Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021
Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love: Screenplay
Brenda J. Robles: Writer, Researcher
Screenplay: Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love
TITLE OF RESEARCH: How classic literary methods and psychology have an impact on character motivation in non-a priori creation of complex dramatic characters for modern television screenwriting.
ABSTRACT: This practice-based artistic research explores complex character creation through psychologically charged scene writing for television. It features an intersection of Humanistic Psychology, Literary Studies and Screenwriting Theory.
INTRODUCTION. The scenes written in this script represent the artistic artefact of my doctoral degree research on screenwriting.
ARTISTIC ARTEFACT: The project involves the development of an original character for television, Greta Ruiz. It involves writing a string of scenes that depict the character arc towards psychological self-actualisation. The design of scenes draws upon dramatic concepts like power and conflict. It also uses dialogue to make the character describe himself in terms of the psychological and dramatic arc.
RATIONALE: I want to investigate ways to create complex characters based on their psychology through a character construction process that includes character creation early in the writing process. Screenwriting manuals usually recommend writing the character first and then write the story. This creates a never-ending character creation process from which the screenwriter has a hard time separating. This delimitation of writing in stages, writing character first, and writing the story second, seems to hinder the screenwriter’s productivity. I want to attempt to create characters AND their psychological complexity in a simultaneous process as part of practice-based artistic research.
My questions in terms of character construction are:
- How do psychology and dramaturgical principles combine to create complex characters?
- How do classic character creation strategies integrate psychological motivation in their stories?
METHOD AND THEORIES
A combination of Screenwriting Theory and Humanistic Psychology: A design of dramatic scenes using dramatic concepts of conflict and power. The screenplay employs dialogue to make the character describe themselves in terms of their psychological motivation and dramatic arc. Through dialogue, screenwriting theory, and psychology converge. Characters use it to announce their identity, one that can be read and understood in dramatic terms, as a character is facing obstacles, but also in humanistic psychology precepts- characters who know where their (emotional) pain comes from. Characters share knowledge about themselves as if they had gone through Humanistic Therapy and have learned to conceptualize their internal pain through it. This is an insight that I have gained from my personal experiences in Humanistic therapy, which has helped me to conceptualize myself psychologically.
Character development whilst scene writing
This involves writing a string of scenes that depict a Character Arc towards psychological self-actualisation. Self-actualisation, a concept that belongs to Humanistic Psychology, involves self-knowledge and a continuous road to improvement to reach a higher self, to self-actualization, under Maslow and Erich Fromm principles. This presents a model of character creation that is similar to the dramatic concept of Character Arc, in which characters go through different tests and obstacles to achieve success or reach a goal. At the end of the story, a character reaches a higher sense of self: they have gone through not only an external but an internal change.
- Please note that this screenplay has been reworked following the peer review process.
PEER REVIEW 1
Brenda Robles proposes that character and story development are not separate, as often recommended in screenwriting manuals and industry practices. The idea that complex characters grow through the writing of the story, rather than through a separate process before a scene begins, is an intriguing one. Both psychology and dramaturgy influence the way a character will behave from moment to moment. There is potential for the author to get to know the character through the writing process, instead of working out their complexities before their actions. When acting and reacting through dialogue, the characters have the opportunity to be created on the page together, particularly during the early stages of script development.
As a writing exercise, Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love, responds quite effectively to the questions posed by Robles. The scenes display conflict and power dynamics through the dialogue of the characters in the first and second scenes, while also displaying complexity and an understanding of each character’s psychology. This approach works well in the second scene as an interrogation of the character and her past. Although extra scenes featuring Greta could show her transformation more clearly, there is some evidence that she is moving towards self-actualisation in the final scene when she claims to be a ‘writer’.
To engage the reader more explicitly, the script could benefit from a better set-up of the place and time these characters are living in, it isn’t clear the story is set thirty years into the future until Scene 2. While the first scene is intriguing, at times, I am not convinced about the relationship between Greta and Esko and the research intention could be much stronger if I didn’t question the topic of their conversation. As a script that invites the reader to imagine a story that could be told on screen, Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love would benefit from some further development of this unique situation and time. Perhaps it is clearer in other scenes that have not been included in this submission.
The script is an example of practice as research by questioning how characters written for television can be developed differently. In the industry, with characters fully formed in television bibles accessed by multiple writers, this process is more likely to succeed outside of the industry with full creative control of a single writer.
PEER REVIEW 2
Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love is a practice screenplay that explores a humanistic psychology approach to character development, but also in its narrative notions of what can define a character through the astrologers who work for Love Signs, a fictional publishing company in a dystopian future. It is important to see research screenplays published as they broaden the practice research field and open new avenues for what practice research can be.
There are some fascinating ideas presented in the research statement that accompanies the practice screenplay. The researcher contextualises more traditional approaches to character development, although references in the section could be strengthened, before proposing an alternative way of developing character in action through the application of humanistic psychology. It is in this alternative approach that their research focus lies and thus the originality and contribution of this piece is in screenwriting practices/methods rather than the content, per se, of the creative work.
However, I would be interested to learn how much of the narrative content of the piece is influenced by this approach to character development. The closet astrologers of Love Signs, all female, appear to use their banned craft to discern the nature of other characters, all prominently male. Are these astrologers enabling others to self-actualise, in a way that is similar to the methodological approach to character development in the piece as a whole? Does gender play into the researcher’s study of alternative developmental models for character?
While the research questions cover the overall aims of this project as a larger piece of practice research and demonstrate a new contribution to knowledge through new approaches to character creation in the application of the humanistic psychology approach, how this specifically relates to the chosen excerpt is less clear. The scenes are intriguing with an engaging cast of characters, and they start to create a dystopian future world. However, they do not quite demonstrate the researcher’s new approach to character development. If the research statement were to relate more specifically to the chosen excerpt to enable the reader to deconstruct how the new approach to character development is evident then it would elevate the submission.
Practice as research in this piece is bound to the methodology around which the scenes were constructed, namely in the humanistic psychology approach to character development and narrative construction. The research statement makes the overall approach of the research to questions of development clear and there is innovation in this approach which is grounded in the preexisting discourse of character development. However, at the point of peer review, the evidence of this new approach is less evident in the creative work.
The creative work presents some engaging characters and a world which could capture a reader’s attention outside of academia, yet if this is to prove new insights of the research into the practice of screenwriting further information/exploration of this humanistic psychology process is needed to enable the scholar to interpret these research questions in the creative work.
Dear reviewers 1 and 2,
I admire your passion for the screenwriting art and your disposition for reviewing both my work and research statement. Your observations in regards to format, general and very on point corrections, and research statement were carefully noted and appreciated. What I put more effort into was in finding a clearer connection between the research statement and the script, for which I took upon the task of adding extra scenes and a re-composed storyline. The result was that I ended up adding scenes I had previously disregarded as unnecessary but were absolutely needed to illustrate my method, thinking and creative process in composing character. Albeit complex, unpredictable, and hard to pinpoint, it is my research objective to make transparent how character creation occurs by taking into account my passion as a screenwriter for dialogue and psychology, along with the structure and logical progression of the plot. It is with this research that I challenge the a priori methods of character creation, dictated by biography and a previously assumed knowledge of character’s inner and outer missions and goals, with a character design approach to the carves character from inside out, a process that involves writing and knowing at the same time
Dear reviewer 1. Your notes on the main idea of the story and the “intriguing” idea that characters can be known as the story unfolds inspired me to develop new scenes that illustrated my research objectives as clearer examples of the main research statement.
Dear reviewer 2. Your curiosity about how the humanistic psychology concepts impact screenwriting research and creative work, prompt me to seek further clarification in the script and the statement to satisfy the premise of my research for the reader.
Thank you both for your openness, sensitivity, commitment and willingness to provide the extra pair of eyes that every writer needs and, in my case, asks and is thankful for.
REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT
This project explores secondary character creation by writing “pivotal” scenes placed in the beginning, middle and climatic parts of the story in a narrative exercise of “filling in the dots” of story and character, through the dramaturgical concept “Dramatic Arc” and the humanistic psychology term “Self-realisation”.
This includes introduction/middle and climatic scenes of dystopian television series Greta Ruiz and the Signs of Love. These are referred to as “pivotal” scenes 1, 2 and 3, that help to design secondary character Vilja Huntunen in a double journey of self-realisation and dramatic arc through the use of expositional psychological dialogue/backstory.
In this research, I argue that in contemporary high-quality television drama series, the purpose of “talking heads”, (Hunter 2004). “This type of television dialogue is not the exposition of actions anymore, but exposing the psychological state of characters, mutating from disclosing actions, into discussing matters of why they do what they do in order to create “realistically complex characters” (Pelican 2020). The use of this type of psychological exposition through dialogue is useful to approach character design from the inside out, by tracing a psychological journey and to get to know a character deeply as you “make it talk”.
I want to put in practice the dramatic concept of “dramatic arc” and to compare it to the one referred to in humanistic psychology as “self-realisation”. “Self-realisation” is described as follows:
“Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving ‘upward”) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency”. (Maslow 1970)
This is performed by bringing a character’s backstory into the present of the story, in particular, the relationships with their parents and how this has impacted on their current state of mind and behaviour. The journey involves the use of dialogue as a tool to reveal the character’s self-awareness of their psychological pain and its source, creating first a psychological design based on a self-realisation journey and then by attaching significant dramatic beats or points of inflection that shape the dramatic arc, involving other characters and plot.
METHOD AND THEORIES- The Pivotal Scene Approach
Character design occurs on two levels, the psychological one first and the dramatic one after. I argue for the planting of three different points of inflection or three different stages towards self-realisation in pivotal scenes. These “pivotal scenes” help to create the character and make predictions towards the completion of the character’s arc, helping me to get to know the character as he is being written, rather than writing a biography first and figuring out later what happens to him/her in the story.
The Pivotal-scene approach
I take this approach with secondary character Vilja Huntunen, who faces her mother’s disapproval as an astrologist and writer, challenging their mother-daughter relationship. The creation of pivotal scenes includes classic dramatic conflict design and a fight for power, scattered throughout different points of the story, promoting new story development and character development. New information emerges from pivotal scenes, to be added in future scenes or to the character biography, impacting the character’s arc and personal information. Given the nature of a television series drama, there might be a few or many episodes in between these pivotal scenes, leaving blank spaces to be filled in later writing stages.
Pivotal scene design is based on exposition of the self in a literary and psychological sense, placed amidst a dramatic situation. Horney’s theories of the “self”, (Westkott 1998, 287-301) are used to discuss Tyrion’s behaviour (Game of Thrones), which seems to deploy not also a Shakespearean, generous and smart rhetoric in the form of expositional dialogue, but also seems to be aware exactly of who he is, psychologically. As described by Lambert “Tyrion is by far the most self-aware of all the characters in the books, and this self-awareness is determined by, and measured in terms of the hurt that can be caused him, and its injustice (sic)” (Lambert 2015, 30). Tyrion’s characterisation seems to address this pain psychologically, instantly placing him amidst a self-actualisation process. Within this he acknowledges the source of his pain as his own father and then struggles to overcome rejection by society and his family because of his physical aspect.
The design of Vilja’s pivotal scenes are in direct relationship with her mother. The first scenes establish the character’s world and major psychological barriers: feeling her mother considers another to be her real daughter.
After writing the first scene, I combined two previous treatments about a story revolving around romance novels and astrological signs as magic powers. This helped to find a single storyline and to create a narrative point later in the story in which Vilja was an important character, which helped me to project myself a few episodes into the story. My general approach was to write an outline in a word processor and to write the actual scenes in Final Draft once I had the scenes’ main beats. The outlines became part of a Character Dossier, which I go back to after finishing writing any pivotal scene. I write and reflect upon the new insights or revelations I had whilst writing, adding to the plot or the character’s personal information.
The general outline of the pivotal scenes were:
In Pivotal scene 1, Vilja is introduced as an unsuccessful romance writer, who is passed over in favour of fellow writer Greta Ruiz, who even has preferential treatment by Vilja’s own mother, Ms Talvio.
In Pivotal scene 2, I had to create a situation in which Vilja is in a position of authority, momentarily taking the place of her mother as head of the publishing house. Even if she is reaffirmed in her position and saves the day, her mother still doesn’t think very highly of her.
In Pivotal scene 3, Vilja must endure the terrible truth. Her mother was a traitor all along, slowly transforming into a succubus, and staying close to Greta because she senses her astrological powers and feeds her with victims to suck energy from.
Hunter, Lew. 2004. Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434: Rev. Perigee trade pbk. ed. ed. New York, N.Y: Perigee Books. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0717/2004559328-b.html.
Lambert, Charles. 2015. “A Tender Spot in My Heart: Disability in A Song of Ice and Fire.” The Critical Quarterly 57 (1): 20-33. doi:10.1111/criq.12176. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/criq.12176.
Legg Timothy, J. “Is Humanistic Therapy Right for You?”: Healthline https://www.healthline.com/health/humanistic-therapy.
Maslow Abraham H. 1970. Motivation and Personality Harper & Row.
Maslow, Abraham H. 2013. Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Start Publishing LLC. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/[SITE_ID]/detail.action?docID=1318724.
Pelican, Kira-Anne. 2020. The Science of Writing Characters. New York: Bloomsbury Academic & Professional. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/[SITE_ID]/detail.action?docID=6427250.
Westkott, Marcia. 1998. “Horney, Zen, and the Real Self.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 58 (3): 287-301. doi:10.1023/A:1022587324729. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9768310.
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