In this follow-up post to Selfisms, we explore the concept of defence mechanisms and the projected self in more detail, via John Yorke’s study of Character Individuation in Into the Woods: a Five Act Journey into Story.

Characters create facades to mask the things they fear inside – we all do. A character’s facade, then, is an outer manifestation of an inner conflict. Faced with extreme stress some characters will laugh, others will cry, some will intellectualise, some may punish others. It’s a cornerstone of characterisation, but it’s a centrepiece of psychological theory too.

Freud believed the ego had defence mechanisms that were designed to deal with internal conflict. These devices were an outlet for the neuroses born from the constant tussle between the public face – the super-ego – and the id or inner rage. He argued that when id impulses (the desire to have sex or take revenge) come into conflict with the super-ego (the impulse that tells them this is unacceptable), dissatisfaction, anxiety and neuroses develop. To deal with these uncomfortable feelings, the ego creates defence mechanisms – not permanent paths to happiness, but psychological ‘coping systems’ that allow individuals to ‘manage’ on a day-to-day basis.

For our own purposes, what’s important is that they will also have instantly recognisable manifestations in drama:

  1. Intellectualisation – Concentrating on the non-emotive aspects
  2. Repression – Repelling pleasurable instincts
  3. Regression – To an earlier stage of development (e.g. Honey)
  4. Sublimation – Shift of negative emotions into another object (e.g. Susan)
  5. Rationalisation – Specious reasoning away of trauma
  6. Isolation – Separation of feeling from ideas and events
  7. Projection – Attack others for fault within self (e.g. Martha)
  8. Denial – Refusal to acknowledge emotional trauma (e.g. ‘One Art’)
  9. Displacement – Shifting internal aggression to a different target (e.g. George)

In simple terms, a flawed character has an extraordinarily wide range of options out of which they can construct a facade. How does a character react to their inability to be intimate? Attempts are made to hide trauma (or, in our world, a character’s flaw) in any number of behavioural ways. In story terms, ego defence mechanisms are the masks characters wear to hide their inner selves; they are the part of the character we meet when we first join a story, the part that will – if the archetype is correct – be discarded.

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