*Essay for the Script Analysis Module
“Marriage is the death of hope”,
This essay will focus on the psychological profile of the female characters of the film Husbands and Wives (1992) written and directed by Woody Allen. It will show a synopsis of the analysed text, a brief description of this director’s work and an application and evaluation of the character’s psychology principles described in Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters and John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.
Husbands and Wives is a film about the conflicts between two couples that are going through a midlife crisis. It starts when Gabe (Allen) and Judy’s (Mia Farrow) best friends, Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack), announce their separation. Judy takes this situation very personally because she has been dreaming of doing the same since she has had a crush on her colleague Michael (Liam Leeson) for years. Gabe is in the same boat. He has feelings for a 20 year-old girl named Rain (Juliette Lewis), one of his brightest drama students. Both couples will have to decide whether they want to save their marriage or start a relationship with someone else.
Allen’s recurring themes usually have to do with May-December relationships and conflicts between couples, but the personality he gives to his female actresses vary from film to film and the most remarkable are the ones who struggle, fall apart and rarely conform to simplistic stereotypes (Itzkoff, 2013). Moreover, Allen stands out from the crowd for telling stories about women within an industry that mostly creates male leading role movies:
Hollywood has a tendency to treat female protagonists as second-class citizens […] According to a 2015 study by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University; only 12% of film protagonists were female in 2014. More depressing is that only 29% of major characters and 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 films were women or girls (Hogan, 2016)
Nonetheless, when he began his career, his main characters were males (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper) and it was not until Annie Hall (1977) and his relationship with Diane Keaton, when he decided to replace himself through female characters to give voice to his humour, neuroses, fears, traumas and to his vision about the world (Shone, 2015). Since then, his female alter egos and his references to psychoanalysis became constant elements in his filmography.
Linda Seger: how to create compelling characters?
Seger defines the character’s psychology in four chapters of her book, “Researching the Character”, “Defining the Character: Consistencies and Paradoxes”, “Creating the Backstory” and “Understanding Character Psychology”, which we will use for the purposes of this analysis.
This author (1990, p. 5) states that research is essential when we only have a general idea of the characters we want to write about. It is necessary to investigate their cultural influences and ethnic backgrounds such as religion, education, occupation, when and where they were born and what they do for a living because these traits shape the character’s attitudes and values, as they are a product of their environment.
In Husbands and Wives, the four main characters are middle-aged white people who live in Manhattan, New York in the early 90’s. All of them are high educated and come from an upper middle class background. During that time, many women did not believe in marriage in spite of living in a very conservative country like the United States. The number of divorces per 1,000 married women rose from 9 in 1960 up to 21 in 1990, for instance (Online The Statistics Portal, 2016).
The character’s consistencies are the qualities we would expect from them. Consistency is very important since a person reveals who he is and what he thinks through his constant actions. Nevertheless, if our characters are too consistent, they might become boring and predictable. Therefore, Seger (1990, p. 32) suggests adding some paradoxes to their profiles.
We understand a ‘paradox’ as “details that are not readily apparent, but that we find particularly compelling, that draw us toward certain people”. For instance, Sally seems to be a strong woman that has control over her feelings. However, she has a burst of jealousy when she finds out that Jack is seeing another woman after only three weeks of separation. On the other hand, the most paradoxical character in Husbands and Wives is Judy. She starts being an empathetic friend to Sally and a loving wife to Gabe, and she ends up dating the guy she had introduced to Sally and divorcing her husband.
Along with the paradox, we should add attitudes, emotions (which are the same as temperament) and values to our character. The three women of Husbands and Wives have an attitude, or point of view, regarding marriage and relationships. These details help to define who they are. For instance, Judy has a sad temperament because she tends to feel hopeless, undervalued and depressed. She believes that a happy marriage has to have children involved whereas Gabe does not think a child is necessary to improve their relationship.
Sally, on the other hand, is not as submissive as Judy. She is bad tempered, demanding, over analytical and hates living in a man’s world where matured and single women are left out. The best line that describes her personality could be: “Fucking men! Woman gets to be over a certain age, it becomes a different ball game! Don’t defend your sex; it’s true! You’re great ‘til you start to show your age, then they want a newer model” (Husbands and Wives, 1992).
Backstory is necessary because as Seger (1990, pp. 55, 58) states, the audience needs to understand what drives the character by knowing his background, since life transitions are motivated by certain situations in the past. This principle has psychological bases, as Sigmund Freud discovered the influence that past events have upon our present lives because they shape our actions, our attitudes and even our fears (Seger, 1990, p. 65).
Since Husbands and Wives has a mock documentary style, the characters talk towards the camera to give backstory, as if they were being interviewed. Sometimes they give this kind of details through a dialogue, as well. For example, when Gabe tells Jack that he is committing a mistake by choosing Sam (Lysette Anthony) over Sally, Jack tells him his sexual life with Sally was a mess, as she started being cold in bed. Also, he was tired of being criticized and corrected all the time. That is why he chose a laid-back and easy-going woman who has nothing to do with Sally’s personality and high standards.
To understand the character’s psychology, Seger (1990, p. 82) makes use of the personality types described by David Williamson, an Australian writer with a master’s degree in psychology. He divides the person’s personality into extroverted, where people can be maniac; paranoid or psychopath/sociopath; and introverted, where people can develop depressive, schizophrenic and anxiety neurotic behaviour.
Judy is the depressive one, as she has feelings of worthlessness and inferiority because of her insecurities. Sally has a paranoid personality since she tends to be aggressive, rude and arrogant. She is certainly not afraid to speak up her mind but this behaviour gave her trouble when she was married, as Jack states she was a very difficult person to live with.
Although these personality types can help us to define our character’s psychology, we should use them wisely, as people do not have the same behaviour all the time. It depends on the situation. For instance, some introverted people talk a lot with their friends and seem to be very sociable and confident when they are around them. However, when they are in large groups of people they do not know, they barely speak and are shy.
John Truby: Desires and Needs
According to this author, a great story has a minimum of seven steps in its growth from beginning to end that our character has to experience. These seven steps are weakness, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation and new equilibrium (Truby, 2008, pp. 39-51). We will focus on the first three.
Weakness is the fatal flaw that blocks the character from achieving his goal. Need is what the hero must overcome in order to have a better life. Together, they are what makes our hero change at the end and they are what makes the audience care and empathize with our hero (Truby, 2008, pp. 40, 45).
Judy’s weakness is low self-esteem, as she believes a woman of her age has no hope to find love again. Therefore, she needs to have more self-confidence. Sally’s weakness is loneliness. She says she is fine by being single again but she is an emotional dependent person, and Rain’s weakness is lack of protection, since she is constantly looking for an older man. She needs to realise she cannot always depend on others to feel loved.
Desire or the goal outside the character is what the hero wants in the story, not what he wants in life (Truby, 2008, p. 43). Judy wants a family and supportive man because she desires to have more children whereas Sally wants a healthy relationship because she is afraid of ending up like her parents: married but unhappy. At the end, Judy achieves her goal by marring Michael, a man who is willing to start a family. Sally achieves her goal too because she and Jack are back together and this time they will put more effort on their marriage to make it work.
Truby (2008, pp. 46, 90) states that to find a good opponent, we should start with our hero’s specific goal because an opponent is whoever wants to keep him from getting it. Also, his values should come into conflict with the hero. In Husbands and Wives, Judy’s opponent is Gabe because he does not want to change his ways and beliefs to make a happier marriage, according to her expectations.
This author (2008, p. 57) mentions we should think of all our characters as if they were part of a web, which each helps to define the others because all characters connect and define each other in three major ways: function, archetype and opponent. We will focus on character web by archetypes, which are fundamental psychological patterns and roles that people may play in society. Truby gives a list of some of the most common archetypes we can find in a story, which are: King, Queen, Wise Old Man, Warrior, Magician, Trickster, Clown, Lover and Rebel.
Truby states that we should always make the archetype specific and individual to our character (2008, p. 67). However, I agree with Vogler when he says in The Writer’s Journey that every character can have more than one archetype and that this one can change throughout the story. If we take this in mind, Judy starts being the Queen, as she provides care and empathy to her friend Sally, and transforms to the Trickster when she shows her real intentions of why she introduced them.
Like Seger, Truby (2008, p. 81) gives some steps to create a good hero. One of them is ‘character change’ which involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero: “your hero’s development depends on what beliefs he starts with, how he challenges them, and how they have changed by the end of the story […] Every story is a journey of learning that your hero takes.”
When Sally goes on a date with Michael, she tells him she does believe she is able to be without a man. However, when she and Jack get back together, Sally admits to be the kind of people who are not born to be single. Despite this, she has learned that marriage is not about passion and romance but about companionship and it is also a buffer against loneliness.
Rain does not change but helps Gabe to change his ideas about relationships. He admits he loves crazy and wild women, as he likes the idea of the impossible and romantic love. However, he decides to stop seeing her because he knows their relationship will end in catastrophe. Also, this situation makes him realise how much he loved Judy because he feels regretful for having lost her and for being so resistant to change.
Even though both authors have different approaches to character’s psychology, they agree with Syd Field (2005, p. 55) that “action is character” and that we can know a lot about a person by how he reacts and behaves. However, I do not completely agree with Seger’s principles to create conflict. For example, transformation do not create conflict, necessarily. Transformation or change is the result of the hero’s journey, like Truby explained.
Both authors give useful examples of building the psychology of our characters. Truby does it through the character’s needs, desires, weaknesses and opponents; and Seger, through personality types, backstory and consistency. Nonetheless, the two authors tend to be very repetitive by saying the same principles in different chapters but with other words or by adding more information, which could be confusing at some point.
Evidence suggests that Truby borrowed some principles from other authors like Christopher Vogler because his seven key steps are similar to the hero’s journey, and he uses archetypes as another possible way to define characters’ psychology. In my opinion, Vogler is slightly better at explaining how archetypes work because Truby only gives a general insight of them.
Regarding Opponents, I could argue that Seger is a little bit limited on this point. She (1990, p. 138) states that the protagonist usually stands for the good and the villain opposes the good: “they steal, kill, betray, wound, and work against the good”. However, the hero and the opponent cannot be totally good or bad; they have flaws like any other person. I agree with Truby’s definition of the opponent as the person who blocks the protagonist’s desires or competes with him for the same goal and, in some cases, the opponent is nicer than the protagonist or even it is the hero’s lover or friend, as we saw in the analysis.
I often use the observation method described by Seger because I love to observe other people’s conflicts and existential problems and apply them to my characters. Usually I get inspiration through the people I meet. For instance, I am writing a story about a 30 year-old woman who finds it difficult to have a full personal life due to her insecurities. I know women that are in that situation and I used to be like that. As Woody Allen, I like to express my fears and deepest traumas through my stories. I find this therapeutic and it has even helped me to solve my own problems.
For the purposes of my major project screenplay, I will put in practice the research step provided by Seger, as my story is placed in the future in the United States. I will have to look at how large corporations work, what kind of technological advances might be on the market and how women and society could be in 60 years, as values and mindsets change through time. This will help me to create a credible story world.
Also, I will work on my character unconscious goal (need) and on her opponent to give her a moral decision or dilemma, and as I do not want to tell another story about a woman pursuing a man, I will use the Luminas Award Criteria and approach other topics related to the theme of my film such as the merchandising of company in a world where men and women can actually buy affection through humanized machines.
Hogan, B. (2016) 5 Tips On How to Write an Awesome Female Protagonist. Available at: https://screencraft.org/2016/02/09/5-tips-on-how-to-write-an-awesome-female-protagonist/#.VszMJXZquts.twitter (Accessed: February 25th, 2016)
Husbands and Wives (1992). Directed by Woody Allen [DVD]. United States. TriStar Productions.
Itzkoff, D. (2013) Annie and Her Sisters. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/movies/woody-allens-distinctive-female-characters.html?_r=0 (Accessed: February 27th, 2016)
Field, S. (2005) Screenplay. The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York: Bantam Dell
Seger, L. (1990). Creating Unforgettable Characters. New York: Holt Papers
Shone, T. (2015) Woody Allen and the women in his work. Available at:
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/03/woody-allen-inner-woman-irrational-man (Accessed: February 24th, 2016)
Online The Statistics Portal (2016). Available at http://www.statista.com/statistics/325210/us-divorce-rate-among-women/ (Accessed: February 28th, 2016)
Truby, J. (2007). Anatomy of Story. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.