I’ve previously written about various extreme characters you can include in your screenplay to create some really interesting stories. These range from simple liars, to the delusional, to the dark villains.
Extreme characters make for highly engaging films, especially in the horror, drama and thriller genres. You can really put your psychology to work in your screenwriting. Normal people can get boring in your film script.
This article explores the main traits of highly toxic characters you can create. Toxic characters can be subtle through to severe. They chip away at other characters’ self-esteem, sanity and self-respect.
Here are some manipulative and destructive behaviors found in toxic people:
This is an insidious tactic used to create doubt by reinforcing a false narrative. The perpetrator uses terms like “It’s all in your head”, “You’re imagining things” and “I could never do anything like that.” The extreme cases are outright lies that are repeated to achieve dominance.
Gaslighting reframes a falsehood into a false reality. The victim often doesn’t realize they’re being psychologically manipulated, or if they do, they suffer in self-doubt. Toxic characters pit other characters against each other or create widespread confusion as to what’s true or not..
2) FIGHT AND MAKE UP
Toxic people pride themselves in controlling arguments. They like to start trivial arguments for attention. If they can’t win an argument, they storm out and later over-compensate with a saccharine makeup routine. The victim falls this behavior loop over and over again. Despite their convincing apologies, toxic people have no intention of changing their behavior. They often justify their behavior on some previous trauma and expect you to excuse them. Why shouldn’t you? They’ve gotten away with it until now.
Toxic people are testing your tolerance with the aim of pushing your limits further and further into their favor.
3) DISTORTION OF FACTS
Not all facts are created equal. There are unquestionable pieces of information that can only be interpreted one way, and there are interpretations of data.
Toxic people deliberately change the focus of information to reduce its credibility, relevance or even its factual status. They claim that a valid fact is merely an opinion or vice-versa to strengthen their case. Terms such as “what would they know?” are common in their parlance.
A distortion is never an outright lie, For instance, in criminal cases, lawyers may overstate their opinions to mislead the jury.
This is a way of either focusing on a character’s flaws at the expense of their praises. The flaws may be real or imagined. Either way, they are often exaggerated or grossly misrepresented.
A toxic person may demonize either a single person or an entire group of people to achieve their agenda. They often quote “experts” and “third parties” more familiar with the matter to bolster their case.
Sometimes they exaggerate a rare occurrence or make blanket statements to make it seem like it is typical behavior.
Demonizing also includes actions like smear campaigns and public shaming. Toxic people are adept at diminishing your self-worth. For instance, consider the scenario when a rape victim is somehow made to accept at least partial blame, or contracting a deadly disease is a direct result of their beliefs or past actions.
Toxic people often manipulate a situation to paint themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. This can be through omission of facts, but more often through outright lies. They project their nefarious deeds onto others to make them the bad guys. Then they lie to generate sympathy for themselves and plead innocence or ignorance.
Dependent toxic people may forbid their partner to visit their friends and claim they only want to spend time with them.
They also blame you for their faults. Somehow you drove them to drink, smoke and gamble. Then they expect you to apologize.
Toxic people are deeply insecure. Their natural counteraction is to exert absolute control over others to fuel their imagined authority. Anything or anyone that threatens their perceived control of a situation is either maligned or killed in the most extreme cases. Think about the incompetent toxic boss who will do anything to protect their position.
Also consider those toxic relationships when the dominant partner controls the household finances, living arrangements, vacation, and allocation of social times.
This can be as harsh as threatening or deeply offensive behavior, or something more subtle such as sarcasm, or something more serious such as ignoring them, derogatory remarks or playing cruel pranks and later justifying them as jokes.
Sometimes, it isn’t the words a to person uses, but rather the way they are expressed. Toxic people can be dismissive, condescending, patronizing or accuse you of over-reacting to a situation. Either way, they think they have a better grasp of a situation than you.
This doesn’t always need to be verbal. Gestures like eye rolls, grins, turning away and other gestures, serve the same purpose.
Toxic people typically have erratic mood swings. The slightest thing can set them off one minute or they find something funny one day and offensive the next. These tactics are designed to keep the victim constantly on edge. In more extreme cases, the victim may self-censor or even blame themselves. Somehow something is wrong with them.
A toxic person will refute claims of misbehavior such as a temper tantrum, immediately after having executed it. The often don’t even allow enough time to pass for you to doubt your interpretation of events. They break out into a barrage of nonsensical arguments to wear you down.
Other toxic behaviors are more strategic and do the exact opposite. They plant seeds of doubt in your mind to make you believe that they didn’t actually throw a tantrum but rather engaged in a heated debate..
They often change the subject or redirect a conversation as part of the process. This is all part of the manipulation to make to people believe they come out on top.
They never accept responsibility for their actions. They either reduce the severity of their actions, or outright deny that they did anything wrong.
So there you have it, fellow screenwriters. Get busy and write some severely disturbed characters.
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