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 Meaning Transformation

Creating characters with attitude

Second in a series of articles about meaning and characterization

Copyright © 1998, Dorian Scott Cole

Attitude is fascinating | Caution statement | Does reality have meaning? | Changing attitude is changing meaning | Understanding the positive values in negative attitudes | Example 1 | Example 2 | Using attitude in stories

Attitude is fascinating

Characters with attitude usually make fascinating characters, and attitude is an attribute that I recommend using in characterization, but not for every character - only "characters" and main characters. Attitude sets the character apart from the average person with average motivations. Attitude captures our attention, I think, because it makes characters unique, but very realistic. Unique is what sells.

Attitude establishes how we interpret the events, situations, and relationships in our lives. Attitude sets the answer to: "What does it mean to me?" How will this affect me? Attitude predetermines and colors meaning. Attitude determines how we go about getting what we want - our behavior. Attitude is the tale we tell ourselves about what things mean, based on our limited experience, or what others have told us, or what others have patterned for us. I think attitude goes to the heart of narrative psychology because it so involves meaning or meanings, and the stories that support them.

A very fascinating aspect of attitude is that attitudes can change, which means that the meaning associated with the attitude has changed. This hints at the idea that meaning is not a "fixed" absolute item in our lives, but is something that is evolving and transforming as we grow. It hints at something much bigger: the concept that we have some control over meaning in our life - it speaks to meaning-making... but meaning-making is a future article in this series.

Attitude may have been formed during childhood development, and it may respond to behavior modification (changing behavior often does lead to a change in attitude). Methods based on these may address the heart of the problem, or may not. But I think the narrative psychology approach can be more appropriate because it can address more of the causal determinants of attitude.

Caution: The concepts presented here mirror concepts used by various psychological systems. Once again I repeat the caution that, although some of the articles in this series may be informative about finding meaning, any concepts used in psychology that are presented here are for the purpose of understanding how to create excellent characters. There is nothing really new presented here, and from a therapeutic point of view there is nothing presented here that would be helpful. This article is about transforming meaning, not about how to do it. Transforming meaning can lead to very undesirable results, and should be done with a psychologist who is skilled in this approach.

Does reality have meaning?

What is reality? Is it composed only of those solid objects that we can see? Or is nothing real - only our perceptions matter? If reality consists only of the physical world and there is nothing else, then what does anything matter? If reality is only our perceptions, then all the world is an illusion and perhaps nothing at all ever matters. If either of these are true, then what is the meaning of our lives? Dust in the wind? 

In one extreme camp is the group that says that only what we can see and feel and measure and gauge makes any sense. Meaning has to be based on those things. The other extreme camp says we make our own reality. Some even go so far as to speculate that the entire physical world is only a mental construct, and that we are constantly creating our world. Hmmm. 

None of us seem to make much progress in this world by living at either extreme. If nothing is deemed important outside of what one can touch, then relationships deteriorate and personal growth stalls. On the other hand, if one lives an esoteric existence with one's head in the clouds - or another world - then relationships deteriorate and personal growth stalls. One has to be present and active in the world, with a sense of purpose, striving with inner and outer conflicts for relationships to flourish and personal growth to occur. We learn about mountains by climbing them, not by observing them from afar.

Changing attitude is changing meaning

The meanings I ascribed to things as a child are not the same as the meanings I derive from things today. As a child, when another kid hit me I realized I had done something to offend him. I might have hit him back. But today, if someone does something against me, I realize that it is he who has the problem; usually not me. Today I would more likely tolerate him and try to resolve the problem without becoming offended or hostile. My understanding has changed, my attitude has changed - the meaning has changed. 

How is it that meaning can change? It is our attitude about things that changes. And it is possible for us to examine our attitudes and to change the meaning we ascribe to things. In order for relationships to improve, and for personal growth to occur, I think it is essential for attitude change and meaning change to occur. 

Understanding the positive values in negative attitudes

Our attitudes, especially the negative ones, usually have a function that is important to protecting the person. This attitude casts situations, events, and relationships in a negative light (suspicious, condemned, rejected), saying, "This might create unwelcome results." In changing meaning, or beginning to, the person needs to see the positive potential of situations, events, and relationships, so the person can understand and integrate their meaning into his life. As long as meaning is rejected, growth ceases. 

Rather than continuing to describe this, I'll give examples instead. The examples are oversimplifications, which is usually what we are doing when we create a character, so don't use them to "give advice." In stories, the audience can better identify with the basic human dilemmas (the human condition) when they are drawn from a realistic model. In the first example I have already defined the cause of the person's attitude. In the second example, I have taken a common situation and listed potential causes.

Example 1: The cause of the person's attitude is already defined

In this first characterization, I have drawn the character in the more traditional way. I describe the experiences that have had such major impact on the character that they define his motivation. You see this frequently in novels when the author describes the character's background at length. This is also part of the typical characterization outline for stories in other media. The writer needs to know his character.

The character and situation

Paul and his family lost their home when Paul was twenty-five. They had nowhere to go, but Paul felt they would get work right away and was too proud to go on assistance. At first they lived in their car, then a shelter, then with relatives, then went on welfare and were placed in welfare housing. Eventually Paul did find work and they rented an apartment.

But Paul's troubles weren't over. Paul developed an attitude that anything that could possibly threaten his security was bad. He doesn't realize that he has this attitude. As a result, he is so terrified of losing his job that he can't do his manufacturing job properly. He spends so much time making sure every widget is perfect that he can't make enough widgets. His supervisor and employee relations have assured him that the quality of his widgets is excellent, so he can focus on quantity. But Paul can't hear them. His protective attitude is too strong.

What happens to Paul? We already know that talk hasn't helped. Paul has developed some positive skills regarding quality, so is putting him in Quality Control the answer? He would probably drive everyone crazy by trying to get them to be as obsessive about quality as he is. Paul could try behavior modification, but it probably wouldn't get him to ease off for long because it probably won't change this attitude. After behavior modification, Paul would probably be just as exacting in some other area of his work or his life because his attitude will always express itself in anything Paul perceives as a threat to his job. Paul could try psychotherapy to address his perfectionist obsession, but this would likely focus on authoritarian and overly demanding parents as the cause (developmental problem), and would tear down that relationship through their being the focus (projection) of his fear.

The only solution is for Paul to integrate the meaning of his jobless experience into his life. First he has to see the meaning of it, and even though a psychologist can help him, only Paul can be the final arbiter of what it means. Then his attitude can refocus. 

The meaning depends on circumstances. Why was Paul's job terminated? Was it his fault? Layoff? He might get more comfortable with the security of his present company by getting better prepared with finances and skills. If it was his fault, then he has learned an important lesson. So the meaning might be, get better prepared, or don't make that mistake again. It could also be about not being too proud to ask for help. The meaning may be all of these things. After identifying the meaning, Paul can then put his energy into getting better prepared, or into not making that mistake again, or into getting more comfortable with asking for help. So through close examination of events, attitude, and behavior, Paul can reinterpret the meaning and get on with his life.

We frequently see stories similar to this in TV comedy and drama. Some very skillful writers take the common troubles and fears that we all have and make a story of them, and in the end the protagonist sees his problem in perspective and comes to grips with it. This is good writing. But it can be made even better by going beyond the stereotypes, as in example 2.

Example 2: This is a common situation for which I have listed potential attitudes

Often a writer is working with stereotypes: stereotypical types of people, with stereotypical types of problems, with stereotypical causes. The problem with stereotypes is that they become clichés, so they are not interesting. They frequently are also not true - they may be partly true, or true sometimes. But people aren't stereotypes, we just label them that way because we have this mindset that certain things always cause certain problems. Characters can be much more interesting if we look outside the stereotypes. 

The character and situation

Marge has had a series of three relationships that didn't work out. Each person she has gotten serious about has begun abusing her verbally and physically. Two were alcoholics or substance abusers. Marge doesn't want any part of personal abuse or substance abuse, yet Marge still targets the same type of man. She will continue to do so for the next fifty years, until she understands the meaning of the relationship and the events (abuse). Marge's attitude when she is in the relationship is that she hates the abuse, but she is willing to put up with it for a while in order to keep the man - hoping he will change.

Marge was rescued from her latest relationship by a women's shelter, and was counseled that she: "Didn't have to put up with this kind of treatment, and shouldn't. She has value as a person, and rights." If Marge underwent psychotherapy, she would likely be told that she had a developmental problem, and she would have to work on improving the relationship with her father. Or she might be told that her father was abusive and addictive, and she is repeating the pattern. Both might be true - it frequently is. If the father is the problem, then Marge will be deeply wanting both the father relationship and to be loved by a man, so she will be looking for the only pattern she knows - the only pattern that feels right - in another man. In this case, the pattern she knows is abuse. Although she will approach the relationship with fear, she will be powerfully drawn to it anyway. (Based on Jungian psychology.)

But there may be other causes. Marge has to look at her attitude and what shaped her attitude. Her physical being - personal security - is less important to her than being loved. Why? Her core value of need for love or to give love is probably threatened when she doesn't have, or is losing, a man. This is obvious. She also probably doesn't know of any way to prevent a man from abusing her. For most abusive men, there is no sure way to prevent abuse. Eventually she leaves because personal security is severely threatened, and because the relationship is hell.

Currently Marge's interpretation of meaning - her attitude - is that she can put up with it. When she is in the relationship, she is protecting herself from something:. Loss of love. What other things could it be that make up this complex person? Loss of excitement, which tells her in her humdrum life that she is alive. Loss of a father she never had. Loss of respect - this is the wild man she respects and expects to tame, but it never happens.

And then what about before she is in the relationship. What is Marge's attitude then? Marge may be making terrible decisions about men. She may see qualities she admires, but not recognize qualities that should set off alarm bells - they may be the same qualities that she admires. Perhaps Marge doesn't understand the value of having a stable life. Perhaps she doesn't feel deserving of someone who is more respectable, and believes if she rummages around in the "garbage" long enough she will find a man who will change for her and make her feel deserving. (I use the term garbage from Marge's frame of mind.) Possibly all of these things are true.

Simply learning to be a better judge of men, behavior modification, isn't going to help Marge. To move on with her life, Marge needs to reinterpret the meaning of her past relationships. One meaning might be is that excitement in a relationship comes at a price, and stability might be better. She (they) can learn to make it exciting without the heavy toll. Another meaning might be that she is no less valuable than any other person. She may need help seeing this. Another meaning might be is that she gets lonely, gets depressed, then throws herself at the first guy who acts interested. So she might need help meeting people. Another might be that she identifies with certain kinds of people, and to overcome this she needs to avoid the one crowd and become involved with another. She might need help in arranging this. Marge may not feel the least comfortable in any other situation than a bar full of men with abusive attitudes who give her a lot of attention, even though they eventually treat her like a door mat. Another meaning might be that these men are a habit, and she needs to break the connection and form a new habit. They "feel right," while others don't. She will need help developing a new habit. 

Most of these are complex attitudes that protect the person from problems with acceptance, problems with love, or problems with the unfamiliar (habit). The attitudes keep the person addressing their core values (needs) within familiar ruts where the outcomes are never unexpected and the person knows how to respond. I didn't invent Marge, so I don't know what her problem is. In reality it is probably all of the above. It is up to Marge to come to grips with the meaning and integrate that into her life. But she can never integrate it until she knows the meaning, so she can refocus her attitudes along paths of positive expression. Without refocusing her attitudes, she will continue down the same path of negative expression. 

Using attitude in stories

Stories can be formed around people's urgent requirements - things that they must have to get on with their life. People with attitudes similar to Marge desperately need the help of friends, ministers, and mental health professionals to help them find new paths. They may require continuing intervention to prevent recurring crises, and especially to prevent crisis from deepening to the point of being life threatening. They need people who can listen and respond without judging and without forcing answers, so they can sort it out. They need help walking new paths. For example, meeting new people and getting involved in different social groups is the hardest thing in the world. People entering new groups often feel rejected, and often are. Looking for romance in a new group is like walking a tight-rope. If a writer seeks relevance as well as excellent characterization in a story, then the most relevant thing a writer can show is not the psychological analysis (which will always be a point of contention and a distraction), but the behavior patterns and especially the specific things others can do to intervene and to help people walk a new path. 

Another worthwhile thing to show is people taking negative attitudes, understanding what has caused them, and transforming these into positive ways to express themselves in pursuit of their core values.

Often as not, the most useful thing about attitude is just to be able to create a good character that is realistic when you need one. Characters with a little attitude are much more interesting.

What if?

What if I take it upon myself to "throw the demon men" out of Marge's life. In my bungling I manage to convince Marge that she might be a valuable person, and from some source (father, peers, lovers) she has learned an erroneous picture of men's qualities so she goes after the wrong things, and that stability is better than unpredictable and wild men, and that she can find love in many other men outside of her familiar circle. Marge interprets all this as meaning that she is a better person than she thought, and she applies all of this to her value as a person. Suppose then that Marge tries to meet socially with a group that reflects a different set of values than her own. She feels like an outcast, is very self-conscious, is eyed suspiciously by those she meets, is shunned by the men in the group - a nightmare - and ultimately she is rejected, and she feels totally unacceptable and demoralized. She feels even more worthless instead of valued. She goes back to her old life-style and lowers her sights a few more notches, going right for the men who will take her out and immediately abuse her. Have the demons not returned in force and she is worse off than she was? 

Change usually happens slowly, one step at a time. Transforming meaning can be a difficult undertaking and can lead to disastrous results. People need firm foundations to support them during times of change: social, family, motivational, wisdom, spiritual, mental (unfractured egos and mental health support). But change also happens during crisis, such as abuse, when there is powerful motivation to change.

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