“Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are” by Daniel Nettle.
Oxford University Press, Oxford 298 pages.
ISBN-978-0-19-921142-5 Amazon Price: US $10.17
I recently watched “Public Enemies”, Michael Mann’s portrait of John Dillinger, and came away very dissatisfied. John Dillinger was Public Enemy Number One, and Johnny Depp is a great Hollywood character actor. I therefore thought “Public Enemies” would give me a deep insight into one of most interesting personalities in American criminal history.
The film gave me no insight into Dillinger’s character.
It didn’t. “Public Enemies” told me next to nothing about Dillinger’s character. He seemed to enjoy his work, was stupid enough to take great risks for little reward, was keen to help fellow gangsters who had unfortunately been shot and, by punching out strangers when they asked for their hats, was able to impress girls. But beyond that, nothing. The film gave me no insight into Dillinger’s character, his personality or his motivations.
WHAT IS CHARACTER?
This led me to think about personality and screen characters. How many times do you hear movie goers mutter as they leave the theatre, “I just didn’t get that character”?
What does “just didn’t get” mean? It means the writer did not create scenes with enough information to give us a true understanding of the character’s personality.
There are many screenwriting books that devote multiple chapters to character; indeed, there are many screenwriting books that concentrate solely on character. Most of them drag out the hoary old Henry James quote about character being the determination of incident.
They tell us how to create a character with traits that
relate to the story, but neglect all the other character traits.
Some of them go on to suggest that screen characters have a dramatic need, an attitude and a point of view. But none of them seem to discuss the personality traits of a screen character that have nothing to do with this dramatic need. They tell us how to create a character with traits that relate to the story, but neglect all the other character traits.
In other words, they tell us how to create a one dimensional character. Furthermore, most of these books get sidetracked by Hollywood’s strange demand for a quasi-religious all-redeeming (and in real life very rare) character arc. (Dillinger’s lack of a character arc is the only redeeming feature of “Public Enemies”).
Screenwriters are generally not psychiatrists.
To really understand the personality of a character, it is preferable to consult a psychology text rather than a screenwriting manual. Screenwriters are generally not psychiatrists; nor do they have time to wade through all the latest books on personality theory. But a short primer on the subject that includes up to date research in the area of personality theory can only assist in producing well rounded characters that an audience will understand.
Daniel Nettle’s “Personality” is one such book. Nettle is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Newcastle, has a First Class honours degree in psychology, a PHD in Biological Anthropology and is the author of six other books on psychology and a host of academic papers in the same field.
His analysis summarises the latest theories of personality in an easy, digestible form.
There is a consensus of opinion amongst psychologists that all human behaviour can be classified by five personality dimensions – Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. The levels of these character traits can be measured with a surprising degree of accuracy by a number of personality tests.
These tests can be as brief as the 12 question Newcastle Personality Assessor, found in the back of Nettle’s book, or more comprehensive tests (which nine times out of ten give the same answers as the briefer tests) based on the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP). One such test with 50 items and 5 factors can be found at http://ipip.ori.org/ipip.
A high score in Neuroticism, for example,
is a good predictor of divorce.
Personality tests tend to give similar results over a long period of time, and they tend to be good predictors of behaviour. A high score in Neuroticism, for example, is a good predictor of divorce. In the 1950’s and 1960’s (when men were generally the sole breadwinners) a low score for a man in Conscientiousness was also a divorce predictor.
Sociable and optimistic people are more likely to die young (if this worries you read the book), while conscientious people tend to live longer.
Many people find the results of their personality tests quite confronting. Not so screen characters. You can assess a screen character without worrying about his reaction. (If your character commits suicide after receiving the results of his personality test your writing is much too realistic).
You can assess a screen character
without worrying about his reaction.
Furthermore, questions posed by the Newcastle Personality Assessor and IPIP tests might suggest one or two scenes that will help reveal your character’s personality. If, for example, your character is an extravert could show him starting a conversation with as stranger, or insulting someone (scenes based on two of the Newcastle Personality Assessor questions). His degree of neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness can also be expressed just by placing the character in circumstances that allow these traits to be revealed.
Once you have created your character you can assess him on the basis of a personality test. You can then see if you have produced a well rounded personality that your audience will understand.
I gave the John Dillinger character the Newcastle Personality Assessor and he was able to answer only two of the twelve questions. No wonder I found “Public Enemies” unsatisfying.
I then submitted ten of the characters in filmsite.org’s “100 Greatest Movie Characters of all Time” and found on average they could answer ten out of the twelve questions.
I am sure that Nettle did not write “Personality” with screenwriters in mind, but there is no reason why you should not exploit his wisdom. Fictional characters are a reflection of real characters.
When Nettle says “…there are five broad personality dimensions along which we differ, and which cause us to behave in certain ways…” you could easily substitute the words “screen characters” for “we” and “us”..
ORIGINS OF MOTIVATION
He goes on to say that “…a great deal of what happens in our interests, careers, relationships, romantic lives and health follows from where we fall along these continua.” These are determined by “… firstly genetics, and secondly, various early life influences over which we have no control and which seem essentially irreversible.”
This last phrase echoes expressions found in screenwriting handbooks, such as the “character’s backstory”, “primary emotional state”, “original defining moment” and “character flaw”.
Put aside your screenwriting books and
delve into this quick primer on personality theory.
So if you find some of your characters are not fully rounded and you are concerned that your audience will not “get” them, put aside your screenwriting books and delve into this quick primer on personality theory.
You cannot create a character out of a personality test, but you will quickly note aspects of that character’s personality that you have neglected. When you rectify this problem, your character will come to life, or at least won’t die in the cinema or, as in Dillinger’s case, outside it.
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.