Misbehavior: Organic Storytelling and Character Activation

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.  It's also a tool for writing every scene. When characters misbehave they affect each other and interact more with each other, inevitably creating interesting and pertinent conflict. 

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.  While a very unique, proprietary Writers Boot Camp invention and term, 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, what we refer to as a Character Conceit.  Misbehavior is one characteristic, yet a very important one.  Character Conceit is another topic, one involving issues of entertainment approach at the conceptual level of script development and evaluation, versus the level of character development.  There are at least two dozen additional decisions and distinctions for defining character beyond misbehavior.

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 baldly 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.  See 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.

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.  Context will help you hone in on the best behaviors and synonyms relating to the actual story and theme.

A rare example of a misbehavior expressed in a single word is the description of Tom Cruise’s character in TOP GUN, whose name and misbehavior are the same, Maverick.  Maverick means many things, including reckless, in his case, cocky, talented and heroic.  Maverick as a character trait implies interaction with other people, and you can see the impact on others through windows, moments like buzzing the control tower and being a poor wing man.

When someone misbehaves, maybe hurting others, 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 between their high hopes and human limitations, between their charming qualities and blind spots, or between their good intentions and misguided disposition.  In OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, Richard Gere's character enters officer training with a more selfish m.o. and he transforms, ultimately becoming a gentleman.  Dustin Hoffman's character in TOOTSIE is depicted as a womanizer, in addition to being an opinionated actor.  He learns to be a better man as a woman, a hard-to-believe situation if the human motivation weren't conceived well and executed clearly in the movie.  In both movies, the characters exhibit numerous talents, passions and entertaining qualities.

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.  For example, Indiana Jones is a slightly fallible and amusing hero, though his adventure does not focus on personal 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.You would be hard-pressed to choose a main character in the ensemble movie DINER, yet each character interacts with some degree of entertaining misbehavior. 

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 meansIn 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.

29 Distinctions

  • Our alumni work at the highest levels of the industry.
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  • Though your commitment does not require quitting your day job or investing in school full-time, you need ten hours for writing outside of class, and we recommend that for at least 40 weeks out of the 52-week calendar year to scale the true learning curve and sustain a professional pace.
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  • You have the option of writing three feature scripts or five television series spec scripts, or a variety of either.

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Project Conceits

Writers Boot Camp uses the term "conceit" to describe a specific approach to the content of your movie, television show or web series that distinguishes it from others, especially in the case of material or subject matter that may be similar. More advanced than a component or story decision, a conceit addresses and describes the audience experience of your story. It's a writing tool and also a tool for collaboration with the team of developers and filmmakers.

A conceit is an approach to a story component, or combination of components, rather than the component itself. In its broadest expression, it's a phrase or notion that points to a unique layer of material in the project. In more practical terms, a conceit is a statement, a single-sentence description of that unique approach that includes words and phrases to express the combination of components and ingredients that form the DNA of the project. A conceit statement is in effect a title of a list of setpieces that illustrates the script's entertainment concept, which in turn represents the primary layer of material that will ultimately attract an audience.

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Non-Linear Approach to Process

One of the evolving ideas here is a departure from the old view of writing. Screenwriting is challenging because, of course, we're in a visual medium. We have to show rather than tell. And in making the jump from the ideas that are in your head or in your heart and trying to get that on the page, it's crucial that you realize that you have to translate those ideas to a form that other people--readers, gatekeepers (the assistants to whom the executives delegate your scripts), the crew who are going to have to interpret (and hopefully not interpret too much) and eventually produce that material--can understand.

Screenwriting is a very conceptual process. The mentality of I'm-a-hard-working-person-and-can-write-120-pages doesn't quite work, because all content is derivative. Every story has been done before, at least in some way and to some degree. Even BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, an admirably original project, is based on the paradigm of switching bodies. There's just no such thing as a story that's totally unique. So, the approach that you take has to mitigate that problem. And in screenwriting that approach proves itself on the page through entertaining moments. Since the story moves through moments of interaction between people, your characters will ideally come across as people and not just props with feet. Hopefully, they're human beings at a significant stage of their lives, and that stage of life--that experience, that adventure--is going to change them forever.
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Full Development Philosophy

Based on an expedient first-draft process, including emphasis on developing tools like the Unity Page, the 3-6-3, the Horizontal and brainstorming of setpieces, Writers Boot Camp estimates that a feature-length script can be readable by industry standards within six months, working at a part-time pace of ten hours per week.*

The ratio of tools work versus writing during the first-draft stage would be 80% tools and 20% writing. Once the tools have been established, then the subsequent rewriting stages would flip that ratio to 20% tools, primarily updating and brainstorming for particular issues, and 80% emphasis on writing pages. Of course, the rewriting stages are the primary portion of a Six-Month Full Development process, even with earnest tools development and preparation.
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