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Martin Buber's I-Thou for Writers

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    Shaula Evans

    Martin Buber

    We’re overdue for a Martin Buber discussion here. I started to write about Martin Buber’s book I-Thou in response to Steve Almond on Loving Your Characters but it’s an important enough reference that it deserves its own post.

    Buber, an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher, is best known for the book I and Thou where he describes his thesis of dialogical existence, centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Buber argued that people engage with the world in one of these modes.

    To paraphrase wildly, I-It means essentially interacting with others as objects (for a stark and dramatic example, look at the wartime indoctrination of fighting forces into seeing “the enemy” as less than human–to enable soldiers to commit acts of violence they are otherwise conditioned against as civilians). I-Thou means connecting with the spark of humanity in others. (The book is short and well worth reading.)

    When I read the Steve Almond quote, I thought of Buber’s work. If you see your characters in an I-Thou way, especially your bad guys, you’re going to write them as human beings with goals and vulnerabilities. If you see your characters in an I-It way (not just your bad guys, but sadly in many scripts especially your female characters), you wind up with “mental representations” (i.e., stereotypes) that never come across as actual people.

    I find this is where we bring our own limitations as human beings to the art of screenwriting. If you try to write a character who is a member of a group that in real life you feel, consciously or subconsciously, is not fully human, that I-It attitude comes across in the writing. Most commonly I see this in scripts from young male writers who write female characters as walking sex toys–it comes across as a reflection of how they see women in general (although in some cases it’s also clumsy early writing efforts or imitative or derivative writing). But it also comes up in scripts where characters have different backgrounds than the writer, whether it’s a child or an elderly character, or a character of a different race, economic strata, religion or political stripe: the writer doesn’t see these people in an I-Thou way, and that two-dimensional understanding carries into the writing.

    For an example of I-It characters, look at how “hillbillies” or “rednecks” or “trailer trash” are portrayed in so much American television writing: as the butt of a joke, as a series of punchlines, but rarely as recognizable human beings. I’ve always assumed this was because the characters were written by writers sitting in New York or LA who had never spent time in impoverished (southern) regions and thus they were A) writing derivative work (based on other pop culture representations) and B) externalizing their own internalized fear of poverty. (We tend to demonize people we are afraid of; we fear what we don’t understand; we also fear what threatens our myths and illusions about our own identities.)

    On the other hand, for a brilliant example of I-Thou writing, look at Downfall / Der Untergang (2004) written by Bernd Eichinger, based on books by Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller, about the final days in Hitler’s bunker. Hitler, Eva Braun, and their inner circle are portrayed as human beings: deeply flawed and unbalanced human beings, but still recognizably human.

    What does this mean for you as a screenwriter?

    1. An I-Thou relationship with your characters makes for stronger writing than an I-It relationship.

    2. To break out of an I-It relationship with your characters, ask yourself: What is recognizable in this character? How is this character like me? How do I connect to this character as a human being?

    3. If you find that you consistently write a certain type of character in an I-It way, get your mind right! Writing is a Rorschach Test where we spill our psychological guts on the page for everyone to see. If there’s a whole category of people in the world whom you don’t see as human, that’s going to show up on the page–but more importantly it’s going to mess you up in your life. Spend time with the people you are misrepresenting in your writing, listen to them, connect to their humanity in an I-Thou way–and then take that understanding back to your writing and your life.

    4. Read the book. It’s been a long time since I read I and Thou but as I recall it’s short enough to read in a single sitting. Read it, think about it, and see if a deeper and more authentic connection with your characters (and with the people around you) will lead you to better writing.

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    @Shaula Evans, thank you so much for posting this. Other than in a critical analysis class in college, I’ve heard very little talk of Buber’s work, especially when applied to screenwriting.

    When I first discovered I-It vs I-Thou and truly ingested it and applied it, I found my entire perspective shifted. In my class, I brought up the idea of pursuing the I-Thou relationship within contemporary storytelling, if only to offer an alternative to the summer blockbuster feelings produced from an I-It relationship. Unsurprisingly, I was met with the timeless question of “Why?” Although I didn’t say this in the class, my answer now would be ‘because we have to.’

    As the freshest crop of writers wanting to make our mark, I fervently believe we owe our audiences the chance to feel something when they experience our works. If we focus on an I-It relationship between ourselves, our characters, and our audience, the result is thrice removed from the original thought which produced the seed for our stories from the beginning. Our audience isn’t feeling anything, other than our drive for fame and fortune.

    Whereas if we allow ourselves to feel from the beginning, indulging ourselves in the I-Thou relationship, that will inevitably be woven within our character’s spirits. The love, hope, and excitement supported from the I-Thou relationship will happily and effortlessly swarm the hearts of our audience with the same joy and passion we felt when conceiving the story and characters.

    Part of me feels that it’s an obvious thing to do, have an I-Thou relationship with our characters and their relationship to an audience, though I know this isn’t the case. I only discovered the art of identifying and separating the two schools of thought less than two years ago, and have just recently matured and honed my intermediate craft enough to apply the use of Buber’s work and theory.

    Before I understood how to ‘write’ a character, I lived an I-It life, and my writing suffered. When I realized what character building truly is to me, utilizing three dimensional outlines of psychological, sociological, and physiological growth, I was able to better understand the I-Thou relationship.

    If I love my characters, if I feel they’re as real to me as my family and friends, I know my readers / audience will feel the same.

    Let’s start the revolution. 2013, a year of Feels.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  MDCisME.


    Wow, this is a really great school of thought to get into when developing character.

    I think all the time that I want to write  a character completely unlike me into my work but then realize as I attempt to speak for them in my dialogue that everything they sounds say trite and cliche’d because of who I percieve this type of person to be. It was rather disheartening at first because I didn’t want that old adage “Only write what you know” to be true in terms of creating characters at least. I’ll definitely be checking out some of Buber’s work.

    Ever since I noticed the I-It thing going on in my writing, it’s definitely allowed me to branch out and get to know people who are unlike me in ways I never would have if I hadn’t been trying to write them into my work. Thanks for this post!


    david joyner

    Great post, thanks Shaula!


    Scott Myers

    If I may chime in, I studied Buber in college as part of my religious studies B.A. and have written about his seminal book “Ich und Du” several times on my blog. Here are three relevant posts:

    I and Thou: Writer and Story

    Characters as “profound individuals” (Part 1)

    Characters as “profound individuals” (Part 2)

    As Shaula indicated, if we approach characters from an I-It relationship, they will almost never rise above the level of type. If, however, we engage them in an I-You relationship, that is where we surface the good stuff. And it’s a great way to widen our horizons in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation of characters.


    Shaula Evans

    Thank you for the links, Scott. I was confident that you’d know Buber; I’m interested to read your take.



    Great post.

    The director can also play a big part in humanizing  characters who have been written without depth or subtlety and appear to lack nuance as flat and one-dimensional people on the page. The director can bring a different perspective these roles–good directors ‘read between the lines’ to enhance moments that are not on the page.  Of course Actors also contribute in a very profound way, but I get it–it can and always should start with the writing.

    I recently rewrote a serial killer thriller I felt lacked any sense of humanity among its leads.  I was attracted to the writing, yet everything about the story felt senseless, so I approached the material with a clear objective: humanity in the monster.  The result is more sophisticated and compelling without losing the tone of the original piece with ‘human’ moments that present conflicted purpose and motivation for its lead character/s.



    Great post.

    The director can also play a big part in humanizing  characters who have been written without depth or subtlety and appear to lack nuance as flat and one-dimensional people on the page. The director can bring a different perspective these roles–good directors ‘read between the lines’ to enhance moments that are not on the page.  Of course Actors also contribute in a very profound way, but I get it–it can and always should start with the writing.

    Absolutely, that’s why it is said of some actors that “they’re always good”, even in films that suck. They’re basically rewriting their own scenes with whatever they bring to their characters. They’re doing our job in addition to their own.

    By the way, I didn’t know this gentleman nor his theory. It feels like a wonderful tool for writing characters. Many times I’ve noticed how giving a small character that won’t reappear in the story a wee bit of business or an interesting line can breathe life into a scene that might have felt flat.

    (I wonder if the piece of business with the cake in the scene where Tom Hanks and the FBI guys are talking with Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother in Catch Me if You Can was in the screenplay or whether it was something Spielberg worked out with the actors. Whoever did it, it was priceless. My favourite thing in the movie.)



    Love the post. Thanks for sharing Shaula.


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