Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Specific Structures: Individual Psychological Arcs

This one also incorporates various earlier posts such as this one, this one, and this one.
Last week, we looked at specific character arcs associated with seven different genres.  Together, they covered most movies, but there are additional character arcs within those movies that we can examine.  The point of this series is that most large self-contained stories are focused on one character’s problem, and human nature dictates that people tend to go through a similar set of steps to solve those problems.

Of course, it’s not just storytelling gurus who try to figure out these steps.  Psychologists have been figuring out the steps of problem solving on their end for centuries.  Within each genres, you’ll find heroes whose individual journeys resemble the journeys described by certain psychologists.

Let’s start with the two biggies: Freud and Jung.  Freud focused his work on mental illness and believed that the job of the psychologist was to help the patient solve problems and get out of therapy.  The first precept of Freudian therapists is that, for therapy to be effective, patients “must want to change.”  The Freudian arc is a transformation arc: the hero realizes that he’s self-destructive and transforms himself.

Failure / Overconfident Re-Doubling of Bad Habits / Even Worse Failure Causes Beginnings of Self-Awareness / Success Through Transformation

Freud’s student Jung decided that his mentor was too focused on mental illness as opposed to mental health. Jung studied healthier patients and became convinced that the goal of the psychologist should be to help patients understand and accept themselves, rather than change.  The Jungian arc is an Individuation arc: The hero realizes that he needs to stop trying to change, and rediscover his inborn wisdom.

Discontent / False Success through Denial of Self / Failure Exposes Alienation from Self / Success through Acceptance of Self

I’ve referred to these two arcs as the Han arc and the Luke arc: Han is a rotten guy who thinks he’s great, but he comes to realize that he needs to change.  He finally succeeds by doing something he never would have done before.  Luke is a good person who thinks he’s a failure.  He craves the validation that would come with leaving farm life for flight school, but when he finally becomes a pilot, he finds that it was the skills he learned at home, both practically and spiritually, that allow him to succeed where all the other pilots fail.

Two other psychologists have described self-help journeys that also show up in movies.  Abraham Maslow described the way in which we tend to satisfy our hierarchy of needs one by one.  Characters who have been totally devastated and/or exiled are sometimes forced to follow this arc, such as Jason Bourne or the title characters in The Ballad of Cable Hogue or The Brother From Another Planet:

Shelter / Material Accomplishment / Social Accomplishment / Justice and Peace

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross focused her studies on those experiencing severe grief and found that they tended to follow the same basic steps.  These steps tend to form the arc of movies about grief, in movies like Swayze in Ghost, Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine, or Hutton  Ordinary People.  Also seen on death-filled TV shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar: Galactica”:

Denial / Anger and Bargaining / Depression / Acceptance

Okay, no more delay: Let’s start our big structure walkthrough tommorrow...


Daniel Smith said...

A very nice post. I was aware of the work by all four psychologists but never thought about them as four character arcs in stories. I look forward to your next post when you put all these structures together. BTW, modern research has debunked the hierarchical structure of Maslow's work. Humans pretty much seek out meaning at all of Maslow's levels simultaneously as circumstances allow.

I've been enjoying the podcasts too. I subscribed to Cheryl's blog years ago. Isn't serendipity wonderful? Keep up the good work.

Matt Bird said...

I'm always dubious when a psychologist is "debunked"-- Freud, Jung, and Kubler-Ross have all been debunked many times themselves. All psychological theorists are adding interpretive tools to the toolbox, and that tool will either get used or fall into disuse depending on how useful people find it to be in any given year.

Maslow's hierarchy is convincing to me, because I certainly had moments in my single life where I literally said to myself. "Ah, finally got that back rent paid off, now I can relax..." and the tension drained out of my shoulders ...but then I immediately tensed back up again as the thought popped into my brain: "Geez, all of a sudden I really want a girlfriend!"

Daniel Smith said...

LOL! So true! I think they all have their uses and are all correct and accurate given appropriate contexts.

It's not Maslow's whole theory that has been proven untrue by subsequent research, just the idea that we all start on the bottom rung and work up the pyramid (Physical => Transcendence). In reality we jump around the levels working on them out of order and sometimes even simultaneously such that it's just not best described as a hierarchy. The core of Maslow, the idea that humans work toward fulfilling their needs, is still well supported by the same research.

For example: Today I woke up and took a shower (1 Physical) before heading off to work (3 Belonging). I used to be fulfilled there (6 Aesthetic) but now I struggle (2 Security) and am looking for another job (2 Security again). After work I went home and watched some YouTube videos (5 Learning and 7 Self-Actualization). Soon, my wife and children will be home from swimming (3 Belonging) and we'll have dinner (1 Physical).

See what I mean? We bounce all over the levels when fulfilling our needs but the core of the theory is sound.

j.s. said...

Does the Maslow arc fit Bourne better if you consider it over the whole trilogy? Could you say a little more about this. I see the first and last steps pretty clearly, but not the rest.

It strikes me how similar the Jung and Kubler-Ross arcs are. And how much they are related to the inner life of many comedies, especially ones that employ a false persona/mask.

Also, I guess I agree with Daniel about the way these psychology arcs work in real life, where any kind of progression is not usually strictly linear and often overlaps with meeting other needs. It's certainly true that life can work like SCARFACE ("first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman"). But it's also true that outside of stories (and even sometimes inside them) higher meaning doesn't necessarily fall by the wayside because people are hungry or imperiled. Sometimes it's what gets them through. Likewise with the Kubler-Ross stages.

Then again, I suppose that's the point of a story. It's a unique event where a single problem comes suddenly and sharply into focus and is dealt with definitively.

Daniel Smith said...

This is the Maslow I have and use. It came from a book by the Heath Brothers called Made to Stick which is where I learned that the hierarchical nature of the theory had been essentially disproven.

Transcendence: help others realize their potential
Self-actualization: realize our own potential, self-fulfillment, peak experiences
Aesthetic: symmetry, order, beauty, balance
Learning: know, understand, mentally connect
Esteem: achieve, be competent, gain approval, independence, status
Belonging: love, family, friends, affection
Security: protection, safety, stability
Physical: hunger, thirst, bodily comfort

I'd have to watch the Bourne trilogy again to answer your question but I suspect the answer would be yes whether we were considering the trilogy or an individual movie but Jason does fulfill his needs out of the strict hierarchical sequence. Each movie (I think) starts out with a girlfriend/love interest (3 Belonging) and then quickly moves into some kind of dangerous situation (2 Security). I'm not sure he ever achieves Transcendence (8) but he does come to some kind of Self-Actualization (7) by the end of movie 1. So Bourne would appear to fit the model just not the hierarchical interpretation of it.

The Kubler-Ross stages are also not strictly followed in real life. There are many documented cases where individuals bounced around or even skipped over whole stages. I think that's maybe the distinction here. These psychological constructs are in some sense the result of a statistical analysis. They hold true in a general sense when looking at a population or a demographic group, but any specific individual will likely show some level of divergence from the official general pattern. So they should be treated more like guidelines than rules.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, all of these models are far more linear than real life, but that's one reason why they're helpful to screenwriters, because movies are *also* more linear than real life.

Think of The Fugitive. All Kimble can think about is running, until he finally shakes Gerard (he thinks) for good. Then suddenly, ten minutes after he's safe, the thought hits him: "Damn, I should figure out who killed my wife!" He can only deal with one level at a time.

I would say that the first Bourne movie is pretty linear: Physical / Security / Companionship / Justice, and the second is similar after the girl is killed. He's on less of a Maslovian arc in the third one because it doesn't begin with a devastating experience.

j.s. said...

That FUGITIVE example is very helpful.

One real-life rule of thumb that does translate to stories and that connects with Jule Selbo's big structure insight is that, while every protagonist may go through more or less the same stages, not every protagonist spends the same amount of time in each stage.

Anonymous said...

"I went home and watched some YouTube videos (5 Learning and 7 Self-Actualization)" LOL