Tell me about your mother: A character’s psychological make up

I believe all writers should have a solid understanding of psychology. Nothing too detailed, just your standard knowledge from any given Psych 101 text. This planet sustains over six billion people, yet it’s impossible to find any two who are exactly the same in genetic structure, upbringing, and individual experiences (and yes, this includes identical twins). Humans are complex; your characters should be too.

Character motives run deep. They have to come from somewhere. A general, even rudimentary comprehension of psychology can do wonders for character development. For example, a spoiled, pampered-upon princess type will not likely have confidence issues. However, she may struggle with superficiality. An unyielding, turned-criminal heroin addict may have suffered through child abuse, or been raised by a broken family. It doesn’t have to be this simple; in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. But like us, our characters are products of their environment. If done correctly, every choice they make will have its roots.

“We all have our layers”
Shi Yali → in Food & Drink


Character Psychology 101: My own personal breakdown:

1. So, tell me about your mother: Mommy/Daddy issues. Classic. It all starts and ends here. I’ve read so many stories where characters have unresolved conflicts with their parents. My own novel (unconsciously, of course) portrays one of these very predicaments. If applicable, think about your characters’ relationships with their parents. Are they solid? Irreparable? And more importantly, do the characters reflect these dilemmas? Are there manifestations of insecurity? Hopelessness? Do they choose partners on account of who their mothers and fathers were? Perhaps a man who was raised by his overbearing mother has issues sustaining relationships. After all, no one’s as good as mommy. This can be expanded into issues with the family—siblings, other relatives, etc. A broad understanding of how it all works will help put your character intentions into perspective.

2. It’s understandable; you were a victim of trauma: War, rape, assault, accident, or abuse. These characters will likely have matters to sort out. It’s likely their lives will not follow a straight line. They will encounter difficulty with day-to-day matters, and their willpower will constantly be tested. What types of activity will they fall into? Drug or alcohol abuse? Sex addiction? Homelessness? Theft, murder, or other illegal pursuits? Maybe it won’t even be that drastic, and of course they can overcome their burdens, but the characters must be shaped by the traumas. It’s simple psychology after all.

3. See, you’re using what we call a defense mechanism: Is your sarcastic character trying to cover up his insecurities? Is your anger-ridden protagonist hiding pain? Is the macho-monster truck-driving alpha male perhaps…compensating for something? Do any of your characters repress feelings? Act out? In other words, certain outer behaviors should likely reflect a tortured inner world.

4. Well, to me, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Say you have a character who’s certain that no matter what he does, he will fail. Then, not surprisingly, he does fail. Over and over again. It’s a state of mind, almost like a prediction. In some ways, this character is controlling the outcome of his life with his negative thoughts. We do it in real life all the time. Characters instantly become identifiable when they do it too.

5. No, it’s not just in your head; it’s an illness, an actual illness: One my favorite books of all time, Wally Lamb’s I know This Much is True, is about a man who has a schizophrenic twin brother. These characters with mental illnesses cannot be blamed for their actions, and often, extensive research must be done to realistically capture the causes, symptoms, characteristics, and treatments of the disease.

There are spider webs in our unconscious minds. Every person alive today has his/her share of unrealized desires, fears, and latent projections. Since we all strive to create characters that make our readers tick, it doesn’t hurt to understand what makes us tick first.

How about you? Does fundamental psychology influence your characters, whether it’s deliberate or not? As always, excited to hear what you have to say!



Filed under Characters, Writing Process, Writing Tips

27 responses to “Tell me about your mother: A character’s psychological make up

  1. Great post! I agree, We should have a basic understanding of what makes people tick. Other than the psychology tidbits included in Margie Lawson’s courses ( do you know of any helpful resources for authors?

    • Thanks, Melissa. I mostly came up with this on my own…I sort of just combined my knowledge of psychology with my writing. Although I will say that Method and Madness by Alice LaPlante really aided my writing. It’s a book about the craft of writing, but details a lot of this psychological stuff as well. Thanks for your link!

  2. This is a great point, and one I don’t think I’ve given much thought to, though I probably realize it on an intuitive level. It does seem that many characters have mommy or daddy issues–your first category. I suppose this is just a reflection of reality. In my current WIP, mommy and daddy issues play in. I’ll have to pay more attention to the psychology behind my character’s actions. 🙂

  3. Initially I didn’t give it much thought either…it wasn’t until after I’d written a first draft that I started to look back and found that, amazingly, I’d set up my character’s background to represent his state of mind. It happens so naturally, sometimes, but it helps tremendously to be aware for the next time around.

  4. Quanie Mitchell

    Yup! I think sometimes we don’t even realize it but I love how you break this down. One of my characters has serious issues with her mother that affects every decision she makes. You’re right on with this.

  5. Brilliant. Just brilliant. I think I may use this on my own blog (if I do, I will surely credit you). I think you could create a wonderful character mapping technique (like an interview for authors to have with each character to make sure they are round instead of flat) in order to help beginning writers morph their own style.
    Great work here.

    • Thank you for being so enthusiastic, Shannon. By all means spread the word! That interview technique is a great idea. I’ve actually done informally–in my own head as I plan and develop my stories, but never officially, in the sense that I wrote out questions and answered them. Love spreading new ideas around. Thanks again 🙂

  6. Abrielle Valencia

    Wow! I am speechless ! You really know how to engage your readers with your blogs. You keep this up and I may have to change my desire to write a non-fiction book to “fiction”. Well, I guess I’m not “speechless” after all. Hahaha!

  7. Great writeup. You’ve got a knack for summarizing the essentials into great references for fellow writers.

    Understanding the internal elements that drive our characters, be they remnants of the past, our families, our traumas… You need to know where you’ve come from, and what you are, in order to figure out where you’re going, in order to play out your story.

  8. It’s perhaps inevitable that writers should explore characters through the people they know best, most often their own parents. We all dip into other people we’ve come across too, but the ones I come back to again and again in different guises are my parents and their parents, the extended family, so full of Characters with a capital C. Thanks for your insights Katie, I’ll bear them in mind as I plod on. xZ
    (ps and thanks for liking my scribbling chronicles — I’ll be posting more soon)

    • Thanks for stopping by! Pretty much every character I write is some form of extension of either me or people I know. I guess we write about what surrounds us whether we realize it or not 🙂 I’ll looking for more scribbling chronicles–I really think they’re great 🙂

  9. Wonderful post! I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and I completely agree that basic knowledge of people is a must for believable, but not stereotypical characters. (Hey, maybe that degree isn’t so worthless after all :lol:)

    Another fun exercise is to take personality tests as the character. I did this once and it was interesting to get more information about the type of work this type of person would do and what their interpersonal relationships were like.

    • Personality tests as the character–wow! Great idea! I have a moderate interest in astrology, and I’ve done birth charts for characters, but the personality test idea never crossed my mind. Thanks for that–I welcome any new ideas for character development that come my way 🙂

  10. Hi honey 🙂

    I’ve nominated you for The Beautiful Blogger Award. Please don’t feel obligated to take part, but if you do want to, all the info is here 🙂


  11. I love doing a bit of amateur psychoanalysis on everyone I meet – including my characters. It’s the most fascinating thing. I try not to spend too much time doing it on myself… This was a really interesting blogpost – nice to ‘meet’ you! Bel. (new follower)

    • Hi Bel–thanks for stopping by! I think I do too much “self-analysis!” But I agree with you, it is fascinating. I sneakily analyze my friends, co-workers as well 🙂 It’s all very interesting to me, and I think in part, it’s why I’m a writer. So happy to have a new blogging friend! I’ll be stopping by your blog.

  12. There are so many ways the story world can mess up my characters, I sometimes wonder that they are as normal as they are! One of my favorite things to do is figure out where a character is broken, and then find a way for the story to force him or her into a better place by placing a choice or dilemma in front of them.
    I wonder what it would be like to write someone who is well-adjusted? 😉

    • I think a few minor characters MIGHT be well-adjusted, but certainly not the major ones. That’s a good point–I imagine they would be very uninteresting characters. Come to think of it, I don’t know any actual people are quite that ‘well-adjusted!’

  13. I was just starting to figure out my own psyche, and now I have to figure out my characters too? 😉

  14. I’m up to my ears in my novel about a massively dysfunctional family, so this post caught my attention. I am a huge fan of Wally Lamb’s writing, so glad you mentioned I Know This Much is True, in regards to character development. I’m enjoying your other posts as well – great information and inspiration to keep on writing. Thanks!

    • Hi there, thank you so much for stopping by. Your novel sounds interesting…I’d like to know more about it! I love the family saga…have you ever read ‘Family Pictures’ by Sue Miller?

      I’m SO glad I found another Wally Lamb fan! You have great taste!

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