Danica Giles

Ms

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    Although there is no shortage of fiction writing how-to books, courses, and consultants, even the most commonly used story development concepts (such as a character’s Want and Need) remain elusive for many writers. As a social psychologist and former behaviour change consultant, I believe that bringing together the best ideas from academic and how-to (screen)writing literature with the behavioural and cognitive sciences enables us to develop more precise, yet flexible, writing tools than are currently available. For my PhD research, I have developed a comprehensive psycho-narratological model of characters’ Wants and Needs, part of which I am now testing empirically. Based on this research, I have developed a hands-on character and plot development tool, which I am teaching MA Screenwriting students. For a more detailed description of my work, including other writing tools I have developed, please see below.

     

     

    There is no shortage of fiction writing how-to books, courses, and consultants. Yet, even the most commonly used character and plot development concepts (such as a character’s Want and Need) remain elusive for many - particularly aspiring, but to some extent also experienced - writers. While there is a long tradition of writers turning to psychoanalytic theories for help (e.g., Jungian archetypes in the Hero’s Journey), insights offered by the behavioural and cognitive sciences remain largely untapped. As a social psychologist and former behaviour change consultant, I believe that these sciences have a lot to offer, not just in terms of psychological content knowledge but also in terms of their approach to theory development and testing. While there clearly is no silver bullet for the highly complex task of successful storytelling, I believe that bringing together the best ideas from academic and how-to (screen)writing literature with evidence-based psychology enables us to develop more precise, yet flexible, writing tools than are currently available.

    With the aim of designing such tools, I have developed, as part of my PhD research, a comprehensive psycho-narratological model of characters’ Wants and Needs. It distinguishes between basic human needs, personal values, domain-specific goals, and observable actions and provides detailed definitions and descriptions of the relations between these concepts. The model also proposes a mechanism of how audiences often identify a character’s Need before the character does so herself, of how social story values are communicated through the Need, and the model suggests which story values and types of character change are likely most popular. To provide some empirical evidence for the model, I have conducted online surveys investigating viewers’ expectations of characters’ value change and the film values (which largely confirmed my hypotheses), and I have started to explore the occurrence of values in film narratives using computerised text analysis.

    Based on this research, I have developed a hands-on character and plot development tool around characters’ Wants and Needs, which I am teaching MA Screenwriting students. Other writing tools I have developed for teaching include a characterisation tool based on the HEXACO personality model, a plot development tool based on social psychological behaviour change principles, a coming-of-age tool based on personal identity development research, and a brief genre and logline development tool. Further tools I am planning to develop include a character change process model based on dual-process theories of reasoning and intuition, a relationship development tool based on the social psychology of friendships and romantic relationships, and many more. I also offer individual consultations to students, during which we usually try to nail down their protagonist’s Need and discuss any other relevant psychological concepts.