Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Writing Child Characters, Authentically

One of the greatest challenges for a writer is to get inside the heads of characters of much different background than yourself. It takes great empathy to understand those of differing gender, age, ethnicity, or orientation in order to portray such characters with authenticity. However, there is one type of character with whom we should all be able to relate. After all, it is the only group that every person has at one time been a part. I am referring to child characters. Yet strangely enough, child characters are those that most often come off as inauthentic. Many writers treat child characters as if they were simply small adults. This explains the overabundance of “precocious” children found in film and television. But the precocious are a rare find in real life. The great majority of children do not behave like adults. They think, act, and see the world in a much different way. As we mature, we tend to forget the unique ways our minds worked when we were young. Unless a writer can get back inside the head of a child, such characters will not ring true.

Whether a child be four years old or thirteen, his or her mind is a project still under development, one that changes a great deal as the child grows. To help the writer learn where his or her particular child character is in this process, this article presents a brief look at certain concepts found in developmental psychology that can be adapted into character behavior. This begins with the manner in which children view reality itself.

1. Concrete to Abstract Thought

The youngest of children live in a world made of only what their five senses can tell them. They only understand that which is real, solid, and physically present. If it cannot be directly observed or visually imagined, it might as well not exist. Children then turn those perceptions into inflexible notions that landmark psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as “false absolutes.” Things can only be the way the child believes them to be. This means hypothetical thought is impossible. Consider this experiment: Children of various ages were asked, “If all dogs are pink, and I have a dog, what color is it?” Older children recognized they were being asked to consider a hypothetical fantasy world. Young children however did not even entertain such a notion. They knew from their personal experience that a dog could NOT be pink. Since the question ran counter to what the children believed as fact, they argued or even rejected the question since their minds could not yet consider a notion so disconnected from their concrete reality.

Thought becomes less rigid as children reach middle childhood (age 7-11). They advance beyond judging situations by appearance alone and develop the ability to logically infer what cannot be seen. Children begin to recognize that events can have multiple causes or multiple outcomes, and then use available evidence to find the most reasonable conclusion. Yet even at this stage, children often fail to grasp any meaning beyond face value. Metaphors, symbolism, and other non-literal forms of meaning remain lost on them. Such things belong to abstract reasoning, something for which most children are not ready until the onset of puberty.

2. Egocentrism

Very young children hold the impression that their way of thinking is the only possible way, and therefore must be correct. They do not understand that others have thoughts or opinions different from their own. This is known as egocentrism. If the young child encounters behavior contrary to his or her viewpoint, the child becomes confused, frustrated, or angry. For example, a child wants a cookie. However, it is nearly dinnertime, so his mother denies the request. Unable to comprehend that mother has a legitimate reason for denial, the child throws a fit since he can only conclude that mother is being mean to him.

Egocentrism starts to decline as children socialize with peers of their own age, usually beginning with the entry to grade school. Social interaction allows the child to recognize that others see things in different ways. By middle childhood, the child has grown fully aware that we are all separate minds of differing thoughts and emotions. However, the child still struggles to predict what another’s thoughts or emotions might be. This leads to much confusion and curiosity when dealing with adults and peers alike. It is not until the child has had the opportunity to forge stronger social bonds and gain the capabilities of abstract thought that he or she can accurately ascertain what may or may not go on inside the minds of others. This marks a milestone in social development. The child is now able to respect others for their individual viewpoints, rather than reject them for failing to conform to their own.

Unfortunately, some never reach this stage. Children raised in isolation or those rejected by their peers may never gain enough social experience to fully overcome their egocentrism. Unable to relate to others, the child may grow socially distant, possibly leading to deviant behavior.

3. Child Logic

A recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life” opened with a story in which little girl’s best friend came to her with a startling revelation. The friend had lost a baby tooth, and as most children do, placed it under her pillow for the Tooth Fairy. Only she awoke in the night to find not some glittering fairy, but her own father exchanging the tooth for money. From this, the two girls could form only one logical conclusion: the friend’s father lived a double life in which he was in fact the mythical Tooth Fairy!

The problem with seeing the world in false absolutes is that once a child accepts notions as facts, it becomes nearly impossible to break them. Whereas an adult would see two contradictory premises and realize one must be incorrect, a child will contrive fantastical assertions that allow both premises to remain valid. Rather than consider that the Tooth Fairy may not exist, the girls in the NPR story found it more plausible that a run-of-the-mill father donned fairy wings to exchange teeth for money.

Children take wild leaps of logic in many situations. Any time a child observes a curious situation, but lacks the facts to explain it, he or she will “fill the gap” with contrivances that allow things to make sense, regardless of how ludicrous the conclusion may be. Interestingly enough, this urge to fill the gap is at the origins of storytelling itself. As mentioned in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, when ancient cultures encountered natural phenomena they could not explain, they invented stories, often involving magic and deities, so things would seem to make sense. Children do the same thing. For a child, fantasy is preferable to ignorance. It is not until a child has reached the middle stages of development that he or she is able to question ideas, weigh evidence, and then judge their veracity. Still, the child remains unable to reason with abstract concepts until he or she approaches teenhood.

4. Morals and Ethics

“Right” and “Wrong” are abstract social concepts, and thus must build over time. A child is born an ethical blank slate. A toddler does whatever he or she pleases, and if denied, throws a fit. The first glimmers of morality are really nothing more than the results of simple conditioning. Do “good” and the child is rewarded. Do “bad” and the child is punished. Because of this, young children act based upon personal consequence rather than any ethical notion of right or wrong. Should parents fail to consistently discipline a child at this age, the child will continue to behave antisocially since he or she has not been given any cause to think there is something wrong with such behavior.

As socialization increases and egocentrism declines, children grow to understand how their actions affect others. The child’s view of morality shifts to one based on “fairness.” Reciprocity becomes key: “Act unto others as you would like them to act unto you.” However, a child’s ability to reason is still too rigid at this stage to separate an action from its intent. Breaking a rule is seen as wrong, regardless of why it was done. Consider this question: “Karen took $2 from her mother’s purse without asking and spent it on candy. Sarah took $6 from her mother to help a needy friend. Who deserves the worse punishment?” An older child will realize Karen stole for selfish reasons while Sarah took money for an act of kindess. Karen is therefore the worse offender. However, an early or middle-age child will simply see that $6 is more than $2 and declare Sarah worse. Like when performing logical operations, a child’s mind must mature to a certain level of abstract thought before he or she can weigh a premise and find meaning beyond its surface. Because of this, children under the age of twelve tend to follow rules unquestionably, while more mature children can evaluate rules, judge their intentions, and then decide whether or not the rule should be followed. These children can now think for themselves and make their own moral decisions. It is not until this point that a real sense of right or wrong exists.


While psychologists have found a consistent pattern by which children develop, a writer must be aware that no child develops along a perfect timeline. Each child’s mental and social ability is affected not only by age, but by environmental factors as well. Most important amongst these factors is the quantity and quality of support and discipline the child receives from authority figures, as well as the level of acceptance or rejection the child receives from peers. When constructing a child character, a writer must, as for any character, look into the child’s background and identify what physical and social factors exist that may help or harm psychological development and then portray the character accordingly.

Above all, one must resist approaching child characters from the mindset of an adult. This encourages an egocentrism of an adult kind. Instead, go beyond how children appear to behave and get inside their heads to see the story world from their own still-developing eyes. Children do not act like adults. But they are not random, irrational creatures either. They think and behave according to their own rules. Understanding these rules is the best way to make child characters authentic.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

SCRIPTMONK GOES TO THE MOVIES -- Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Perks & Perils of Genre-Swapping

It appears that Marvel Studios, and their partners (Paramount, Disney), have begun to take their Avenger superhero properties in the same narrative direction as the Marvel comics themselves. They no longer exist as separate films, or even separate franchises, but a web of intersecting characters and story arcs that can only be fully appreciated through a familiarity with the others. You never know what character is going to pop up in what film or how one film's results are going to influence the storyline of the next. Though this is a novel (and extremely lucrative) approach, its stands to pose some very significant problems when it comes to the narrative integrity of each individual film. Namely, how to keep each individual film an independent, self-contained narrative that can be followed and enjoyed all on its own, and how to maintain the unique identity of each franchise instead of succumbing to the homogenization that comes from blending things together. Fail to do this, and each movie will no longer be so much an individual film, but only another monotypical episode in an extremely expensive soap opera.

Marvel's latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to achieve some separation from the pack by swerving its plot and tone outside the typical superhero box – with debatable results. Winter Soldier does this by employing what could be considered a clever trick – or a cheap and lazy one, depending on who you may ask. Though this trick may make Winter Soldier seem very fresh from one perspective, it can be incredibly stale from another.

First off, Winter Soldier is nothing like its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger. If you removed the title character's name, you would not even be able to tell they are part of the same franchise. Personally, I am happy about this since I did not care much for the first installment. The First Avenger seemed content connecting the superhero-origin dots in the kind of corny, formulated high adventure that went out of style when Spielberg stopped making them in the early 90s. In complete contrast, Winter Soldier is not even a superhero film. Sure, it has superheroes. It contains the fantasy elements found in every superhero film in terms of its action and characters. But in terms of its plot, Winter Soldier is really a POLITICAL THRILLER masquerading in superhero clothes.

Genre-swapping can be a neat trick. Keep in mind that we are talking about genre-swapping, not genre-mixing. Swapping genres means a story presents the external, superficial traits of one genre while following the internal structure of different genre altogether. When done well, genre-swapping can result in what appear as fresh and original films. Star Wars may have been set in space, but in terms of its themes and narrative, it had nothing in common with contemporary science fiction. It took the superficial traits of sci-fi and layered them over the internal structure of the fantasy sword-and-sorcery subgenre. The Coens' The Big Lebowski may seem like a slacker comedy on its surface, but underneath that surface, it operates by the rules of a classic film noir.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has mixed success with this strategy. This is mostly because it does little more than trade one tired formula for another. Anyone familiar with the political thriller subgenre will have no problem spotting all the standard elements: an organization with god-like power, a conspiracy from within, the morally questionable mentor figure, the villain who is but a pawn of the true evil, and the hero stuck in the middle who must go rogue to become an enemy of the organization which he was once loyal. It is basically the same story arc as every season of “24”, except Jack Bauer can run a lot faster and has far stupider fashion sense. The fact of the matter is that genre-swapping does not automatically create something new and original on its own. It has to be done right. To that end, anyone attempting to create such a film should follow three pieces of advice:


Swapping genres will not impress an audience if it is too obvious that you are simply taking the clothes off one group of cliches and putting them on the body of another. To put things a different way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to take the cap off of a blue pen and put in on a red one and pretend it is writing in a whole new color. It is not. It is still the same old red ink. Winter Soldier does very little to hide how it borrows most of its content from the political thriller. The plot hits all the same marks and the cast of characters have all been adapted to the standard political thriller roles. The only differences are the level of fantasy given to the story world and the way the political thriller's usual chases and moments of violence/suspense have been expanded into full-blown superhero-style action sequences.

To work best, the two genres must be allowed to intermingle – not in their totality, but in the place where the two meet. It is where peanut butter meets jelly. We have the story's deep internal structure, and layered over the top is the story's external world. It is where the two meet that can make such a story feel unique. The traits inherent in the surface genre should be allowed enough influence over story events that they cause the internal genre to adjust how it executes its own rules. For example, most casual viewers of The Big Lebowski never notice how closely the film's plot follows the classic model of a film noir. In fact, it takes effort to really see the noir under the surface because the execution of that model is constantly being subverted, undermined, and flipped on its head by the slacker comedy elements visible on its surface – most notably a protagonist who couldn't be a more bizarre fit for the internal genre. The noir underneath must adjust to these incongruous elements into something off its usual center. Thus, Lebowski does not seem to be a noir trying to be a slacker comedy, or a slacker comedy trying to be a noir, but something completely new. The blue ink meets the red and creates an entirely new color.

#2 If you are going to combine two genres, DO BOTH OF THEM WELL

Swapping genres does not mean you can ignore the requirements of one genre for the sake of the other. When swapping genres, the storyteller must pull double-duty. He or she must meet the visual, tonal, and character requirements of the surface genre; the narrative, structural, and thematic requirements of the internal genre; do them both well; and execute all of this so the elements of the two sides support and enhance each other, not distract or undermine.

The Winter Soldier serves its surface genre pretty well. The action sequences are top-notch. It does an excellent job of absorbing the audience into its fantasy universe. And its choice of characters,
though they have been fit into typical political thriller roles, maintain the larger-than-life personalities of their source genre, keeping them far more than plot-functional archetypes.

However, as a political thriller, The Winter Soldier is rather mediocre. Though its plot hits all the proper notes for its first three-quarters, apart from the superhero element the story offers nothing a viewer has not seen a dozen times before. It's a purely by-the-numbers affair. Furthermore, the story is advanced on several occasions through coincidences and questionable plot contrivances that would cause a normal political thriller (being a genre more grounded in reality) to instantly lose credibility. This usually occurs whenever Winter Soldier tries to inject story devices from its surface genre that do not fit well with an otherwise pure political thriller. The most egregious case is the revelation of the identify of the Winter Soldier. Though this kind of too-corny coincidence that may be common in the comics, it stinks like a wet turd in the more logically-grounded political thriller.

However what ultimately causes Winter Soldier's political thriller plot to result in a less than satisfactory end is the same malady found in many political thrillers: the execution of the big conspiracy. Conspiracies are difficult things to pull off narratively. They must be complex enough to be a mental puzzle for the audience, yet still be clear and simple enough for the audience to follow without confusion. Furthermore, there is the issue of stakes. Unless the audience is orientated well to understand and, more importantly, care about what is at stake, the conspiracy will feel like much ado about nothing. The Winter Soldier struggles to get the audience to really care about the stakes behind its conspiracy; and in terms of its plot, errs on the side of simplicity in the end. When we do finally learn what the Big Evil is really up to, it turns out to be little more than a cheap contrivance to set up the obligatory ultra-battle that comprises Winter Soldier's final act. This brings us to the third principle of genre-swapping:


If you start a story following the internal model of a certain genre, stick with that model all the way to the story's end. Do not fall back or revert to the surface genre just because it becomes convenient or when things get too hard. Under its surface, Star Wars remains a sword-and-sorcery story throughout, ending with the young warrior's destruction of the evil warlord's impenetrable fortress. Lebowski also maintains its noir model, ending with a classic detective's inquest (of course, this is followed by a long comic denouement, but even it retains its noir elements). The Winter Soldier on the other hand all but abandons its political thriller model as it enters its third act. This was no doubt because, as a superhero franchise, it was felt mandatory to end with the kind of explosion-filled CGI schmozz expected from the surface genre. All elements of the political thriller then became secondary concerns; no longer even attached to the story's protagonist, but instead delegated to supporting characters (Black Widow and Nick Fury) in a way that is often clumsy and underserved. With a political thriller setup and a superhero film end, The Winter Soldier's third act is less than completely satisfying to either genre. The political thriller we have followed for ninety minutes is allowed to wither. Meanwhile, all the big superhero set piece action feels to be a lot of “Sound & Fury Signifying Nothing”since it had not been set up in the first three-quarters of the film in the way it would in a more traditional superhero film to provide the proper build-up and attached emotional content. One has to wonder what kind of original, and possibly more satisfying, end Winter Soldier might have had if it had stuck to its political thriller guns all the way to the finish.

All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be seen in two ways. It is either an effort to inject a new tone and identity into the franchise in order to separate it from what are now so many similar properties, or it is the slap-dash attempt at a workable plot in order to put out just one more of Marvel's big money tentpoles. Time will tell if Marvel will try to maintain and improve upon this new approach to the Captain, or if it will fall back onto more of the same-old, same-old.