Sunday, January 10, 2010

Feeling Your Character’s Legs… As It Were

In a recent episode of her wonderful podcast All In The Mind, entitled Dream: the body alive! Natasha Mitchell interviews Jungian psychotherapist Robert Bosnak about his way of working with dreams. Bosnak’s basic assumption is that from the point of view of the dreaming state of mind, dreams are real events in real environments. The senses all function as in waking reality, as do the emotions. The elements of a dream have their own independent intelligence and in the therapeutic context they have something to tell the dreamer.

Using this as a point of departure in group therapy, Bosnak encourages his clients to actively re-enter their dream, intensely experiencing the physical sensations of the characters in the dream. In the podcast he relates some intriguing examples, such as the guy who dreams about a man in a green suit who is, “very strong and can take initiative.” The group encourages their fellow dreamer to feel what the green man is like, and before long he begins to feel how strong this green man’s legs are. It’s the direct, physical sensation of these strong legs that connects the dreamer to the emotional significance of his dream and helps him, literally, move forward.

In order to re-enter one’s dream in such a physical way, says Bosnak, you need to deliberately enter the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping called the hypnagogic state. In this state, you’re fully conscious of what you’re doing but at the same time also fully present in the reality of the dream. In other words, a state of dual consciousness.

Now then, what does all this have to do with screenwriting, I hear you wonder. Well, it can sometimes be difficult to really, physically, emotionally get into a character. It’s easy enough to compile reams of character biography. This may be what a producer wants to see, but you run the risk of writing from too reasoned a place in your mind, which doesn’t necessarily lead to authentically emotional drama. Phil Gladwin of Screenwriting Goldmine realized this too and writes,

I'd spend days writing up pages about a character, from where they were born to what disasters befell them at school, to how they felt about broccoli. And then, what was annoying was that, the minute the story got going, I would find my characters doing things I just never accounted for when I wrote those 20 pages of backstory, and a lot of it seemed a waste of time.

Whereas what you need to do in order to bring your characters to life, is feel what they feel. It’s not necessarily sufficient to reason what someone would do in a given dilemma, even if you know all about their history. Life is rarely that neat and tidy. What you need most is to get into their gut in the middle of the scene, experience their fear, anger, despair, disgust, arousal, or whatever other emotion that’s driving them.

And one excellent way of doing this is to relax, take a deep breath and become their legs. Or any other relevant part of their body, of course. Not as a sensationalist trip, but as a serious step towards being that character in the scene, towards deliberately constructing your drama from an emotional core.

Talking of which…. last night, I dreamed about this horrible, round-faced interrogator with ogling blue eyes and shiny skin, who was grilling me about something. He was being terribly rational and he was obviously aware I was trying to hide something.

I have the feeling he’s trying to tell me something…

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