Archives for posts with tag: psychology

This will be the last in this series of articles. We’ll wrap up with a couple more personality disorders and discuss how to use some of what I’ve written about.

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is more severe and, among other symptoms, involves repetitive, ritualistic behaviors and persistent, worrisome thoughts. The personality disorder is manifested by rigid conformity to rules. They need everything to be perfect and feel that unless they’re in control, things will not go well. Poor roommate material.

The avoidant personality disorder is basically a really bad case of shyness. They feel inhibited in any kind of social situation and are easily hurt by criticism. Don’t sneak up on them and yell, “I hate your shoes!”

If you run through a mental list of people you know, you’re likely to believe some of them have one of these disorders. You may even see a little of yourself in one of them. But don’t self-diagnose because you’ll probably be wrong. And please, unless you happen to be a board certified psychologist, don’t ever label other people with any disorder or other psychological profile and then share your thoughts with others. That’s a seriously bad idea. None of these articles should be interpreted as scientifically accurate absolutes. I’m not a psychologist; I’m an actor and acting coach and these are tools I’ve used to help ignite a creative approach to development of a character.

At the beginning of this series I compared a human personality to an onion because viewing a personality that way makes it easier to construct a new one. At the very center of our own personalities are those things we keep secret, sometimes even from ourselves. Those secrets that we are aware of, but don’t want others to know about (fatal flaws) are the secrets that we’ll carefully guard at almost any cost. That’s the best place to start with your new character’s personality. Those secrets may be in the script’s text or you may have to invent them. They give you something internal to work against and clues to behavioral characteristics. For example, let’s suppose your character harbors a secret, conscious urge to murder people. His/her superego is doing a good job of keeping that urge in check so nobody is actually getting killed. But, that doesn’t stop the urge. Certainly he/she doesn’t want anyone to know about that secret. And good old ego knows that when it comes to the character’s long-term interests, being seen by others as a potential killer is probably not helpful! So, move out to the next layer and review ego defense mechanisms. How is this character going to guard against that secret and protect him/herself from its negative consequences? Deny, suppress or create a reaction formation around it? Find the mechanism that is the best fit for you, the actor. Sometimes, others can tell when someone is in denial. Other defense mechanisms might not be as obvious. The key for you is to enhance your sense of who your character is. That enhancement will offer up some very interesting choices for every facet of your character’s personality.

How about a personality disorder? Those are the outer layers that present a lot of non-verbal opportunities. For example, it may not be in your script but perhaps you decide to play with the idea of your character being obsessive-compulsive. There might be a moment where you can rearrange props on a table to be just so. Then, if another actor handles the one of those props and doesn’t return it to exactly the right place, you make a point of re-setting it the way you want it. If one of the props gets handled and misplaced still one more time, you have a golden comedic moment in the making.

Another big advantage to shaping the psychology of your character is the audience gets to know the character on a deeper level. Psychological characteristics are instinctively sensed. This makes your character predictable on a subliminal level. That predictability is powerful stuff in a performance because audience members will learn to expect certain characteristics from your character. In comedy, that can turn just a beat of silence before reacting to a stimulus, into a hilarious moment as the audience says to themselves, “Oh, boy. Here it comes,” and then laugh that much more when their prediction of your character’s reaction comes true. In drama it can be effective in similar fashion especially with the added bonus of pushing against the predictability. A passive and dependent character that suddenly becomes violent and murderous in the last act can shock an audience even more if you have internalized its urge to violence and exhibit behavior that guards against its discovery.

Creating a believable character means inventing a new personality, discarding your personality and becoming completely immersed in the new one. Knowing how personality traits affect behavior will provide you with a better foundation for a character and expose you to better and more effective choices.

Break a leg.

As promised at the end of the last article, we’re going to tackle personality disorders. They reside in one of the outermost layers of a personality “onion.” We can see them in action and they can be infuriating to others as well as to the people who demonstrate them. There are a lot of these and professional publications and organizations have categorized them using a lot of different criteria. But since I’m not a professional and this is a series about the employment of simplified psychology in an actor’s character development, my aim is to keep things as straightforward as possible.

First of all, a personality disorder is a personality trait that is maladaptive to the culture in which it is employed. Behavior that is acceptable in one culture will not necessarily be acceptable in another. The disorders are patterns of behavior that are inflexible and well ingrained. They can be the source of considerable distress.

Passive aggressive personality disorder may be manifested by resentment, skepticism and deliberate underperformance. This personality unloads its anger indirectly. For example, if a passive aggressive individual is asked to take out the trash, but does not want to, he/she will eventually take out the trash but do so angrily and in a rush, managing to spill a lot of it all over the kitchen floor.

Someone who always seems helpless and weak and constantly seeks reassurance from others is said to have a dependent personality disorder. They don’t like taking on responsibilities because they’re immature. They have very low self esteem and see themselves as useless and incapable. Not a lot of fun at a party.

If someone has a narcissistic personality disorder they see themselves as being superior to others and deserving of special treatment. He/she may be preoccupied with fantasies of well-deserved, enormous success. Could be that person who sits to your left in the dressing room.

A borderline personality is commonly underpinned by a desperate fear of abandonment and isolation. Wide fluctuations in mood will include rapid shifts between loving and hating. One second a borderline personality will see another person as wonderful, the next second that same person is seen as despicable. They’re considered unpredictable and even unstable. Do not let them near sharp objects.

I love personality disorders! They’re like a smorgasbord of ready-made choices for actors. You can pick and choose among all these traits and express them in performance. You can express them physically, emotionally or stash them away into subtext. Your character can be predictable or unpredictable or just plain “nuts.” They come in really handy when the playwright hasn’t given you a lot to go on.

There are plenty more of these disorders and I‘ll touch on a few more next time.

In the last article I briefly went over id, ego and super ego, the three components of a personality that can be applied to character development. They’re right of the center of our onion. This time around let’s take a look at some application possibilities, starting with ego.

To begin with, I’m going to add a fourth component. I’m not aware of anything Freud had to say about this, but I’m guessing he might approve! That extra aspect is what I call the character’s “fatal flaw.” In an earlier article, I mentioned that all of us have secrets that we keep to ourselves: certain thoughts, beliefs and perhaps past transgressions. Buried amongst those secrets might be one that, if known to the outside world, could very well humiliate its keeper beyond repair. That’s the fatal flaw. An example can be found in Lès Miserables. When Jean Valjean allows Javert to escape the clutches of young revolutionaries who want him executed, Javert is shamed to the point of suicide. Why? What is it about his obsession with Valjean, an obsession that already informs us regarding Javert’s skewed personality, that would drive him to jump to his own death after being extended an act of mercy? In a very real sense, he’s allowing Valjean to execute him. It’s because he has been exposed; his fatal flaw has surfaced. Valjean has exposed Javert’s deepest fears. He’s a coward and a failure. All of that is pure conjecture on my part, of course. But it gives an actor an initial peek into Javert’s psyche and that can be built upon to shape the character.

If the ego fails to provide a character with what he/she needs and wants, the ego jumps in to defend itself. Here we’re adding another layer to the “onion.” There are a variety of defensive tricks at ego’s command. Looking again at Javert, his ego is pushing him to fulfill what it perceives as a need, the capture of Valjean. Valjean is, of course, just a symbol of what Javert is really after: affirmation of his competency and courage. His overactive ego has gone to great, unhealthy lengths to move Javert to protect his fatal flaw. The mechanism his ego has employed to shield itself might be compensation. But it is going too far. His ego is overcompensating to make up for the weakness that Javert really feels (whether he’s aware of it or not.) Then there’s a defense mechanism known as a reaction formation. It’s a form of overcompensation in which the character embraces what is actually feared. His frantic pursuit of Valjean constantly places Javert in the path of the failure he so greatly fears.

If you know what your character’s fatal flaw is (and, depending on the script, you might have to build it out of the whole cloth of your imagination) you have a really good frame of reference for determining an important facet of the new personality you’re creating. It gives you more than a character’s objective to work with. It begins to give you a “why;” why does the character want what he/she wants. By first internalizing the reason and then projecting it through behavioral choices, you give your character a little something extra that will make that character more real to you and thus to the audience.