Misbehavior: Organic Storytelling and Character Activation

Please read the following exceptional article on building character from the Writers Boot Camp in Santa Monica.

Misbehavior is a term used to get close to the essence of what makes movie and TV characters accessible. A descendant and enhancement of the industry term character arc–character change over the course of a story–misbehavior is a tool for activating characters and connecting action to the ground wire of thematic resonance.

Misbehavior is the way that a character affects other characters negatively while remaining sympathetic, well meaning or heroic to some degree. This is different from negative behavior in which the character is hostile. When characters misbehave they affect each other and interact more with each other, inevitably creating interesting and pertinent conflict. Conflict doesn’t always refer to battles, but also includes tension created from opposing points of view.

We refer to Misbehavior applied to the Main Character, who represents the spine of the story, as Building Block Misbehavior because it operates as the cornerstone from which all thematic material is sourced.  Misbehavior will not only activate your characters, but also help you fully develop them in relation to the context of the story.

Still, misbehavior does not in itself make a character entirely unique. Misbehavior is one characteristic, yet a very important one.

Misbehavior relates character change to the experience and action that we see over the course of the story.  The audience can see and feel the change rather than hear it so boldly in a line of dialogue.  Misbehavior connects the thematic and psychological underpinning to the actual events and character interactions along the adventure.

Misbehavior is not the same as bad behavior, though it contains some bad. Consider the description as a sweet and sour combination. For example, if you know that your character is ambitious, then mitigate that positive by adding sour to the mix, like overly ambitious or even surprisingly ambitious.  The key is not to turn it into a complete negative, just adding negative shades.

Conversely, if you start with a negative, the problematic aspect of the character, like short-tempered, then you would add a positive word, like idealistic, earnest or passionate, resulting in passionate, yet short-tempered.

When someone misbehaves, maybe hurting others, especially loved ones, the motivation is rarely malevolent or malicious. Only cardboard characters are entirely good or bad, black and white. Generally, a character may remain sympathetic, or even redeemable in some way, if a paradox is established.

Misbehavior is not exhibited by every main character in every movie. Main character misbehavior is not a rule.  Misbehavior is a tool.  The misbehavior may vary according to the unique aspects of an idea and whether the main character is more human or heroic.  Your main character may possess super powers and may never change.

Every character may exhibit misbehavior.  Misbehavior is an approach to character and also a way to write every scene to activate the energy of every scene by motivating your characters to respond outwardly, unexpectedly and overextending rather than retreating, therefore rising to become larger-than-life.

Misbehavior is not simply an adjective or a character description. The word introverted is descriptive, yet you can usually infer lack of action from that word.  Instead, socially awkward illustrates potential behavior and interaction with others.  The forward motion, depending on the dramatic levels and conceits inherent in your idea, is usually more entertaining than inactivity.

Misbehavior is a great way to elevate your writing and to attract name actors to your script. Acting is a license to misbehave, to display a range of emotion and behavior. Since screenplay form tends toward the depiction of a profound event, most main characters change over the course of the journey.

Make your characters misguided, rather than one-sided. As in Aristotle’s concept of tragic flaw, used so effectively by Shakespeare, and Stan Lee in manner of humanizing superheroes, a character’s greatest weakness may also be the source of their strength and destiny.  The onset of a particular journey for a character will most times be inspired and motivated by the need for the particular lesson of the story.

In some victim or youth coming-of-age stories, misbehavior is not evident.

Misbehavior can shapeshift at intervals and from moment to moment.  This is also a question of art and how the characters as emotional, behavioral animals inhabit the spaces of their relationships with people (other well-drawn characters).  Misbehavior is charismatic rather than static, and the instances and callbacks to it in the story remind us of the stakes on a personal and interpersonal level.  In addition to increasing active stance, additional instances of momentary misbehavior may occur throughout a story, relating to the situation rather than the building block issues and motivated by good reason, like pushing aside an authority figure to get past a barricade to save another character in jeopardy.

Misbehavior is a way to illustrate theme.  A metaphor for theme, through the building block misbehavior a writer can chart stages of progress, as well as setbacks, and convey the profound significance and meaning of the action/story/adventure without having to state directly what your story means.  In a feature, the 2nd Act adventure is usually the opposite, or creates the opposite, of the misbehavior.  In other words, the personal experience of the adventure is what changes the misbehavior.  Many of the best high-concept movies, especially comedies, connect what happens on the adventure to the misbehavior.

The adventure will not always be the opposite of the misbehavior, the dynamic progression will not be present in every 2nd Act sequence, and every main character will not obviously exhibit a build block misbehavior–but these approaches dramatically improve the tension and coherence of your story.  The key to organic writing and character development is to make clear character choices and to identify the audience experience you are creating.  The variables, special qualities and limitations of any idea will require you to adapt and finesse through access to various tools in your writing arsenal, among them misbehavior. Everything in entertainment is contrived to some degree–it’s just not supposed to feel that way.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Mary Hackett says:

    An interesting concept. I am writing a TV pilot. My main character seems almost too good. I will counteract his benevolence with impatience as a contrast. Thank you so much for sharing great information with your readers.

    Mary Hackett

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