INSIDE OUT: Character, Archetypes and The Psychology of Revision
By Jacob Krueger
Hello! I’m Jacob Krueger and this is the Write Your Screenplay podcast. As you know, on this podcast, rather than looking at movies in terms of two thumbs up, two thumbs down, loved it or hated it, we look at movies in terms of what we can learn from them as screenwriters. We look at good movies, we look at bad movies, we look at movies we loved and movies that we hated.
Today we’re going to be looking at Inside Out. One of the exciting things about Inside Out is that the main character actually isn’t the eleven year old girl, Riley, at the center of the movie. Instead, the main character is actually an archetype inside of her head: the emotion of Joy, played by Amy Poehler.
And Joy is joined by four other archetypes: Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness.
One of the most interesting things about this movie is that it’s actually based on real psychological research. In fact, they even brought in two professors of psychology (Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman) to consult on the project.
These psychologists wanted Pixar to have a character for every emotion in the vast array of emotions that human beings experience. And Pixar made an interesting decision, which, if you’re a screenwriter, is a decision that you may want to think about as well.
Instead of heeding the researchers’ advice, Inside Out writer/director Pete Docter boiled down the multitude of emotions into these five primary characters. The reason for this was simple: the story, like most screenplays, could basically only handle five or six characters.
In 105 pages, you’ve got time to take care of five to six characters really well. You don’t have time to take care of 20 characters. So, what Docter did was boil down this myriad of emotions to five primary emotions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and our main character, Joy.
As we watch Inside Out, what we’re primarily doing is not just watching the story of the little girl, we’re watching the story of the archetypes inside of the little girl’s head.
Now, let’s talk about what this term “archetypes” means.
This is a term that is thrown around all the time in screenwriting. Oftentimes, in practice, these archetypes descend into becoming stereotypes. But an archetype is different from a stereotype.
The term “archetype” doesn’t come from screenwriting. It actually comes from a psychologist that many of you have heard of: Carl Jung.
Jung believed in this idea called The Collective Unconscious. The idea of The Collective Unconscious is that we are all part of a shared fabric. And though we may not be consciously aware of it, through our subconscious mind, our dreams and our fantasies, we can tap into this shared consciousness. And through that shared consciousness we can connect to symbology and types of characters and events that may transcend our own experience but that every single person in the universe can relate to.
Jung called these experiences, people, and events “archetypes.”
After Jung, a guy named Joseph Campbell came along. Campbell is the guy who came up with the idea of The Hero’s Journey, which you’ve likely heard about if you’ve studied screenwriting.
Campbell basically said: if there’s such a thing as a Collective Unconscious, then there must also be such a thing as a Collective Story: a story that would contain all stories that we can all share and connect to. And if there was a Collective Story, then there would also be characters that we could all connect to. And there would be certain kinds of moments that showed up in the structure of every journey, which he called “The Hero’s Journey” that represented these archetypical characters in these archetypal moments.
Campbell, and the people who followed Campbell (James Bonnet, Christopher Vogler, all the way to Blake Snyder and Save The Cat!) basically came up with new and interesting ways to categorize and name these archetypes. Campbell’s hero’s journey says that there are 21 steps and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat formula says that there are 4 acts. Both of these are ways of categorizing and naming archetypes.
The problem is that when we put the focus on naming archetypes, we often cut ourselves off from accessing the archetypes.
In other words, instead of writing a Threshold Guardian, we write a “Threshold Guardian-Type.” Instead of writing a Terrible Father, we write a “Terrible Father-Type.” Instead of writing a Funny Best Friend (to use a very non-Campbellian nomenclature), we write a “Funny Best Friend-Type.”
Ironically, despite their roots in the fabric of our subconscious, these categorizations when labeled and analyzed in this way, often lead us to write from our conscious brain. They often unwittingly lead away from our real connection to our characters, and instead toward the pop-psychology and psychology 101 analysis of them.
Which flies directly in the face of what Jung actually suggested: which is the idea that if there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, then you have access to it through your own subconscious mind.
If you’re willing to surrender some degree of control and write from the subconscious mind, rather than the conscious mind, you have the ability to tap into the Collective Unconscious. And if you can actually tap into it, you don’t need to know what a Threshold Guardian or a Terrible Father is or, to use Blake Snyder’s terminology, what a “Monster in the House” movie actually is.
If you can tap into The Collective Unconscious, then all you need to do is to write the archetypes that you find there. And you will know that those archetypes are the archetypes that anyone can connect to.
This is an approach to writing that says, instead of trying to name, categorize, or follow the formula, what we can actually do is go inside our own minds, surrender a little bit of control, and bring our own personal archetypes to the surface.
You can do this through meditative writing, as Jessica Hinds teaches in her Meditative Writing Workshop. Or, as those of you who have studied with me know, you can do this by seizing onto a tangible object that your character desperately wants, and allowing the visuals, the sounds, the words of your character to materialize as they pursue it. Or you can even do this simply by finding a dominant trait that can become your North Star for the character because you relate to it.
No matter how you approach your writing, when tapping into the collective unconscious, the main goal is to accept whatever suggestion your subconscious mind gives you and run with it.
So, in this movie, the main character is Joy. And Joy is an archetype, not a stereotype. Joy is not playing a “joyful-type” character. And Anger is not playing an “angry-type” character.
In fact, there are wonderful and hilarious moments – particularly in the final credit sequence – when we get to view the myriad archetypes dwelling in all the other character’s minds. And what we find is that we all have Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, but that those archetypes in each person take a completely different form.
Early in the movie, there’s a wonderful scene where Dad decides to “put his foot down.” And in that scene you can see how different his archetypes are from the archetypes in Mom, as we see her dreaming of the guy she could have married instead.
The idea about archetypes (and what’s beautiful about them) is that they are not stereotypes or even types. Archetypes are something that already exist in you, the writer, just as the archetypes in Inside Out exist in Riley.
And the process of writing is the process of going inside, getting in touch with one of those archetypes, breathing life into them, and allowing them to live, breathe, and react honestly on the page.
You’ll probably notice that Joy is not always joyful in this movie. There are moments where Joy cries, when Joy has fear or experiences fear. There are moments where Joy experiences sadness. And Joy, just like the little girl whose brain she helps operate, has her own belief systems based on her experiences: because Joy also has her own archetypes, (even if we don’t get to see them). And these belief systems, based on the archetypal characters and moments in her life change the way she views her world. Just as Riley has Goofball Island and Family Island and Hockey Island, somewhere inside of Joy are belief systems and personality systems as well.
You don’t see Joy’s internal world in the movie. But it is the thing that allows us to know that Joy is a character. The definition of a character is somebody who changes and goes on a journey. And a main character is somebody who has a problem. And Joy, despite her joyfulness, has a big problem.
One of the things that we come to learn, as screenwriters, is that the best problems don’t come from outside the character. The best problems come from inside the character. And here’s what’s really interesting about Inside Out: the outside problems of this movie are extraordinarily low stakes!
The outside problem is: a little girl moves to San Francisco and is sad. That is literally the external problem. There’s a moment where she almost runs away and…that’s about it. The external problem is extremely low stakes, yet the internal problem feels incredibly high stakes. It feels like life and death watching these little low stakes moments happen!
And the reason for this is that Joy has a problem. And that problem is based on a story that she’s telling herself about who she is, who Riley is, and who Sadness is.
Joy’s problem is that she is afraid of Sadness. Joy is afraid of change. Joy is doing everything she can to lock Riley into her current islands, rather than allowing her personality to evolve. In this way, Joy represents what Jung would call “The Holdfast Ego,” the part of Riley that wants to stay the same.
What does this all mean to you, as a writer?
Structure is built out of moments. Structure is built out of foundational moments – moments called “core memories” in Inside Out.
You can think of each event in your life like one of those little balls of memory from Inside Out. You can think of certain events in your life as core memories. And you can think of certain events as core events, or what Campbell would call, archetypal events in your character’s lives.
And just like in the movie, these archetypal events can become structural. But they only become structural when they are laid up against other archetypal events. And your subconscious mind starts to tell itself a story based on those events. This + This = That. This is the way that our minds work. And this is the way that story structure works.
Story structure is actually just the structure of psychology. It is the structure by which the events of our lives build the belief systems that either allow us to change or cause us not to. The structure of a film is just the structure by which we assign value to each moment.
What’s powerful about being a writer is that the value of those moments can change, just as the memory balls in Inside Out change color when Sadness touches them. So too can we change our work. We can take a plot that’s a comedy and turn it into a drama. We can take a story that’s depressing and turn it into something uplifting. We can change the meaning of the events in our own lives, our character’s lives and of our audiences lives, through our writing.
Joy’s problem is that Joy is afraid of sadness, which is wonderful because Sadness is a character in the film, which means a real relastionship can build between them!
And Sadness’s problem is that Sadness is trying to be something she’s not. And, at the end of the day, Riley, the character whose story Joy is building, can’t change until Joy learns to accept Sadness.
And you can see that this is an archetypal moment that we can all connect to. Because there is not a person in the universe who has not struggled with wanting to be happy even when we’re sad. This is a powerful archetypal event because we can all relate to it.
So, you’ve got a main character with a problem, Joy. Joy’s problem is that she’s afraid of sadness. This is causing ramifications all over the place because she’s trying to keep Riley as the joyful child that she was, even as Riley goes through a huge change.
Joy is trying to keep Riley the same, both in place and in age, because of the story that Joy is telling herself. Joy is not allowing Riley to develop new islands or develop new core memories. Joy is afraid of letting go of the past.
Writing a good movie is like living a good life. Writing a movie is about finding the structure of the events of our lives in order to tell ourselves the story of who we are. Just like living a life is making choices at this moment and this moment and this moment in order to tell ourselves the story of who we are. And changing a life is like revising a script.
Revising a script sometimes means allowing certain core memories or islands of personality or archetypal events to disappear. Sometimes, revising a script means letting go of one of our most beloved characters. In the case of Inside Out, Bing Bong, Riley’s beloved imaginary friend from her childhood, has to be forgotten and disappear.
Sometimes, revising a script is about finding that crazy line that just keeps coming back to you for no reason and figuring out how it’s structural—just like that jingle that keeps popping up in Riley’s head.
Sometimes, revising a script is about allowing a different emotion to inflect an old scene, letting go of what the screenplay used to be and allowing it to evolve into the screenplay it needs to become.
As writers, we all have the same problem as Joy, which is that we want to be happy and we want to be successful and we don’t want to change, even though we need to.
So, I’d like to suggest to you that as you write your own screenplays, that you see what happens if you go a little Inside Out.
See what happens when, instead of trying to control your archetypes, you allow yourself to find them, searching inside of yourself for the answers rather than outside of yourself.
I’d like to invite you to learn to build your structure organically, not based on some formula, (which is only going to lead you to a stereotype or a cliché), but based on the way one core event in you or in your story bounces up against the next, and as your character makes choice after choice after choice in their lives.
I’d like to invite you to revise your script with a feeling of freedom, with the understanding that our scripts need to go through their childhoods just like Riley does. And though those childhoods may be joyful, ultimately in order to grow up into healthy and happy adult screenplays our movies have to go through a process by which islands of personality are destroyed and characters are lost and change happens.
In order for our characters to change, perhaps our screenplays need to change too.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. If you’d like to study more with me in NYC, Online or as part of our international screenwriting retreats, please check out my website: writeyourscreenplay.com.