Weakness and need and desire

I realises today that it’s be almost two months since I posted anything. This lapse in activity is mainly because I’ve spent a lot of time helping my partner set up her new shop. Thankfully things are going well on that front so I’ve gradually been able to spend more time working on the redraft of Carrion. Specifically Adam’s weakness and need and desire. I was prompted to look at Adam’s story in this way by John Truby’s book “The Anatomy Of Story”. The thing I find most interesting about Truby’s approach is the end result. A story that delivers meaning through the actions of the hero. Central to this approach is figuring out your characters weakness. But the hero’s weakness should not just be a psychological weakness, something that is hurting just the hero. It should also be moral weakness, something that is hurting other people. Working the the character I found Adam’s weakness by identifying a virtue in him and pushing it until it becomes oppressive. Adam was an only child until he was fifteen. He developed strong connection with his parents. A sense of responsibility that led him to join the army when he was seventeen. He didn’t want to put the financial pressure on his parents of a university education. It was the same sense of service that forced him to leave the army and take care for Christine when their parents were killed. Adam’s virtue is his sense of duty. He does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. The flip side of Adam’s virtue is a propensity for self-righteousness. That feeling of moral superiority derived from a sense that one’s beliefs are of greater virtue than those of the average person. For me it is the single most identifiable quality of prohibition. It’s what makes Adam think arresting Christine and John for possession is the right thing to do. He’s doing it for their own good. And just as prohibitionist think they know what is best for an individual. Adam thinks he knows what’s best for Christine. So after I fixed in my head Adam’s weakness I then had to tease out his need. The need is what Adam must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life. This led me to look a the quality that is farthest from self-righteousness, the quality of humility. If Adam is to have a better life by the end of the story he needs to discover humility. He needs to be humble. This defines the plot of a character who’s weakness and need I define like this.

Adam’s weakness: He is self-righteous (psychological), tries to control Christine (moral), enforces prohibition.
Adam’s need: He needs to learn how to be humble (psychological), stop controlling Christine (moral), fight prohibition.

The other key element of this equation is Adam’s desire. Desire is what the hero wants in the story. Although it is intimately connected to the hero’s need it is not the same thing. I have been working under the presupposition that Adam’s desire is to save Christine. The question then becomes. How do I know he has saved her? Until that solidifies within the story I am forced to wander the plot looking for an answer.

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Identity foreclosure

I’ve been reading William Indick’s Psychology for Screenwriters. It offers an insight into the way psychology can be used to build the conflict within a screenplay.

Early in the book is a chapter about developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson was a neo-Freudian, best know for his theory on psychosocial development across the entire lifespan. Anyway, when thinking about a character’s identity crisis, Indick urges writers to “keep in mind the element of “moratorium”; the stage of actively searching that precedes identity achievement”.

The thing that interested me most about this notion, especially in relation to Carrion, is the element of “foreclosure” in Erikson’s model. Foreclosure is “the danger of ending the search too early and settling on an identity supplied by others rather than a personally meaningful identity achieved through self-discovery”.

I think Adam has a foreclosed identity.

Until his sister Christine was born in his late teens he was an only child. This meant he was the sole beneficiary of his parents emotional, physical, and financials resources. The affiliation he felt for his parents meant that he ended his search for identity too early, accepts their authority, and foreclosed on their’s. So when he joins the army a couple of years after Christine’s arrival, he was swapping one family dynamic for another.

Indick sights Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” as an example of a story specifically about moratorium. Malcolm X is a story about one man’s “life-long search for a meaningful sense of personal identity”. Just as Adam submits himself to a career of service, first to the military, then to the police, “Malcolm submits himself completely to the Nation of Islam”.

Both men accept a foreclosed identity, identities “originating from without rather than from within”. It is only when Malcolm comes into conflict with the Nation of Islam, and Adam comes into conflict with the insects, prohibition, and the government, do they have to look into themselves to find an identity personal to them.

In the same way as Malcolm “must dig within his own soul and find a religion and philosophy that is personal to him as an individual”, Adam is forced to look within himself to find an identity that is less intolerant, allows for personal freedom, and accepts his sister.

To expand the idea a little, I also think if “society” were a personality, society might have accepted a foreclosed identity when it comes to drug use. The war on drugs is an identity supplied from without, rather than from within. Official institutions routinely repeat the mantra “drugs are dangerous” without considering they are no more or less dangerous than sanctioned drugs like alcohol.

Does this mean society has settled on a foreclosed identity? I don’t know, it certainly seems that way.

Stephen Joseph becomes John Quays

Within the world of Carrion. Christine Leigh’s boyfriend is Stephen Joseph. Not any more. I have decided to change his name to John Quays. Why the change? Because John Quays sounds like junkies. As his fate reflects the fate of all the drug users in the story. It seems fitting to giving him a name that reflects that fact. I took the name from a track on The Fall’s “Live At The Witch Trials” album “No Xmas For John Quays”. John Quays is said to be either a reference to seventies politician Hugh Jabaals. His name in the song was changed at the last minute to avoid any libel. Or it could be a reference to a former member of The Fall who succumbed to the lure of heroin. Or my favourite. A “riff” on William S. Burroughs story “The Junkie’s Christmas”. A junkie gets the immaculate fix when gives away his junk on Christmas eve. It’s hard to know. Mark E. Smith’s lyrics are significantly obscure to make any definitive interpretation impossible. Anyway. I chose it because John Quays sounds like junkies.

Looking for what’s compelling

I read an interesting articular by Cory Mandell. In “The Real Reason Why Most Scripts Fail” he argues that the majority of screenplays fail because “most writers haven’t yet trained themselves to write in professional-level compelling conflict.”

Initially I thought I knew what he meant when he said compelling conflict, but when I started to think about it, and turned the words compelling and conflict over in my mind, I started to doubt myself.

To compel is to force or drive, especially to a course of action. Conflict is a struggle or clash between opposing forces.

In “The Anatomy of Story” John Truby describes this as the central conflict, and poses it as a question. “Who fights whom over what?” This conflict forces the character to undergo some kind of change.

He describes this change in the form of an equation. W x A = C. “W” is a characters psychological and moral weakness. “A” is the action the character takes. “C” is the change the character undergoes. The simple logic of the story is described as another question. “How does the act of struggling to do the basic action (A) lead the character to change from W to C?”

While Truby’s equation describes a conflict that forces the character to change, it doesn’t identify what makes a story compelling. Interestingly compel also means to force to submit, or to overpower. The word compelling seems to imply a force. A character, an event. a circumstance, that asserts its will, subjugating a character. This elicits a response from the character, and leads to conflict. I think compelling conflict is somewhere in this binary polarisation of these forces. One character asserting their will, the other resists.

Perhaps I am being too literal in my understanding of the term conflict, but it seem to me, when you are looking for what’s compelling, you are looking for what is forced upon someone. That one thing that pushes them to the point at which they must take action.

Truby describes it as the character’s weakness. I’d describe it as the character’s breaking point. The point at which they can take no more, and push back.

At this point the stakes are at their highest, and you have a compelling conflict.

What makes him rebel?

I am working on trying to understand Adam’s motivations. By the end of the story the war on drugs has escalated into civil war.

So what makes Adam go from policeman to rebel?

What is a rebel? An initial interpretation might focus on those individuals navigating the trials of adolescence, setting themselves in opposition to the values of parental authority. This understanding falls too closely to the unfocused rebellion epitomised by Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. “Hey. Johnny. What are you rebelling against?” To wit Johnny relies. “What’ve you got?” It’s hard to see this as anything more than petulant defiance. Brando’s rebellion is the rebellion of the outsider, and possesses a nihilism that is an anathema to Adam.

His rebellion is the rebellion of someone standing in opposition to something. He becomes a participant in an insurrection, a violent uprising against the government, he’s a rebel as defined by his opposition to a specific set of values.

What forces this change? If Christopher Vogler (in The Writer’s Journey) is to be believed he must experience death. Only by experiencing death “is he able to return to ordinary life reborn as a new being with new insights”. So what’s dying?

To understand this I think we have to go back to his upbringing. Until he was fifteen Adam was an only child. Like Christine he was the sole beneficiary of his parents resources. Then his father lost his job, and they ended up living in a bed and breakfast. Despite their impoverished circumstance his parents did their best. He could see them doing their best, and reciprocated. Their attention meant he was an articulate child, reflecting their values, and exhibiting a strong sense of what is right and wrong, an obedience to social authority, and a sense of duty. That’s why he joined the army.

He didn’t want to get into the debt associated with obtaining a university education. He didn’t want to burden his parents, or his infant sister, by demanding financial assistance. The army was the logical choice. When his parents were killed in 2007, their values motivated him to buy himself out of the army, return to the family home, and take care of Christine.

Joining the police was a sideways move, that fitted his sense of duty. So what makes him reject the values he had lived by, and take up arms against the government, against the war on drugs?

It would have to be something that kills his understanding of the world as he knew it, and forces his rebirth. No single event could cause this, it has to be a series of events that build, ultimately reversing his understanding. There is a conflict between the sense of duty he feels towards authority, and the sense of duty he feels towards his sister.

What makes him rebel?

I think he comes to see the war on drugs as unfair, and all that word implies. He comes to understand that no matter what Christine and her peers have done, they do not deserve what is being done to them, they don’t deserve the plague of insect that are killing them.

Ultimately his rebellion is an attempt to right a wrong, and save his sister.

Christine Leigh

Christine Leigh is Adam Leigh’s younger sister. I settled on the name Christine for several reasons. The name comes from the Latin word Christianus, meaning follower of Christ.

Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. The messianic etymology of the name counterpoints the negative image that defines Christine’s status in Carrion as a drug user. It can also be shortened to Chris, giving her character a certain androgyny.

Born in 1995, she was two when her brother joined the army. In the years that followed she saw him occasionally. His absence from the family home meant she actually grew up an only child, the sole beneficiary of her parents emotional, physical, and financials resources.

The constant attention, lead to a strong willed girl, sensitive to disapproval. Denied competition from a sibling, she exhibits a certain possessiveness with her time, space, and belongings. Perfectly happy to spend time alone, fiercely loyal, she prefers the company of a few close friends, to the superficial connections exhibited by her extrovert peers.

Strongly dependant on her parents for emotional support, she is devastated by their deaths in 2007. This forced separation, that under normal circumstances would have been difficult enough, is even more traumatic. The resistance normally associated with early adolescence, jams up against the push for freedom, and propensity for conflict associated with middle adolescence. That in turn jams up against the need to try more adult activities associated with late adolescence.

Adam, who shared his sisters emotional proclivities, took the full force of the turmoil. Out of his depth, he found himself unable to offer her anything but the most material support. Her grief, coupled with her unrequited emotional needs, forces a distance, that manifested itself as anger. The growing pains of adolescence, compounded by her strong will, lead to escalating conflicts with Adam. They would argue, constantly, sometime over the most trivial things.

To escape the conflicts, she would go out, spend hours hunkered down with friends, wandering the streets, or hiding in her room, anything but deal with Adam, and what he represented, her dead parents.

By the time she was fifteen she had started drinking. By the time she was sixteen she was a regular in the local clubs. By the time she was seventeen recreational drug use was a regular part of her life. With hindsight her behaviour was was direct challenge to her brothers position as a police officer.

Suspecting she was using drugs, he searched her room, found the evidence he was looking for, and confronted her. The argument that followed escalated into violence, and she stormed out. By the time she was seventeen Christine was living independently. She lived for a while with some friends, got a job working in a shop.

Late in 2011 she met Stephen Joseph. Early 2012 they were living together. Supplementing what income they had from regular jobs, they supplied the pills and powders that fuelled their weekends to close friends.

Stephen’s dealing was small scale, never out in the open, never to strangers, but it was enough to attract the attention of drug eating insects.

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