Character = choice under pressure. Another of those damned screenwriting axioms that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Sure, it’s what we would like reality to be like, so in that sense it’s perfect. It explains why films, certainly mainstream commercial films, always have to have heroes who get stuck in increasingly difficult dilemmas and who eventually choose the right thing. That delicious fantasy, the monomyth in which good prevails over bad, purely through the individual force of will of the hero.
Instant, Unconscious and Irrational Decisions
Wouldn’t it be great if human decision-making worked like that? Unfortunately current neuroscientific and psychological insights show conclusively, it doesn’t. We take most of our decisions instantaneously, unconsciously and pretty much irrationally. Usually we embellish our motives with rationalized explanations after the fact. But it’s very rarely a simple, albeit painful, conscious cost–benefit analysis that drives a decision. Especially not the kind of dramatic decisions portrayed in films.
I personally haven’t yet found a way to deal with this challenge to such a pillar of screenwriting dogma, in my writing. I still write characters who, in one way or another, take difficult but conscious decisions and learn from them. Neither have I seen many movies that successfully subvert the current paradigm of the hero taking charge of his fate, while remaining entertaining. Perhaps Memento gets close, because the main character is unable to consciously control his decisions due to a memory defect.
How Free is your Character’s Will?
It’s no wonder that changing the way we think about film heroes isn’t easy. Look at the underlying philosophical assumptions we would have to challenge: free will, individual autonomy, the nature of consciousness… Not trivial issues. We like to think of ourselves as rationally and morally motivated beings. We like to imagine we mature over time and learn, through experience, to assess choices and take decisions based on what’s right rather than on some indefinable, unconscious criteria.
In your dreams.
Goodbye Freud, Hello… What Exactly?
Although it does happen sometimes. But to my mind, more by coincidence and facilitated by context, than because of moral backbone. In fact, this entire notion of force of will, the individual forcing him- or herself to act counter to their own unconscious interests, is a complete myth. It’s clear that unconscious prompts and conditioning are far more important in the decisions we take, than any noble, parochial moral considerations. Just read Dan Arielly, Jonah Lehrer, Richard Wiseman, Philip Zimbardo, or any other post-Freudian, scientific approach to decision-making.
The Road to Hell…
Which doesn’t mean we don’t decide to do things. What it does mean, is that most of the time we have to deal with the consequences of choices we didn’t intentionally, consciously take. A lot of our mental energy is spent making up stories for ourselves and our surroundings, that appear to explain why we did what we did. Which is another reason we love traditional narrative films so much, I guess, because they reinforce this idea that our decisions are always fundamentally reducible to psychological motives.
Honest, I Don’t Know Why I did it, Sir!
Films characters appear to wrestle with the moral aspects of choices they made, or have to make. In real life morality is far less relevant, even though we don’t like to think so. What most of us experience far more than moral dilemmas, is ignorance about why we do things. Sure, we like to frame this ignorance as moral confusion, but often is just a simple lack of insight into how a decision actually came about.
Up in Arms… I think
We love to think we’re in charge, little drivers in huge Avatar-like robots or androids which are our bodies. The bad news is, that Cartesian notion has long since run its course. A revolution in the self-image of Homo sapiens has been going on for quite a while now. Welcome to the new reality, in which:
Character equals rationalization in retrospect due to complete ignorance of how choices were made.
So what does this mean for screenwriting? It means breaking rules of convenience that govern how to portray human experience in films. It means considering the significance, in terms of morality, of not necessarily being consciously in charge of your actions. It means challenging the stale old screenwriting mantras that lead to mountains of multiplex cheese…
Now then, why did I write this? I have no idea. I’m going to go away and fabricate a narrative that rationalizes my tirade.