BALLS OF STEEL: Character Evolution – Therapy for Your Character

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Writers are often defined as crazy, myself included. But I use my insanity to help me create multi-layered characters. You see, my characters go everywhere with me, even to my therapist’s couch.

In my opinion, therapy should be mandatory for writers, or at least a Psych 101 class.

Whether you call it a character arc, evolution, or growth, the change in your characters from start to finish is what showcases the theme of your story and makes their journey relatable to the readers.

BALLS OF STEEL: Therapy for Your Character by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman | Script Magazine

But, how can you grow your characters if you don’t understand psychology?

In order to emotionally evolve a character, you need to be able to identify why he has chosen not to evolve prior to the moment in time your story begins.

Christopher Volger and Michael Hauge talk about the importance of discovering your characters’ wounds in a fantastic DVD called The Hero’s Two Journeys. But evolution is more than pinpointing a wound. How does your character react to those wounds? Where did that behavior come from? How did they learn to cope as a child?

Recently, my therapist and I were discussing how I learned my coping skills. It was one of those ah-ha moments, both for my writing and my life.

Coping skills are unique to each person. When we are young and in a situation that scares or challenges us, how we cope depends entirely on how safe we feel in our surroundings. Children rarely stand up to adults, so they either trust them blindly or freeze in fear of them. But when we ourselves become adults, we often don’t adjust our manner of coping. Changing those coping mechanisms is impossible unless you can identify them. They are ingrained in us, and ingrained in our characters.

While a script has many players, let’s stick to discussing how analysis relates to our protagonist and antagonist.

In life, whether we realize it or not, we attract people who are familiar, which often means we attract those who mirror people from our childhood – people who either scarred us or who loved us. If our childhood is full of people who ripped apart our self-esteem, we’ll attract those who keep us in that familiar place of insecurity. The opposite is true if we are surrounded by love and support.

Who would your protagonist attract into his inner circle?

You might be tempted to surround him with angelic good guys, but do you really think his life was that boring? And if his life was indeed that dull, your readers would be asleep in five minutes. Let’s face it, today’s audience is too savvy for a remake of Leave It to Beaver.

What is it about the antagonist that might have attracted the protagonist to him? Does he subconsciously remind him of the very person who inflicted his childhood wound? I say “subconsciously” because if he’s conscious of it, there’s no room for discovery and evolution.

Let’s now put your antagonist on the couch.

Obviously, this dude has flaws. But beyond his sexy, bad-boy traits, there must be something humanizing in him. After all, everyone is born pure. However, if you saw We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I highly recommend), that theory might be debatable. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume the stork dropped off a perfect bundle of gooey goodness. What happened to him along the way that marred his potential? Find that, and you can create rich layers in his story.

Even if your antagonist is a rotten, serial-killing scoundrel, you must make the audience see a little bit of themselves in him when he’s on screen. Even Hannibal Lecter got the audience to root for him.

Now, apply that type of analysis to all your supporting characters. The more layers you can add to every single character in your story, the more invested your readers are going to be, and the better the talent you’ll attract to the roles.

I doubt many of you would want to pull a bar stool up and chat the night away with a one-note character. No one wants to spend a lot of time with someone who is boring.

If I sat on my therapist’s couch and only shared my healthy qualities, she’d be yawning. Instead, I spill my ugly sins, fears, and flaws, leaving her frantically scribbling in her notepad, truly wanting to help me.

She is rooting for me to change, but I can’t change unless I make a conscious choice to change.

If your characters don’t make different choices than the ones they would have made in the opening scenes, your story won’t advance or have meaning. Your characters have to overcome their internal demons.

That’s the thing about demons, fear, angst, and uncertainty; we can’t hide from them. No matter how much effort we put into hiding, they will consume us and leave destruction in their path. It’s their whole purpose in our lives. It’s why they exist. It’s why we create them for our characters – to add conflict to the story.

Help yourself help your characters.

Start by visualizing yourself across from a therapist, probing you with questions. Will you lie? Will you keep repeating mistakes? Or will you choose to evolve? If your character had your problems, what would you tell her to do?

My guess is you would push her to change.

In my opinion, you’ll never be able to evolve your characters if you haven’t experienced being ripped apart, bawling on the bathroom floor, broken, metaphorically naked and lost.

Maybe the best practice in writing great characters is to learn how to evolve yourself. It might change not only your writing, but also your life.

Change is frightening, but it’s essential for growth and happiness. The same is true for your stories and for those fictional people you get to play with every single day. Sit one of them on the couch today and ask the tough questions, imagining how she would answer, or if she’d squirm, lie and hold back the tears.

Most importantly, really push your characters. I double-dog-dare you to find the question that would make your antagonist cry. As my therapist always says, it’s what makes you cry that shows the real wound.

There’s no way around the hard work of self-exploration and growth, both in your life and in your words. But remember to have fun with it. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Read more articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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12 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Character Evolution – Therapy for Your Character

  1. MSB186

    So this isn’t very relevant to the article, but it is bothering me: I really think you completely misunderstood We Need To Talk About Kevin, although it’s awesome to hear that you enjoyed it as much as me! But, my point is that although Kevin seems evil from birth, this is because of an unreliable narrator – nothing he does in early childhood is evil per se. For example, Eva is extremely disturbed by Kevin refusing to eat in front of her as a child, because she sees it as him acting inhuman and pretending he needs no sustenance. However she also described how uncomfortable feeding him as an infant made her feel, which somewhat implies that he is reacting as any child would. Another obvious example is how she believed that he refused to be toilet trained purely to torment her, dispite the fact that most of the time when children [of that age] cannot control themselves [in that way] it is due to some trauma they have experienced. Most parents understand that this is out of a child’s control, but she took it personally and physically injured him – which is extremely typical of abusive parents. She even resented him refusing to talk to her in his infancy, conveniently forgetting that she verbally abused him at the age his language skills should have developed. She even sees his father’s opposing view as more evidence that Kevin is manipulating every one around him, instead of accepting that he really sees a side to Kevin she does not (which, incidently, is exactly what initially caused her to distrust Franklin – just as he dismissed her hatred of their house, she ignores his opinions from then on).

    As a young child most of the evil-doings of Kevin are only seen by his mother – why, really, does she assume he intentionally ruined her map room, or hurt the girl who had eczema? Because this 5 year old is evil? Is he crazy, or is she?

    Of course, he does grow up to be a true psychopath, but the entire point of the book is that it constantly demands you to judge Eva and Kevin, and question nature vs nurture.

    Perhaps Eva’s perceptions are correct and some people are simply born evil. But perhaps she (on some level) hated her child from conception, as evidenced by the fact that she had Kevin (as a foetus) screened for Down’s, and she refused this for Cecelia, dispite the fact that her much later pregnancy (logically) actually *could* deserve such scrutiny. Even later on, she assumes he wears children’s clothes to appear intimidating, although most people would interpret that as an attempt to stay as a child. I thought he actually, legitimately wished to be incarcerated due to his missed childhood – prison seemed to him like a place where he could have a normal routine and rebel against it like a normal teen; and since he was distanced as an infant, he never learned that other people are just as important as him – which lead to his blatant psychopathic behaviour.

    Now, I’m not going to be so arrogant as to angrily insist you are wrong, because I know that my view of Kevin – being raised to fear himself and his emotions [which created a fear of joy, which in turn inspired his crime] – is just an interpretation, but I honestly think it is the entire point of the novel.

    At face value, the title seems to suggest that Eva should have tried harder to warn people that Kevin is dangerous, and that Franklin should have listened to her more, or that it’s just about the book itself being made up of stories from Eva to Franklin, but I interpret it thus: if Franklin and Eva had been able to truly emphasise with and understand each other’s point of view, they would have eventually reached a more moderate, realistic view of their son, and they would have therefore raised him better, and he would never have grown up to do such wicked things. They needed to talk about Kevin, as opposed to Eva fearing the evil which burst from her womb, and Franklin refusing to accept that his child could ever do wrong, which is all we really see happening when the parent characters actually try to talk about Kevin.

    I’m sure I’ve sounded unbearably stuck-up in this comment, so if you’ve read this far, thank you! I’ve made an effort here not to spoil any major points in the book (or the film), so if you found this interesting, I’m sure you know what I think you should read next!

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      See? This is exactly why I love that film (I did not read the book… yet). Your response makes my point perfectly. The author created complex characters that made you think about them and their choices long after putting the book down. That’s exactly what I’m suggested we all do. Analyze them. Dive into their heads. Don’t just make them good/evil. Give them layers that make us doubt and ask who really IS the bad guy here? Maybe the protagonist is. WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a shining example of pushing the boundaries and creating characters who not only linger in our minds but are also ones actors want to play. Thanks, MSB. Great insights. You made me want to watch it again! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Emily McDonald » Post Topic » Unspoken Goals

  3. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Unk, you know me well. Speaking of mirrors, I keep one at my desk. No, not for a hair check before a Skype call, but to look at when I’m preparing to write a really intense scene. I stare at my reflection as I get to the place of emotion I need my character to be in. Once I feel it and see it, I can write it. I’m a visual learner, therefore literally seeing the emotion on my face helps me create it on the page. Yeah, I’m crazy 😉

    Theresa, I love when our characters give us strength in ways we never expected. Regarding a “crisis of confidence,” we all have those moments. A post I wrote a few weeks back might help: Hope vs Faith http://www.scriptmag.com/2011/11/10/balls-of-steel-hope-vs-faith/ … or you could just fake it. That works too 🙂

  4. Theresa

    This is how I love to write. It’s kind of funny. I’m having a crisis of confidence right now and I actually said to myself, “Do what Lily (my main character) would do-fake it.”

  5. Unknown ScreenwriterUnk

    Ah… You’re feelin’ it. Good. The weaknesses and imperfections — vices and truly do bring a character to life. We identify with them and their flaws because we are looking in a mirror.

    We just don’t know it.

    Unk

  6. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Princess and Jan, thanks so much for your never-ending support. I often look at the Balls column as group therapy for writers in the trenches, where we all show a bit of our wounds. I can’t think of a better way to help each other stay on the path to production. I’m honored you keep coming back for more! Can’t wait to see what the New Year brings for all of us.

  7. Jan Militello

    “If your character had your problems, what would you tell her to do?

    My guess is you would push her to change.”

    Wow. What a way to end the year. I think this is your most insightFILLED blog yet! — And that is saying a lot. Each and every one has been thought provoking.

    Thanks, Jeanne!

  8. Princess Scribe

    Love it.

    There’s something so… delicious about getting into your characters’ heads. Yes, even the bad ones…

    …and by putting them on the couch, as you suggest, you’re able to make them complex and conflicted. Multi-dimensional human beings as opposed to rank stereotypes.

    Brava chica, as always.

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