April 2014 Archive

Character Psychology

Once upon a time, I was going to double major in psychology and political science (actually, once upon a time, I was going to double major in religion and political science. It didn’t take long for me to realize I didn’t actually want to do any three of those, wipe my hands of the “double major” part, and graduate in three years with a mostly-useless degree in poli sci).

Anyway, my point isn’t that I jumped around in majors, but more that human psychology is fascinating. It’s multifaceted and confusing and full of twists and turns. One of my favorite classes from college, back in the day when I was still under the psychology-umbrella, was abnormal psych. A favorite phrase of our teacher’s was something along the lines of, “At the end of the semester, everyone is usually convinced they fall under at least three diagnosis.” Why? because we all have strange behaviors and we all have inner motivators that come out when we least expect them to.

Story is Conflict, and some of that conflict should come straight out of your main character’s psyche. No one wants to read about a perfect MC. We all have flaws, so we need to read about people who have flaws. We need characters who struggle, who have to dig deep inside themselves and face their inner demons to reach the resolution of the story. Hello character arc!

It’s pretty easy for me to say that and not always so easy to follow through with it in writing! A few tips:

Tip 1: Research
As I’ve spent time researching my current WIP (contemporary YA set in the Appalachians with the backdrop of a closed down mental institution), I’ve learned my way around the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and hot-damn does that make for some interesting reading. If a character in your book has a diagnosed disorder, research it. Talk to people who have that disorder. Talk to people who might be caretakers. Not everyone with a diagnosis will have the same experience. The more people you can connect with, the more you will be able to discover who your character really is and stop them from falling flat (this is a no caricature zone!).

Tip 2: Talk to a psychologist
Not joking in the slightest. Find a psychologist who would be willing to spend a few minutes talking about emotions and how they motivate people, about how a person’s past can influence their future, about how people can be transformed (and they should be–by the end of your book, your MC shouldn’t be the person they were when the story started). If you don’t have any psychologist connections, talk to your friends. Me? I recently shot off an email to a host of family and friends with questions on guilt as a motivator. I got back some incredible answers.

Tip 3: Dig deep
Don’t be afraid to ask dark questions of your characters and to treat them like real people. Everyone is three-dimensional, which means our characters should be too. No two people (even if they had the exact same past) would react to a situation in the same way. What is it that differentiates us? What is it that sits at our core that leads us to operate in the way we do? Don’t just skim the surface of your main character. Dig deep.

What are your character’s inner demons? What lays behind the scenes in their psyche?  What unknown/hidden motivators push them forward?

What techniques do you use when trying to get to the root of your MC’s motivations?