Character Roots: Armchair Psychology

By Michael Schilf · July 13, 2010

Years ago I was in therapy, whining through misdirected diatribes of what happened yesterday, the day before, or last week. This went on for months – me coming in with a new story, a new conflict, a new situation – but I was getting nowhere. Finally, my therapist roared: “I can’t help you if you won’t listen!” He must have known I was ready, because this time I actually heard his wisdom. And what he went on to explain was The Tree Analogy.

If the tree represents the totality of a person’s life experience, we often tend to only see the leaves, which are the immediate daily struggles and obstacles. But those conflicts fall and grow back – same problem, just new details (leaves) – and if we only focus on those details, then we’re just using a Band-Aid to cover a deep, infected wound. The truth is in the roots: the lifeline of the conflict. And it’s the root of the problem – which is often almost impossible to see when you’re engulfed in the chaos of all those details – that you must dig up and acknowledge. And when it comes to understanding your characters, this is paramount because identifying the root is directly related to theme.

Take the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas as an example. The leaves of the story are the specific scenes following a likeable, charismatic Hollywood agent who loses everything due to alcoholism. We hope he’ll survive the ordeal, but we fear for the worst. But why does he self-sabotage every positive element in his life? Is he afraid of abandonment because his parents left him? Is he an alcoholic because his father was? Does he run away from intimacy because he’s afraid of getting hurt? Using a Character Questionnaire to help uncover the root of the problem is a powerful tool, and one that you can use, not only for your characters, but with your own life as well.