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.
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!