True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.

A few years ago, I discussed why arriving at a sense of identity can be so complicated. We have the personality that we’re born with, the one that society expects from us, and the ideal that we’d like to become. The truth is that we wear many hats and we adapt to the circumstances around us.

You might meet someone who appears to be utterly gregarious and generous, but maybe they’re only being this way because they’re trying to make a good impression. Most people tend to be reasonably friendly if everything is going great, but you really get to see what they’re really like when things aren’t so peachy keen. A line often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt tells us that “a woman is like a tea bag: you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

That’s the crux of the idea behind the Robert McKee quote highlighted above. It comes from his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, a resource that some call the “screenwriters’ bible.” Indeed, Robert McKee has hosted numerous seminars diving into the subtleties of exceptional writing for the screen.

Among his students over the years are Quincy Jones, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem, and John Cleese. His seminars go beyond the mechanics of screenwriting to uncover the finer art of storytelling. Robert McKee seeks how we can best explore the human condition and how we can best represent the authentic human experience.

Think about some of the best character-driven movies you’ve watched in recent memory. If these characters had everything go their way, the movie would be pretty boring and we really wouldn’t learn much about their “essential nature.” Put them under increasingly intense pressure and we learn how they bend (or break), revealing what they’re really like inside and not just the persona they try to show to the rest of the world. And the same is true in real life too.

Something that I’ve mentioned before as a freelance writer is that there is nothing more motivating than an imminent deadline. Put the creative person under the pressure to deliver something exceptional right now and they’ll somehow be able to create something. Without that pressure, it’s far too easy and way too tempting to keep kicking the can a little further down the road.

While prolonged, chronic pressure can utterly destroy someone’s mental well-being, you’ll never know what you’re capable of doing without it. And then you’ll learn who you really are.