IN DEFENSE OF DEFENSE MECHANISMS
they're more important than sex."
Ego defense mechanisms,
of which rationalization is a
member, are mechanisms that defend
our ego. Thanks for clearing that
up, Jim. They are the simple and
sometimes sophisticated processes
our minds go through to protect
ourselves from mental pain or
uncomforable feelings which affect
us. Flight is the most basic defense
mechanism. If a caveman writer
happenned to run into a D-girlasaur
(a female developmentexecosaurus),
he/she could simply flee, ie,
run away. Flight would protect
him/her from pain or fear. But
ego defense mechanisms are usually
internalsometimes less obviousprocesses
like projection, denial, joking,
Regression, repression, suppression,
sublimation and displacement.
Here is a quick list of definitions
for some ego defense mechanisms:
you attribute ugly thoughts about
yourself to another person or
object, because you are not comfortable
you completely reject a thought
you return to an earlier developmental
level and the associated coping
your feelings to another object
channel unacceptable feelings
into more acceptable action.
subconsciously withhold an idea
or feeling. Unlike suppression,
this isn't a conscious effort,
so if you're not already practicing
repression, it may be a tough
one to learn quickly.
The first reason
for a writer to understand these
concepts is because it helps with
character development. The concept
of character arc can, for the
most part, be looked at as the
process of a character learning
to shed a defense mechanism. For
example, a character may need
to quit denying and displacing
and accept responsibility (Dead
Man Walking); to stop regressing
with the same old choices and
try something new (LA Confidential);
to forego reaction formation and
finally act purely instead of
acting the opposite (The Crying
have unique and specific ways
of coping with the world. A blue
collar factory worker may be less
likely than the Ivy League professor
to use intellectualization. The
white racist may project (externalize)
hate, whereas, the meek victim
of domestic violence may introject
(internalize) it. Think about
what we learn about the character
Michael Just from the one sentence
quotation which opens this article
and this short excerpt from The
Big Chill written by Larry Kasdan
and Barbara Benedek
....Perhaps given my style I
seem more nakedly opportunistic
or jerky ...so you see my transparent
efforts are in a way much more
honest and admirable.
Why does what you just said
strike me as a massive rationalization?
Don't knock rationalization...
I don't know anybody who can
get through the day with out
2 or 3 juicy rationalizations.
They're more important than
This is a wonderful
meta-defense moment where a person's
discussion of defense mechanisms
is being used as a defense mechanism
itself. This small section of
his diatribe establishes him as
an educated product of a pop-psychology
world where self-shrinking is
a norm and as person who uses
complicated mental machinations
to be able to live with himself.
Or think about the repressed Butler,
Stevens, in Remains of the Day
and the way he displaces his feelings
for Miss Kenton by complimenting
her only about her work and her
importance to the. By carefully
thinking about how your characters
use ego defense mechanisms to
skirt reality, you can help to
give each of your characters a
distinct and strong voice.
The other, possibly
more important, reason to memorize,
study and practice these techniques
is because of the boundless rejection
that comes with the territory
of being a writer--especially
in Hollywood. Whether the criticism
or the unwanted reaction to your
material comes from a family member,
friend, editor, producer or agent,
ego defense mechanisms can help
to soften the blow. Please use
the following examples as a guidelines
which will allow you to modify
these techniques to your own needs.
Warning: these tricks can hurt
people, AND you should try them
Here's the set up:
a development exec or producer
has just called you and "passed
on" (turned down) your script
and was hyper critical of it.
Here are how-to examples of the
way defense mechanisms can lessen
the impact of the caller's psychic
if you do it consciously, it's
suppression, but one hopes that
you will master it and it will
become unconscious habit.)"Although
you detested my script, I appreciate
your reading it. By the way, did
you read my script?"
here boy. " KICK. "YELP!"
of going out and killing the development
exec who probably is a human being,
you take the life of an agent.
Much more acceptable.
because it's a 220 page one-act
screenplay without dialogue doesn't
mean it needs a rewrite."
you don't like my writing, well,
I'm just going to take my script
straight out of your hands, go
home and cry. So there."
wish you and all the other development
execs would go to hell. You're
just frustrated writers stuck
doing something you don't like
and that's why you're so critical
and angry. One second I have another
call." CLICK. "Kinko's
how can I help you?."
Practice and master
these techniques. They will save,
or at least delay, a world of
hurt. And by asking yourself which
defense mechanisms are right for
your characters, you figure out
how your characters thinks which
allows you to write more interesting
characters and less on-the-nose
dialogue. Happy writing.
James P. Mercurio
shed the need for several defense
mechanisms (more complex than
you'll ever understand, little
Mister) by writing this article.