Dr. Donna Dannenfelser is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, bestselling author and Co-Executive Producer on USA’s hit series, Necessary Roughness. She's the expert on Psychological Backstories as she consults with writers concerning psychological profiles and character flaws for pilot development, TV series, movies and novels. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @TheDr_Donna
Successful TV series and movies have one thing in common, they have characters that are relatable and believable. The creation of these characters begins with well-thought-out psychological backstories. All psychological flaws can be traced back to childhood and environmental conditions one grew up in. Character flaws are then exasperated with the stresses of adulthood. The statement, “We spend our adulthood trying to get over our childhood,” is true. And if it is true for us, it must be true for your characters. Developing psych bios for your characters involves many decisions on the part of the writer.
Think about it… Why are reality shows so popular today? Because of character flaws evident in the personalities of the people featured on them. If you want to sell your script, you need interesting, relatable characters. If the audience can relate to the characters, you are on your way to an award-winning show.
When SONY Pictures and USA Network bought my TV series, Necessary Roughness, they told me, “If your writers can get on the page with what you just told us, we will have an award-winning show.” Necessary Roughness was based on my life as a sports psychologist working for the New York Jets in the 1990’s. It was my character and life story, surrounded by real-life individuals that sold that show.
Necessary Roughness won awards for mental health awareness because of the psychological character flaws of the lead and guest stars, along with mental health issues that were woven into the show every week. Every character needs a good psychological backstory. Without it you don’t have depth of character. Your characters need to feel real to the audience, and with character flaws they will.
Necessary Roughness was a procedural show, and every week Dr. Dani, our protagonist, had a client presenting with a particular issue, only to discover that there was a deep-rooted pathology at the core of the behavior. It was a psychological mystery show of sorts. What I discovered while working with the writers was that they were limited to what they could find on the internet concerning psych disorders, the predisposition for them, and the environmental details needed for them to manifest.
Having a psychotherapist in the room certainly is an asset, but where do writers go to find out the nuts and bolts of a personality disorder, especially one that has never been seen on TV before, unless of course they are intimately involved with a person who has such a disorder?
The first place you can start is online at Ask.com. Put in either the name of the disorder, or the behavior you want observed, which could be as minor as a quirk, or tic. Read as much as you can about it. Then go to the following medical books:
- Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - published by the American Psychiatric Association
- Mental and Behavioral Disorders Section of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems - published by the World Health Organization
- The DSM-5 - published in 2013
- The DSM-3 - casebook
And of course, contacting a licensed therapist is always a great resource. As a matter of fact the WGA may have a list of them.
The bigger point here is that developing a character with a disorder, or particular quirk or tic, that hasn’t been seen on TV is the first hook to enticing a network to listen to your pitch. The reason for that is quite simple, we have all seen Bi-Polar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and becoming more visible on the screen is the Dissociative Personality Disorder (multiple personalities). There are so many more to choose from. Even when we talk about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, there is a wide range in that category starting with the milder case of the Altruistic Narcissist, who can go undetected for decades because this is the “poor me/victim” narcissist. Of course we know the Malignant Narcissist whose pathology lies very close to the Sociopath.
Yet, even as I throw the labeling of these personality disorders at you, there are the psychological backstories in which these disorders manifest. That is the “psych bio” that I am strongly urging you to develop before you even start writing your script. Simply stated, a person who has developed a personality disorder is actually born with the predisposition for that disorder. That does not mean that they will definitely develop the disorder. It just means that they are predispositioned for it. There would need to be certain environmental factors present for the disorder to manifest.
That being said, any disorder the writer assigns to their character would have to include a particular family history and corresponding childhood experiences to accompany it. That is where the writer’s creativity and amazing writing talent comes into play, by massaging the facts that need to be present. Combine the writer’s creative talent with the proper research, and voila you are on your way to a hit TV series!
As a matter of fact, many writers have found that after they have chosen their protagonist’s personality disorder, or psychological challenge, and developed the childhood and environmental details for their protagonist accordingly, the supporting characters and the rest of the story writes itself.
If you are looking for more information regarding the development of psych bios for your characters, Dr. Donna offers a 4-week on-line course through Screenwriters University, How To Develop Psychological Backstories For Your Characters, where you can submit your work to her and get feedback. Her next class begins March 9th.
Register for Dr. Donna's 4-Week Class Today!
How to Develop Psychological Backstories for Your Characters
In this course you will learn from a professional with production experience:
- How to find and identify the best character flaws for your characters.
- How to peel back layers of a personality and carefully introduce seeds of a disorder.
- When to have that disorder present itself in the most believable way, serving your story.
- Where to find resources to a plethora of personality flaws, whether they be little quirks, emotional/psychological conditions, or full blown personality disorders.
- How to assign character flaws to supporting characters and enhance relationship drama.