*Translation of an essay by French author Jean Chavot.
A recurrent debate among screenwriters regards psychological versus functional approaches to creating characters. The question might be formulated as follows: how much does the psychology of the characters depend on their function within the story? How much does their function depend on their psychology?
Many writers apparently decide what their characters will do, then they shape them consistently with their actions, or they simply realize their actions have drawn a psychology. Other writers—supposedly few—conceive a complete psychology then infer the situations such mindset would cause, or how it would react to a given situation. Of course, all agree that a character endowed with the most detailed psychology still wouldn’t exist without a role in the narrative, and a character without psychological coherence would ruin the overall credibility of the story. In practical terms, whether function or psychology is privileged, both are present in bud since the beginning and the character is luckily provided with both at the end. Therefore the question is simply methodological: “Which one should come first?” All have specific answers and all answers are fine. All do what they can, how they can. But no answer seems to be entirely satisfying, as the question is constantly re-proposed. I have wondered why, and if by any chance it might hide other questions.
Let’s say a script is a series of actions/reactions performed by the characters through a sequence of events they cause or they suffer. Because a psychology is only made visible by its symptoms (meaning its effects on behaviors), and reciprocally all action/reaction is overdetermined by a psychological intention—either conscious or not—we can say that function and psychology of the characters are inseparable within the script. If we can separate them, the whole plausibility of the story is at stake. As it happens in ‘real life’, psychology and events incessantly interact, their relationship constituting a person’s existence. The more fused their psychology and their role in the story, the more credible, convincing and susceptible of identification the characters are. Ideally, the only difference between people and characters is that the latter live in a fiction, besides obviously that people result from a natural process and characters are abstract artifacts. We can say that characters are acting psychologies or rather— because what we perceive of movie characters is either visible or audible, gestures, behaviors, words—‘psychological agents’.
As the writing begins then, characters are embryonic psychological agents endowed with potential developments, which will follow an inherent logic (a psychology) indivisible from their destiny (their role within the story) as we have stated above. How are such embryos conceived? They don’t pop out of the blue. They form inside their authors, of course. Either personal inspiration or assignments the authors still need to appropriate, either solely enterprise or teamwork shared with co-authors, actors, directors, producers and so forth, the conception, gestation and development of the embryos still occur within the authors. Therefore, their ‘matrix’ is incontestably psychic and it holds all that a psyche contains: ideas and affections, memories and representations, references, preoccupations, expectations. Also manners of thinking, ideologies, tastes, attitudes, cultural background, education. The embryos are formed and fed by the structural elements of their authors’ psyche, no doubt.
The authors’ psyche hosts as well a ‘gallery of ancestors’ that combines their own likeness (how they see themselves, how they are) with the portraits of those they have met, hope to meet, characters they or others have created, people that was described to them and all those they have forgotten but still haunt their brain, like ghosts—an infinity of possible models for the embryos. All these figures compose an extremely diverse genealogy reaching deep into the past—the embryo fidgeting on the writer’s desk being the ultimate progeny of such long and abundant lineage. This whole premise leads to an incontestable conclusion: the embryo of a character is uniquely made of materials (original or acquired) belonging to the author’s psyche. The character is a psychological agent generated inside and by the author’s psyche.
Authors might believe they are employing their skills, culture or imagination as they write—all things they can control, at least be aware of. Still, since the process occurs in their mind, they can’t deny that these tools are inevitably ‘tainted’ by moods, ideology, affections, more or less avowed dreams of glory and, beyond, by powers and agencies they don’t perceive at all. They cannot ignore such ‘contamination’ without bluntly dismissing all influence of their psychology—especially unconscious—on their writing. But if they deny it for themselves they will do the same for their characters—the creatures they believe they perfectly own. Authors who don’t admit the influence of their psyche on their work don’t grant to their characters’ psychology a determinant role in their actions. They esteem that acting within the story frame is enough for them to be convincing. Or they endow them with a psychology, often rough and robotic, after they realize (or are told) something is missing, perhaps in the dialogues. But unless the story is worthless, the characters—in spite of their authors’ intentions—do not wait to be given a psychology in order to have one, or they wouldn’t exist: as we have seen, a character is a psychological agent. Where does such psychology unknown to the authors—or discovered by them afterwards, based upon the characters’ actions—come from? It can only derive from the authors’ psychology, of course. Yet they can’t see the latter ‘contaminate’ their characters, as they don’t even admit its influence on their writing. They treat characters like dead puppets without libido or personal history, into which they breathe ‘something’ in order to give them life. Not realizing that what they breathe is their own psychology, they believe that function prevails, as it is all they see themselves conceive and manipulate. Truly, psychology does—only not that of the characters, rather the author’s one. It not only engenders the characters, but the story itself as—we have seen it—its ‘psychological agents’ are all born and developed inside the author’s psyche. Therefore the dilemma: “Should we begin creating a character by its function or its psychology?” could be humorously answered: “By the author’s psychology”. Summarizing, we could say authors who pretend to privilege function only deny psychological determination. For their characters, but essentially for themselves.
And yet authors could find useful to discern which intimate materials and structures they utilize while building their characters. Such knowledge would allow the proper distance needed for intervening upon actions and motives of the characters, granting their autonomous development through the story, ultimately producing a richer and better narrative.
Because, since the embryo, psychology and function are one, we could ask a more interesting question than: “What should we begin with?” We should address instead the autonomy of the characters/psychological agents from their authors. How does the authors’ psychology determine their characters’ psychology and function? The question couldn’t be more intimate. It must be why it hides shyly behind the fake dilemma—function or psychology first—of which the author pretends not to know the solution: all begins from, by, within myself. We might as well articulate the question in personal rather than methodologically terms: “What kind of psychological necessity do authors have to create characters?”
The intimacy of the authors is full of themselves and of the icons of other people, of course absent. All those figures—forming the secret genealogy of the characters—live in the shadow of the author’s sense of uniqueness, meaning the irreducible solitude we all face, since we can only be ourselves by ourselves. Such loneliness frightens, as it brushes the mystery of being. We try to fill it up, but it’s bottomless. We deny it, and we are scared nonetheless by its dizzying depth. Those who try to find another within themselves are like Orpheus traveling to the underworld to rescue Eurydice. As he turns back to verify she is following him towards the surface, she disappears, leaving him with a memory and the story that keeps it alive.
Love is the most common strategy utilized for denying, diverting or appeasing ontological loneliness. In lack of convenient partners, another trick is to invent an imaginary friend, seldom real enough to be entirely believable, even when endowed with looks, personality, past and future, intentions, freedom, ability of reflection, relation, action and so forth. In a way, writing a story and conceive fictional characters achieve the same goal as falling in love: trying to assuage the anxiety of ontological loneliness. After all, seduction consists in re-creating ourselves as characters while inventing our partners, which in turns re-create themselves and invent us in a vicious circle. Voluntarily highlighting—or uniquely seeing—single aspects of our partners or selves is the equivalent of using personal elements for building fictive characters. Sadly, each of us has experienced all seduction is fictional. And it ends quite unhappily most of the times.
Of course, we can hope for love to be something else than a temporary distraction from loneliness. Issues about primacy of psychology or function while creating a character superficially echo a much deeper questioning—that of ontological solitude calling for genuine love, for the meeting of two ontological solitudes recognizing, respecting, exploring each other. Do the characters of our making distract us? On the contrary, do they help us better explore and formulate our inherent loneliness?
To appear and act like authentic persons, characters must receive from their authors an authentic quality of love. That can only occur if they are given their own ontological solitude, needed for them to become autonomous, complete subjects. Otherwise they are miniature copies of their authors, only endowed with the consciousness, free will and abilities of a puppet destined to entertain a bunch of spectators, authors included.
Geppetto1 feels very lonely. Luckily, he finds a talking log. To get company, he carves out a small wooden fellow he immediately cherishes as a son. But in order to become a real boy Pinocchio has to explore the world, running into a thousand of adventures while Geppetto runs after him. At some point, father and son reunite inside the belly of a shark.
Geppetto is an author. His embryo-of-a-character is a talking log. With a bit of technique and some craft, he believes, he can make it into a credible thing, capable of entertaining both him and his audience. Barely sketched, the puppet only wishes to live his pre-planned adventures, banal and predictable—perfunctorily fulfilling its role within the story. Yet his minimal, external, normative, moralizing consciousness starts bothering him in the guise of a Talking Cricket. At this stage the puppet needs such presence so little that he crushes it with a mallet. But the tiny beast is immortal, and it soon resumes chirping in the wooden ears of Pinocchio—also immortal, as he’s still incompletely alive. Paradoxically, incarnation begins after a pair of murderers kills him (symbolically, since he is made of wood). Even more after meeting another dead, a double, a sister, the Girl with Turquoise Hair—an earlier form of the Fairy. As she promises he will become a real boy, he reacts with a candid nasal erection, signifying his vital intentions are sound, rooted into an autonomous consciousness striving for visibility like the nose in the middle of his face. Yet his nose becomes noticeable uniquely when he lies, meaning when his truth escapes like a slip that only the Fairy—such a quintessentially psychological, such a clairvoyant entity—can catch. Meanwhile Geppetto keeps searching for his son. For the old carpenter love has already transformed Pinocchio in a living child. But the puppet must learn how to bear his ontological loneliness through deceptions and treasons, through mistakes and injustices, alas, still awaiting him. Luckily, the vigilant Fairy always rescues him in extremis. Dad and son look for one another across oceans, until Pinocchio finds Geppetto gobbled up (as he previously was) by a huge if harmless jaw. They both manage to leave unscathed, after having reunited within the ontological loneliness represented by the sleeping monster’s gut. And here’s the Talking Cricket, guiding them to the home the Fairy has prepared for them. When they arrive she appears to be dying. As he tries to save her, finally Pinocchio becomes a ‘real good boy’2. Of course she isn’t dead and will never. She keeps granting him gifts of wisdom, but invisibly because she has become his own consciousness, luminous if still mysterious. Pinocchio comes alive when the awareness of his solitude unveils both his need for love, and his readiness to give it.
Ultimately, to understand the characters we create is to know their need and capacity of love, to realize in which measure they master or are controlled by them, meaning in which ways they are alone. To the question, “Should we start by the characters’ function or by their psychology?” the answer might well be: “By their solitude”.
1 I refer to the story as narrated in Collodi’s original masterpiece, Le Avventure di Pinocchio.
2 “Com’ero buffo, quando ero un burattino ! e come ora son contento di essere diventato un ragazzino perbene !…” (How ridiculous I was when I was a puppet! How happy I am to have become a real good boy!)
- “The Geppetto Complex” (An Essay Translated by Toti O’Brien) - September 21, 2018
- “Another Shade of True” - August 30, 2017