In storytelling, a character’s convictions and beliefs determine his or her choice of actions – at least in his or her conscious mind.
Convictions and beliefs are effectively values put into words. They lead to a rationalised intellectual stance and can be the basis for lifechoices and actions. A set of beliefs or convictions is the articulated version of a character’s values or emotional stance.
Consider story’s predisposition for cause and effect. If we understand the belief-system or intellectual stance as the effect, the value-set or emotional stance is the cause. Now, it may be nit-picking to make the distinction between felt values and stated beliefs. But then again, it might be quite helpful to see by what line of reasoning a character justifies his or her behaviour.
The effect can be powerful when there is a discrepancy (i.e. conflict) between what the character thinks is the reason for his or her actions and the real reason. When the audience or readers see that the words and thoughts of a character do not match with what that character is actually motivated by, the irony can be a satisfying story experience.
The Want as Beliefs, the Need as Values
Actions create plot, and it is characters that perform the actions. In most cases, their motivation for action must be apparent to the audience or reader. In response to a want, which tends to be the desired solution to an external problem and which the character thinks will be achieved by reaching a goal, the character perceives needs. How to go about satisfying these needs, indeed the character’s entire response to the external problem, will to a large extent be based on that character’s intellectual stance, which in turn depends on the emotional stance.
Furthermore, the intellectual stance may reflect the image of him or herself the character wants to present to the world, whereas the emotional stance might be a truer reflection of what that character is perhaps hiding from the world. The intellectual stance may be a façade.
To pick up the example of In The Heat Of The Night: Police Chief Bill Gillespie’s beliefs justify his actions. It seems perfectly reasonably and rational to him to suspect and arrest Virgil Tibbs. It seems so to him because he believes that African-Americans are inferior and almost guilty per se. For him to not suspect Tibbs would be belying the emotional stance which makes Gillespie feel that he, as a white man, is superior. The audience knows that this emotion is misguided and needs to be corrected.
In other words, the intellectual stance of a character is the outward expression of that character, as shown by his or her actions. The emotional stance is what goes on beneath the surface, and must be perceived by the audience or readers in order for them to understand the reason for the character’s actions.
Change the emotional stance of a character, and the thoughts and subsequent actions, i.e. the intellectual stance, will follow suit. As Gillespie gains respect for Tibbs, which is a feeling, his conscious choice of actions changes, to the extent that in the end, the erstwhile bigot stands up for his new colleague.
Gillespie has been won over not by rational argument, but by emotional experience. He has been won over by story. So has the audience.
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Do you believe there is a story inside you?