Psychology was supposed to be my fallback career if I never made it as a writer. It was the sensible thing to do, and it taught me a lot about human behavior.
I didn’t pursue a career as a psychologist for various reasons, mostly because all I wanted to do was write and edit books and articles on the internet.
I still find psychology fascinating, and I use some of the principles I learned in university to round out my characters. As I’ve mentioned before, we want to create round, dynamic characters that readers love. And today, we will look at why psychology helps us craft those memorable, lovable characters.
To build characters that strike a chord with readers, you need to craft someone who feels real. Someone your readers can relate to. These characters have motivations and behaviors that mimic the way real people think and act.
Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context. And don’t we already analyze how our characters behave and react in any given situation?
We sure do! We throw them into the worst situations we can think of to see what they do. But we can take it a step further and consciously use psychology to get to know our characters even better.
Try Using Psychotherapy
Therapists who adopt this technique encourage their clients to tell their own story, examine it, recover the missing pieces, and challenge it by looking at how that narrative affects different aspects of their lives. By changing the story, the door is then opened for growth.
And you can grow in a variety of ways. According to the Mayo Clinic, psychotherapy can help your characters cope with:
- Anxiety disorders, such as OCD, phobias, panic disorder, or PTSD.
- Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder.
- Addictions, such as alcoholism, drug dependence, or compulsive gambling.
- Eating disorders, like anorexia or bulimia.
- Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or dependent personality disorder.
- Schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.
It can also help with several life stresses and conflicts that we all encounter. (All of these issues are fair game when it comes to developing your characters.) Some examples include:
- Resolving disputes with others.
- Relieve anxiety or stress.
- Cope with significant life changes, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or job loss.
- Learn to manage unhealthy reactions, such as road rage or passive-aggressive behavior.
- Come to terms with an ongoing or serious physical health problem, such as diabetes, cancer, or long-term (chronic) pain.
- Recover from violence or abuse.
- Cope with sexual problems.
- Sleep better.
Several other theories and sub-theories can help you round out your characters or develop a specific type of character, which we will explore in more detail below.
The Root of All Evil – According to Psychology
Okay, they’re not the root of all evil, but our parents have a significant impact on how we turn out. So why should the case be any different with the characters we create?
I challenge you to focus on character flaws, the mistaken ideas that motivate behavior, and the past events that helped form and solidify the “weakness”. And we can do this by looking at two types of messages that our characters may have received from their parents growing up.
(These two messages a part of a larger theory or method of psychology called transactional analysis. Founded by Dr. Eric Berne, transactional analysis is all about analyzing the interactions between individuals. You can read more about Dr. Berne’s work here.)
Injunctions are negative messages sent to another person through verbal and non-verbal means. They are also unintentionally given in most cases. These cues tell the character there’s something wrong with them, that they are not allowed to do or be something in particular.
Here are some injunctions that can be a terrific source of insecurity for a character:
- No crying—emotions are shameful; keep them to yourself.
- Don’t think—your opinions aren’t worth much. Or, boys don’t like smart girls.
- Don’t be you—why can’t you be more like (fill in the blank)?
- Don’t exist—I gave up my hopes and dreams so I could take care of you.
- You don’t belong—trying to fit in will only get you hurt.
- Don’t be a child—I need you to grow up and look after me.
- Don’t grow up—life’s a breeze as a child. Adulthood sucks.
- Don’t be the sex you are—men are disgusting, cheating slobs. Or women are weak and fickle.
- You’re unimportant—you don’t deserve accolades or attention.
- Love is futile—People will only hurt you.
Children deal with injunctions on a subconscious level and either accept the messages or rebel against the message. It can lead to self-deprecatory or victim-mentality-type behaviors or lead to harmful coping mechanisms and rebellion.
Psychologist blogger Claire Newton has put together an interesting three-part post on transactional analysis and injunctions if you want to learn more. Here’s the series: Part I, The Masks We Wear; Part II, The Games We Play; and Part III, The Scripts We Follow.
Drivers are the happy things we hear, but like all good things, you need some moderation. If not, you get some unpleasant results. On the surface, they are intentionally given, but often carry an unspoken backlash that stings.
Some of the messages that your character may receive could be based on the drive to see that character succeed, but it could come off as conditional love. (I.e., I will only love you if you live up to my expectations.)
You could use these messages in your character’s inner dialogue as a way to create conflict. Your hero may struggle to come to terms with these conflicting forces or try to meet the messages’ requirements to feel good about himself.
Here are a few examples:
I shouldn’t try to be important, but it’s okay as long as I’m perfect.
People will only care about me if I do all I can to please them.
I shouldn’t have feelings, but I do. So I have to hide them and be strong in order to be accepted.
And just because you’ve done all of this work, doesn’t mean that you need to show every bit of information. Release what you need to release at the points where that information is necessary.
Use Psychology to Craft Specific Kinds of Characters
Psychologists (or at least, psychology students) have a habit of psychoanalyzing the characters that they see in movies or read about in books. And they’ve noticed some mistakes that authors make when crafting a specific type of character.
Everyone is unique, and we have creative license over what we want to include or exclude. However, it may be a good idea to be familiar with the different types of people that we run into on the pages of the book.
For example, not every villain needs to be eerily unemotional about things or manipulate people for fun. They have motives and desires of their own. And psychology can help with this as well.
Psychologists like to post the “clues” to look for when dealing with certain types of people, such as narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, etc. These blogs are a) useful for understanding the motivation behind the behavior, and b) it also gives you an idea of how your character can deal or defeat their foe in a new way.
I love Dr. Eric Perry’s blog for this reason. He has some excellent posts on narcissists that could help you craft a realistic antagonist.
Psychology in Your Story
Millions of people see mental health practitioners each year. But we still don’t read a lot of literature that touches on mental health or in dealing with it in positive ways.
It would be nice to have more stories where the characters are going to counseling to get help and then using the skills that they’ve learned to better their lives.
Or maybe include psychologists in stories more. When using a doctor as an occupation in a story, why not expand that to include psychologists, social workers, etc.? They do important work too.
Psychologists have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to studying how humans interact with themselves and one another. So why not tap into their resources to help us craft more believable and likable characters?
We already use psychology in our stories as we pit our protagonists against their formidable foes. We want to find their rock bottom and then bring them to the top of their game again. And it is in this endeavor that we create some fantastic characters that readers for generations will love.
So don’t shun science in the pursuit of the creative. In this case, science can help us develop the next Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins. So read whatever you can get your hands on to help you understand the people you are creating.
Do you see any value in using these techniques to develop your own characters? Please let me know in the comments below.
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.