only to their parents.

In that climate, the school system had an "us against the world" mentality. They harbored the child during the day, and you were expected to teach them at night - too bad if you traveled out of town. The childrenís conventional wisdom was that all discipline (rules and methods of enforcement) was abusive and parents had no "right" to tell them what to do. They came home from school spouting psychology, telling their parents what kind of kids they would become from being restricted or from being... Arguing over "rights" is a handy way of evading real issues. Behavior problems were the norm. Academic learning became simply a matter for contention, and street fighting with parents for "rights" became the real learning experience. 

This experience is an example to me that we as a society establish a climate which teaches those around us to fear, to emphasize rights, to abuse, to emphasize money and power, and to form relationships that exclude others, teaching selfishness (broken marriage with child abuse as a pattern). The larger and more important values become buried in primordial fury. Children raised in abusive societies, abuse the society in return. In many ways the children were reflecting the attitudes of the larger society around them - families, schools, legal system. The innocent parent is not as influential as we would like to believe in this constantly changing culture, with a constant stream of conflicting values coming at their children from peers, school teachers and counselors, other parents, the government, religious institutions, TV and movies, and older siblings.

We look for whom to blame. The school blames the parents, the parents blame the school and the legal system that has no teeth, and the legal system blames them both. While the blaming continues, arguing over who is at fault, the real issues are evaded. Society is attacked by the problem it created. Have I finally uncovered the problem? Read on.

It's getting worse as safeguards are being put in place to try to make things better. Just today I watched a television report on 20/20 (ABC) about a teen who stayed out late, called her mother demeaning names, then pressed criminal charges against her mother when her mother slapped her. The girl's peers and other parents felt the slaps were justified. The jury agreed. The girl still refuses to get the point. The climate promotes the girl's attitude. School systems and social service agencies focus on the slightest hint of physical abuse. Prosecutors (in this case) emphasize this aspect of law. All a child has to do is hint abuse or even look troubled and outside agencies are involved and creating major problems for innocent families going through very normal discipline problems. 

Children are suing parents every day trying to establish "rights."

What happens then is the child not only feels the entire world is on his side, he has found a way to control his parents, so that he is the one setting the limits of behavior and privileges. Control is an issue when teens disregard the family contract and decide parenting isn't needed. Guidance, teaching, and acceptance of responsibility are converted to issues of conflict and challenges to power. At that point there is no family. 

Many teens lack the experience or even knowledge to know what kind of situations they should or should not become involved in. It is the beginning of a teen becoming out of control, because of what other agencies (schools, social services, police, and prosecutors) assume to be necessary safeguards. Many who work in these systems seem predisposed to view (other) family units as control and power groups to be challenged or controlled, or made to conform, and are unable or unwilling to see that there is a family contract - a social bond that entails specific kinds of relationships that must remain autonomous to act and react as they feel necessary. Outside interference destroys the relationship and the child is set adrift with no family and no internal controls. Of course, some of them would go that way anyway.

Is it my imagination, or is there a family relationship that is unique and traditionally respected by society that is basically off limits to the outside world (except where serious abuse is taking place)? And with children becoming more knowledgeable about worldly things, at what point does the family contract end? Does knowledgeable necessarily mean more mature, experienced, or having developed values? The courts hold parents responsible for behavior and for medical bills to age 18, or even to age 21. Children are often living at home, unable to support themselves, until into their late twenties. In today's paper, a child of 16 is challenging his civil liberties in court over his parents right to recognize serious behavior problems in him and put him in a special school. On the other hand, if that 16 year old breaks the law, Dad's going to pay the bill and will be held responsible in court, and if the kid skips school, the authorities will hold his parents accountable - even jailable. 

We want to protect the innocent. From the moment a baby is born, there is an instinct to protect that child. Parents often desperately want to protect their maturing child or teen from all harm. Society wants to protect the developing personality of the child or teen from all harm. We won't let young teens work. We won't let them suffer. But are we doing the right things for them?

What is the impact of overprotection or abuse on individual kids? When you look at many of the great leaders in our world and look at their childhoods, by today's standards of raising children they should have died or become terribly twisted people. Instead, they overcame adversity and excelled. Yet so many people who are given all the "right" things end up dead, twisted, or simply unmotivated. Psychological studies in the 80s showed that there is very little correlation between childhood mistreatment and the influence later on the child, but those studies aren't popular. (In fairness, there is a matter of perspective on degree of impact involved here.) As much as we would like to think we understand the central tendencies which shape our lives, we don't. In fact we often remove the very challenges from people that they need to learn or to excel, fearing they are being hurt. 

What is the impact on individual parents? Many are quick to look at children's "bad" behavior and point to the parents with a self-righteous finger. Yet children raised in similar homes side by side end up "good and bad," and one child in a family of several children will turn out to be "a behavior problem." People arenít nearly as alike as we would like to pretend. Ministers get to know the secrets of all families in all socioeconomic and educational strata. Ask one. People are all the same. I have seen too many proud parents disintegrate when their young adult child "got in trouble." "My child would never do something like that." 

I say too many, because I saw the same parents ignore clues which should have alerted them that there were holes in their kidís value system. We would all prefer to pat ourselves on the back and think we are good parents. Some families are better at suppressing their problems or containing them, or have other avenues available to them to keep problems at bay until their children are older. Some families have children who inherently donít create trouble. But for most families, family situations are rarely ideal. Most people work too much and have too few activities the family members enjoy doing together, while teens have too much time on their hands and too few avenues to genuinely explore life interests, such as career goals. Yet society insists they not work - ties their hands from exploring - while allowing them nothing of value to do with their time. They are expected to experience vicariously through books, interacting with their peers, and sports. Bah, humbug. No wonder a large percentage of seniors graduate from college with no clue what field of work they want to be in.

Why do people expect others to be alike in behavior, reflecting a similar set of moral and ethical values, when everything says their other sets of values are different? My father was one of five boys with fifteen years separating oldest from youngest. Their individual personalities come through very well in a family photo. Each one was so uniquely dressed that you would never have recognized him from the same family. One became an electrical foreman, another operated his own truck farm business, the third was an athlete, Navy officer, high school teacher and principal. Another dropped out of high school his Sophomore year, fought in WW2, worked for industry and had his own farm. The last one served in the Army, then went to work for the post office. How much were they influenced by their environment? Their father, a gentle man, was a bandmaster and sometimes worked in the coal mines. Only one showed much musical inclination. 

When someone says to me that children are a reflection of their parents, I just smile. They know what they know. But what I have seen is that only in some very broad ways is that true. It mostly isnít. Children do model behavior, and many will test family religious values and find them compelling later in life, but parents in this day and age have more influence on teens as a source of advice and not as a controller of behavior. Yet the mood of the courts is toward jailing parents when their children are truant from school. With parents busy trying to earn enough money to keep their kids fed, clothed, and housed, and maybe on the way to college, and street-smart kids who know they can skip school without any real penalty and without their parent's knowledge - we're going to have to build even more jails. The world has changed - we have created a society in which parents don't have much influence. Or have we? When I read about the problems in school systems at the turn of the century - they were the same. And when I read comments by wise men among the ancient Greeks, they had the identical comments and concerns about their youth. 

Other factors produce kids with behavior problems. Parents who are immoral or thieves and who don't reflect any durable values, tend to produce children just like them. Genetic inheritance and body chemistry are also being shown to play major roles. For example, alcoholics often tend to have hypoglycemia, which is passed on, and which not only creates cravings, such as for alcohol, it also creates mood swings and can lead to violent behavior. 

Another example, Type A behavior, not necessarily recognized in the DSM, but well known among people pulling their hair out trying to cope with these hostile people, is a trait that can be passed on genetically, and can lead to violence. (DSM is the "recognized" cataloging of psychological illnesses, which is necessary for insurance, etc. The physician who recognized the patterns of behavior inherent in Type A failed to label it in the correct psychological terms, confusing the term "personality" with "behavior.") It's characterized by unbridled hostility toward others and a hurry sickness that prevents the person from enjoying things, and often from doing well in school. It's like being very irritated (like being irritable because of hunger) all the time - "Just let me get this stupid thing finished and get everyone out of my hair!" Itís like ADD with a multiplication factor. 

The parentsí ability to influence or help kids who are like this is limited because they never seem to have a rational moment, they are always rebelling against something no matter how trivial, and they tend to reject parents, values, rules - anything irritating. That doesn't mean that the learned or inherited tendencies are going to ruin the kid. It does mean that it is something which will influence him for better or worse. At some point the person makes great steps forward: it is better to control temper than to hurt someone and go to jail. 

Fortunately, scientists are unraveling the underlying causes of many of these problems. Many children are unable to absorb certain minerals from their food. The inability to absorb zinc has been established as a major contributing factor in the development of Type A Behavior and similar behavior styles in children. People treated for zinc malabsorbtion begin feeling "normal" and not irritated all the time. Where does this leave the poor frazzled young mother when Johnny the mega-monster is impossibly rotten and everyone seems to think it is her fault?

Hopefully, I have made you think - even jarred or irritated you from stagnant thinking - because writers are typically the people with vision who communicate ideas to the world. Writers must think creatively, explore life fully, and write passionately. If my personal feelings have come through anywhere in a "hidden agenda," what I have tried to say is simply that, just like in a story, some people are defeated by their obstacles, some are made strong by them. Some will grow into strong people because they come from an impoverished environment in which their parents showed them little love. Others in protective environments will sometimes become victims, forever pointing to others as the source of their downfall, as if an excuse was all they ever needed for never taking responsibility to get on with their lives. (As a parent of three, I have three examples that run the gamut of behavior. I have no broken children, I consider all three successful in their own way - they all are taking charge of their lives.) Had I locked into any one perspective I have no doubt all three of my children would have suffered for it (and they did suffer some because I wasn't able to treat them individually enough). They are all different and each required different methods and insights to raise. I recommend the writer be able to see all points of view and not lock into believing only one is right for everyone. Watch the simplistic phrases and the mind-sets that go with them. 

Theory vs reality - discovering meaning vs having it defined for us

What has meaning to us? The events in our lives? Relationships? Chances are, the best way to see what has meaning in another personís life is to watch their behavior. Meaning and behavior are inextricably linked. Writers donít send characters off in meaningless behavior. Meaning becomes motivation, which becomes behavior. For example, "acting out," in children becomes interpreted with the meaning: "I felt my friend was keeping the chocolates from me because she hates me, so I bit her." "Hates me" has meaning, and to a child it is motivating. 

Psychologists make frameworks of theories, called theoretical constructs, which they think might be true, and try to work within those boundaries. Students training to be psychologists are educated within those boundaries and work within them. The several major schools of psychology vary considerably in their beliefs about the basis of human behavior. 

For example, sexual and power relationships between parent and child is typical of the Freudian school. Behavioral expectations are then defined by that construct, and therapy to fix problems is centered on those issues. The more cognitive branches are more concerned about how the brain itself works. They tend to define learning and motivation by the biological processes within the brain (this is a generalization). Often one psychologist's theories oppose another's. Carl Rogers and B.F. Skinner are nothing alike in their approach to human behavior. But they are "experts." (This isn't meant in a derogatory way, physicians and nuclear physicists do the same thing.) 

What does this ultimately mean? To use a crude comparison, if you drown a fire with oil, it will go out. The air is smothered away so combustion and oxidation can't continue. For all intents, it looks as if throwing oil on a fire is a good thing. It works - it puts out the fire. We can go on to develop elaborate theories about why, and refine the method of dousing it - finding just the right measure of oil and exactly where to pour it and how widespread. Just like developing a psychological theory. Only problem is, after a while the lighter elements within the hot oil vaporize and explode into flame. The fire roars back with a vengeance and the fire is much worse than it would have been. 

We deal with people as if life has the same meaning for all of us. We sentence people to prison for crimes and expect that when they leave prison, they will have changed themselves and become law-abiding citizens. We neglect to ask if laws and prison have any meaning to them. If you capture law breakers from an environment where they have really nothing to lose, have been trained that there are no real consequences for their behavior (a year tour behind bars), and they believe they have no hope of ever becoming anything more than law breakers, what do laws and prison mean? An inescapable part of life like eating, death and taxes? 

Psychology as a corrective endeavor canít fix people who donít have a typical meaning structure, because it deals primarily with behavior and motivation, not with meanings (there are major exceptions). If love is not part of the convict's meaning scheme, except as the sign of a weak person, then "loving" some of these people only leads to more aberrant behavior. "Permissiveness" only leads to more lawlessness. "Talk and insight therapy" is an activity that can only be a game, because it canít address what isnít perceived in the convict as broken. So, pouring oil on these people doesnít work - the problem only gets worse. (This is just an example - not the answer to high recidivism rates, or even a criticism of this aspect of the criminal justice system.)

Psychology theories necessarily treat all the world the same and gets standardized results. We are all reduced to some common denominators. We all develop more or less a certain way. We all have certain needs that must be met. Certain things that are done to people are wrong because there is a correlation between doing that and a certain negative result. We should overcome suffering to end in happiness - free of pain. Theoretically.

Theory is nice. It does give us a way of understanding some human experiences, but it has its limitations. Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy, is a theory which tells us humans prioritize by an ascending hierarchy of needs and they theoretically won't address a higher need until more basic needs are fulfilled. Itís a great list for writers for character motivation alternatives. For example, security (food, shelter) is a human need that will be met first. That theory breaks down when you look at the homeless, people who won't keep a job, and writers who work endlessly for nothing. Tell this theory to an aspiring actor living on hope in New York or L.A., who doesn't know where his next paycheck is coming from, and see if he goes home. All these people have found something that has more meaning to them than security.

People find things about life - a purpose, a freedom - that is more important than security. Meaning leads to behavior, and security becomes secondary. So is Maslow's theory wrong? No. It is a good model of central tendency for an employer who keeps wages near subsistence levels. When that same employer wants to put an emphasis on quality he will run into problems. Most employees who must meet a quota (numbers of items produced in a short time) in order to make enough money to keep a roof over their head, are not going to get seriously concerned about the quality of widgets until it interferes with their security.

What seems to have meaning to most of us is not central tendencies, which our minds basically disregard, but exceptions. (See Bruner, in the "Reference Shelf.) We are individuals with individual needs who find meaning within a culture that helps define meaning for us collectively. But the culture changes as the bulk of its people change to different meaning structures. Engendered by the historical seeds that produced it, the sixties generation put all values into question, and ever since we have been redefining them, gleaning away the outmoded, confirming many, and defining the new. The culture remains flexible to its people. Yet is the general movement in this country toward making all things the same for everyone - life regulation through government bureaucracy? Is it up to the government, the school system and its agendas, or even talk show hosts to define what has meaning in our culture? 

Meaning-making is a growing trend in psychology since the 1930s. Victor Frankl developed a third Viennese psychoanalytic psychology (Freud, Adler, Frankl) which is concerned primarily with man's search for meaning, and thus the title of his book, Man's Search for Meaning.

What honest writing is about, I believe, is developing characters who believe certain things and have certain problems, putting them into a story and letting them illuminate the human condition. This is a bit different from a few forcing their idea of meaning onto others, whether it is through forcing characters (and viewers) to realize certain things in the context of a story, or through influential people and politicians defining what has meaning and forcing it onto others through regulation. 

Defining normal; developing characters

If we are able to point out the "exceptional" through characterization, then it helps to know what normal is. Most of us can be defined by a range of behavior considered "normal." There is no absolute yardstick for what is normal. Normal just means it doesn't deviate too far from the central tendencies of the rest of us. Just as twenty-twenty vision doesn't mean perfect vision, as if this was the eleventh commandment carved in stone, it just means average. Twenty-twenty is what most people can see, so it is the standard, even though some can see better than that. Most of the stories we write are about reasonably normal people. (Thrillers are an exception.) We'll get back to the normal range in a moment. 

What falls outside the range of normal behavior falls into the classification of abnormal psychology. I spend very little time on abnormal psychology because I have no interest in it, but Iíll mention it with relation to character change. Abnormal psychology covers psychotics: people who probably have a physical cause for their aberrant behavior. And neurotics: people who have become so entwined in complex behavior (usually coping mechanisms which allow them to live with impossible circumstances, or which prevent the real problem from being resolved) that they have lost touch with reality and aren't able to function normally. 

Normal people can become "abnormal," but it usually doesn't happen overnight. The only "normal" overnight Jeckyl and Hyde characters I know of are those suffering from alcoholism and other drugs, PMS, hypoglycemia, allergic reactions, and Type A behavior (which usually has no placid Dr. Jeckyl to it), and illness. So it's best not to make characters who have an occasional attack of neurosis or psychosis, unless they are truly schizophrenics. Most people are reasonably predictable and don't change overnight.

Social and hedonist

Between the poles of the antisocial recluse who stays away from everyone and offers no help to them of any kind, and the martyr who sacrifices himself for others, is where most of us exist. Some of us are purely hedonistic; that is, we avoid pain and seek pleasure and are very self-oriented. If we help others, it is because we get something in return, like a boost in self esteem, or preferably money. Some of us are pro-social; that is, we consistently help others and may pay little attention to ourselves. The central tendency will be between the two poles. But will your protagonist step out of a crowd and help a victim? In real life, maybe not. When people are in a crowd, they don't feel individually responsible - their sense of self and responsibility is less focused in a crowd - and they are less likely to act. But in a movie, it makes a good proactive character.

Once you have oriented your character on the social and hedonist continuum, there is one other important thing that most people seem to have. A sense of purpose. This is sometimes very broad and has to do with the person's basic identity. For example, being a mother or a father or a good provider. For some, only that role is important to them and what they do for work, isnít important as long as it supports that role. 

Some people seem to have a very defined, specific purpose. The best concession sales person at the baseball stadium. A talk show host. A writer about social issues. A corporate manager, but still the best mother and housekeeper. It is very important to these people what they do, and when they have found their niche, they want to be the best. 

When you have created a character, can you tell what that character's sense of purpose is? If not, his purpose will probably reflect whatever your purpose is, and this may be very much at odds with the storyline. 

So what makes one person become a psychopath who has so little regard for others that he can kill without emotion? What makes another person have so little regard for himself that he abuses himself to death in other's service, a martyr? Or what can drive a person so fiercely that he will give up his own life or way of life? A writer needs enough experience to stay clear sighted. He needs to have some idea at what point people succumb to environmental and peer pressures so that their freedom of choice is overcome and they are forced to act. 


What leads to tragedy? Tragedies have been written since the Ancient Greeks. The idea is, some people have a fatal flaw that drives them to their ultimate destruction. They are never able to overcome it. This idea fits well with those who are behaviorists and determinists and environmentalists (behavior is influenced by external - environmental - things) who believe people have limited freedom of choice - their decisions are forced on them by their genes or their environment, anything but their own self-directed experience. It is a very fatalistic view which says our destiny is not ours to control and things will happen as they have been programmed to do. In reality, this does happen a lot. People crash and burn because they have been unable to overcome their genetic heritage, or their environment. They may have failed simply because they believed they couldn't overcome their obstacles or because they weren't influenced (not by pressure alone) by others to change. On the other hand, many people do overcome their programming.

There is a lesson to be learned from people who succumb to a fatal flaw. But should we write that story? Tragedies are often tragedies at the Box Office, and so are not well received in Hollywood. Why don't people want to see tragedies? They tell us little about how to solve problems. The ending is not happy. Tragedies give us no hope that people can overcome. Interestingly, most of the tragedy stories I read are set in a completely existential background. The character usually has none of the normal roots that anchor people to life. His family doesn't love him, he has no true friends, he isn't part of a social group, he is irreligious, has no feeling of purpose, his mind is thoroughly confused, and he is sometimes on drugs or alcohol. It seems instinctive to writers that they have to set the character adrift in a sea of total meaninglessness before he can actually fall off the edge of the world. 

Actually it's much easier than that. If you want something tragic to write about, write about someone who has established an identity consisting of something that is impossible for him to attain. A growing obsession that he is unable to separate himself from and it finally devours him. Examples: A businessman who's only satisfaction can be running the company, but the president won't retire for forty years. A housewife whose identity is a clean house, but she has five very active kids who won't help clean and she has to work outside the home. A military serviceman whose only mark of true valor is to take lives, but he lives in peacetime. A Church Pastor whose only measure of success is lives saved from Hell, but he can't get a single sinner on his knees. These people are all driven and they will all attain their goal at great expense, or disintegrate (as in nervous breakdown), or kill themselves, unless something intervenes and helps them redefine themselves.

Other distribution restrictions: None

Return to main page

Page URL: