You might associate the word Stoicism with asceticism and suffering, but this ancient philosophy has a lot to teach screenwriters about writing great characters.
A Guide to the Good Life; The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine. This is not a book written for screenwriters, in fact it’s not about films or screenplays at all. It’s a book which makes the principles and values of Stoicism relevant and applicable to the 21st century, and advocates adopting them as a philosophy of life. It’s a fascinating and enlightening read in and of itself, but also contains many surprisingly relevant and practical insights for screenwriters. The main reason for this is because the book deals with how we can and should relate to the things we desire, if we want to live a joyful and fulfilling life. Which is kind of what most great movies are about too, when you scratch beneath the surface.
I want to highlight just one of these insights here, which Irvine, in typical philosopher-speak, calls the trichotomy of control.
So, What is this Trichotomy of Control?
The ancient philosopher Epictetus advocated the following: Don’t set your desires on things over which you have no control, as this will inevitably lead to disappointment and misery. In other words, he divides the things human beings have to deal with, into things over which we have control, and things over which we have no control.
Irvine expands these two categories into three:
Things over which we have absolutely no control. This includes external things such as the weather, the economy, traffic, etc., and internal phenomena like impulses, aversions, cravings, urges, and any sensation or thought that arises spontaneously.
Things over which we have complete control. These would be things like our opinions, the goals we set ourselves, the values we decide to live by, etc.
Things over which we have some, but not complete control. This refers to things like, achieving goals we set for ourselves, developing our skills to the best of our ability, living according to our values as much as possible, acting or not acting on our impulses, etc.
Using these three categories, it’s possible to decide quite rationally where to invest effort and where not to. And besides being a very useful way of analysing and dealing with real life situations, it’s also a great way to focus your character’s behaviour too.
What does your character have absolutely no control over?
Externally, this is the physical threat or opposition a character faces from a powerful antagonist. Whether the hostile force takes the specific form of an individual, a natural environment, an organization, etc., doesn’t matter: The fact of the opposition is something the character has no control over, and must somehow deal with. Internally, the character is confronted with their own unconsciously generated, spontaneously occurring impulses, aversions, and desires. Perhaps these internal forces are initially less obvious to the character than to the antagonist (and the audience…), but they are nevertheless events over which the character has no control and which they must deal with.
- Phonebooth – External: Stuart (Colin Farrell) is powerless in the face of the invisible sniper who has him in his sights. Internal: Stuart has to contend with his intense aversion to being honest.
- A Serious Man - External: Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is confronted with a fait accomplis, his wife’s infidelity. Internal: Larry must deal with his incessant need to understand what’s happening to him.
- Ratatouille – External: Remy the rat can do nothing about the fact that he’s regarded by the human world as vermin. Internal: Remy can’t help his relentless desire to cook.
What does your character have complete control over?
These are mostly internal phenomena, like opinions, goals, values. In other words, a character can quite rationally and consciously decide to take sides in a military conflict, or to strive to achieve a particular academic or professional qualification, or to try and win the love of a particular woman, and so on. The character is also in complete control over how he or she tries to achieve their goal, or defend their position, and so on. This says nothing about their chances of succeeding, of course, because as often happens in films, the character is free to choose the wrong approach, too. In most mainstream, narrative films, the main character will face a final, painful moral dilemma at some point. Here too, the character has complete control over their choice.
- The Lives of Others - Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) chooses to work for the repressive East German state security police.
- Avatar - Jake (Sam Worthington) chooses to switch sides and defend the values of the Na’vi.
- An Education – David (Peter Sarsgaard) consciously chooses to deceive Jenny (Carey Mulligan) by not telling her he’s married.
What does your character have some, but not complete control over?
Here’s where a character’s choices become interesting, and where conflict and dilemmas can really take hold. We all know how hard it is to live consistently according to values we hold dear, or how hard it can be to resist acting on impulses which we know will lead to trouble. Equally, we all know when we’re cutting corners or doing our utmost, and that choice is within our control. Even more so, then, for a fictional character, whom you deliberately place in the worst possible circumstances in order to test their mettle. Because it’s when a character has some, but not complete control over events, that their choices become dramatic. The screenwriter deliberately confronts their characters with difficult choices in order to emphasize a particular moral issue. The drama, or comedy, comes from the uncertainty about whether the character can distinguish between what is within their control and what isn’t. Will they recognize temptation and withstand it? Will they see the danger but persevere anyway? Will they overestimate their powers? In the end, what characters have control over, are their choices and the lengths they’re willing to go to achieve their goals.
- Greenberg – Greenberg (Ben Stiller) constantly faces the negative social consequences of having acted impulsively in the past, and still struggles with this urge in the present.
- Little Miss Sunshine – Olive (Abigail Breslin) is never destined to win the beauty pageant, but because she makes such an effort, she achieves something far more valuable.
- The Crying Game – Fergus (Stephen Rea) finds his conscience at odds with life as an IRA gunman and chooses to desert. Interestingly, Jody (Forest Whitaker) mocks Fergus, saying he has no control over his choices because of his intrinsic nature!
Is your character trying to change something over which he has no control?
Here we get to the crux of the drama or comedy in a story. Because before a character understands he’s battling something he has no control over, instead of focusing on the thing he can control, he will continue to bang his head and get into worse trouble. This confusion is often resolved in a kind of “aha” moment, when the character realizes they’ve been focusing too much on some insurmountable, external opposition, when really they need to face their inner demons first.
- The Fountain - Tommy (Hugh Jackman) spends almost the entire film fighting against something no one has any control over: death. It’s only after his wife has died that he acknowledges this and finds some degree of peace.
- The Crucible – Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles against the absolute power of the church, almost saves himself by confessing to something he didn’t do, and eventually chooses death above hypocrisy.
- Nemo –Marlin tries to prevent his son Nemo from taking risks, but must finally acknowledge that he can’t stop Nemo growing up and becoming independent.
All the above examples deal with big-picture, basic story elements. But the same trichotmoy is just as useful for examining other, more detailed aspects of a screenplay, such as sequences, scenes and even individual beats or lines of dialogue.
So you see, those dusty old Greek philosophers knew a thing or two about human nature, which is, essentially, the screenwriter’s main raw material.