Monday, June 25, 2012

What Is Your Character’s Theory Of Mind?

Getting a handle on how your characters think about how other characters think, can give their decisions and actions more unity and credibility.

I know exactly what you think I'm thinking.
And it's true.
The fact that we can think about how other people think, is known in the world of psychology as having a theory of mind. We formulate expectations based on what we know (consciously or unconsciously) about other people, and so we anticipate their responses to events, including our own decisions and actions. In a recent episode of one of my current favourite podcasts, Arming the Donkeys, behavioural economist Dan Ariely interviews psychologist Laurie Santos about her research into cheating among monkeys. She and her team were surprised to discover how cleverly the monkeys managed to deceive the researchers. Especially because the way they cheat suggests that they must have some theory of mind, informing their expectations of human behaviour. However, one big difference between monkeys and humans, is that we’re much better at letting our desires fool us into misinterpreting other people’s behaviours.

What Do You Think I Think?
Consider for a moment what you think you know about someone close to you. A parent, a partner, a child, a friend, a colleague, etc. Based on your experiences with them, your knowledge of other people’s experience with them, their own reports, and so on, you probably have quite a specific, albeit implicit theory about how they view the world. You have a clear expectation of how they would respond, say, if you told them you’d been fired, won the lottery, been diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. You might be less sure of how they would respond if they found out you’d been gossiping about them, cheated on them, defrauded them, ratted on them, etc. Less certain, but still.. you have some expectation, based on your theory of their mind. But also, of course, based on what you would like to be true, or what you fear might be true. And you become most painfully aware of your theory about someone else, when it turns out to be wrong.

What Do Your Characters Think Other Characters Think?
Similarly, characters in a screenplay have theories about each other’s minds. Of course, these are made up by the screenwriter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be coherent. When you put a character in a situation in which, for instance, they have to choose between being truthful or lying, their choice is going to be informed by how they expect other characters to behave. And, just as in real life, a scene in a screenplay becomes dramatic or funny, or both, when one character believes something about another character and this turns out to be wrong.

When One Character’s Theory About Another Is Wrong
I could have sworn he was hot for me.
I recently got around to viewing Mike Leigh’s Another Year which includes a wonderful example of how one character’s theory about another character turns out to be wrong, creating a great tragicomic beat. Mary (played by Lesley Manville) a nervous, lonely woman approaching middle-age, flirts with Joe, the 30-year old son of her friends Tom and Gerri, whom she’s known since he was a boy. She mistakes Joe’s friendliness as a hopeful sign that he’s attracted to her, and so later she’s devastated when he enthusiastically introduces her to his new girlfriend. The scene is filled with such painful embarrassment because Mary’s reaction makes plain to the other characters and to the audience, just how desperate she is, and how misguided her perception of Joe was.

I know I’ve been in situations where my theory about someone else’s mind has been upturned. And I’m not just talking about that girl I was convinced was in love with me when I was thirteen, but who turned out to have a crush on my best friend. I’m talking about any time someone’s reaction doesn’t match your expectations, when you realize you had the wrong idea about them. You thought they were better, worse, more clever, stupid, compassionate or cruel than they really are. These are the kinds of moments that great scenes turn on. In terms of screenwriting, understanding and showing how your characters think about each other helps to set up these moments convincingly and effectively. 

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