Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Moral Indignation Is Good For Your Characters But Bad For You

As promised in a previous posting How To Outrage Your Characters, here is the second aspect of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ argument, as described by Robert Wright, with a twist for screenwriters!

Trivers posits that the human brain has evolved to be heavily biased in its host’s favour when it comes to disputes. The brain selectively remembers arguments (however flimsy) which support its host’s point of view, and conveniently forgets arguments (however valid) negating the same.

Comments Wright:

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again--whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which--we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.

So we’re programmed to be convinced we’re right. All of us. That’s weird. Because, of course, we can’t all be right all of the time, that’s logically impossible. Sometimes you’re just wrong. Or sometimes the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In this light, let’s take a look at a favourite screenwriter emotion: Moral indignation.

How often have you heard, read, or even experienced this: A screenwriter ranting about a producer who simply refuses to see the true value of what they’ve written? Or worse: A screenwriter masochistically wallowing in the role of victim, the exploited artist of the film industry?

If you’re that screenwriter, life sucks. You spend your days pecking out your own liver, cursing the day you ever decided to start writing for the screen.

However, if the screenwriter were one of your characters, you’d be on to a good thing. Before you could say … and the Oscar for best original screenplay goes to … you’d have this character running amok in his own life like a bull in a China shop. It would be clear to see for everyone except the character himself that his refusal to reflect and look at his own faults, is what is dragging him closer and closer to the abyss. And it will take at least until page 75 for this insight to start dawning on the poor guy himself. By which time it’s almost too late …

Of course, in the real world, if you’re still alive it’s never too late. There’s always time to start over and, without losing any of your passion for writing, acknowledge that it’s at least worth considering whether the other party has a point. But that requires letting go of the moral indignation.

Here’s one way to do that:

Step aside and look at your script and your career as if they belonged to your best friend. What would you advise them if you really loved and respected them? Would you tell them to look for a different producer? Change careers? Rewrite the script according to the producer’s notes?

Listen to the advice you would give your best friend, if they were you, as it were. Believe me, I know, I’m always right …


Anonymous said...

Dave Herman,

Love this advice to the script commnunity.


Cheers man!

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks, I'm glad it makes sense!


Jezza said...

Yes, great post and entirely true.

A flawed character is an interesting character, but in real life there are no closing credits or neat redemption, so we best get over our hangups ASAP.

I can only think of 2 immediate examples of essentially good characters who are nearly perfect:

Lloyd Dobbler (John Cusack) in "Say Anything", and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) in "Atonement".

Both characters somehow still maintain interest and are engaging, and this is truly the proof of strong screenwriting. I'm sure it would have been easier to make both of them chronic alcoholics.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks for that, Jezza.

One of the things that distinguishes the good from the great in screenwriting is definitely the ability to write flawed characters without reverting to clichés and stereotypes.

Subvert the obvious!