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IN DEFENSE OF DEFENSE MECHANISMS

"Rationalizations, 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 internal—sometimes less obvious—processes like projection, denial, joking, Regression, repression, suppression, sublimation and displacement. Here is a quick list of definitions for some ego defense mechanisms:

PROJECTION—When you attribute ugly thoughts about yourself to another person or object, because you are not comfortable "owning" them.

DENIAL—When you completely reject a thought or feeling.

REGRESSION—When you return to an earlier developmental level and the associated coping techniques.

DISPLACEMENT—Redirect your feelings to another object or person.

SUBLIMATION—You channel unacceptable feelings into more acceptable action.

REPRESSION—You 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 Game).

Characters will 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

MICHAEL
....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.

SAM
Why does what you just said strike me as a massive rationalization?

MICHAEL
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 sex.

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 at home.

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 blow.

REPRESSION (Technically 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?"

DISPLACEMENT—"Fido, here boy. " KICK. "YELP!"

SUBLIMATION—Instead of going out and killing the development exec who probably is a human being, you take the life of an agent. Much more acceptable.

DENIAL—"Just because it's a 220 page one-act screenplay without dialogue doesn't mean it needs a rewrite."

REGRESSION—"If 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."

PROJECTION—"I 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. So there.