Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

What Really Drives Your Characters?

Terrible secrets, fears, & flaws: discover what's driving your characters!

Incomplete character sketch

A good psychological sketch will help fill out your character.

There are a lot of Character Outline guides out there, but it's easy to focus on the superficial with them, particularly since most of them focus on the kind of information you'd find in a decent dating profile: looks, nationality, age, career, salary, religion, languages spoken, and turn ons and turn offs.

Which is not to say you can't learn a lot about your character from such guides, only that I'm not sure they dig deep enough into character psychology with their vague references to "temperament," "likes and dislikes," "fears," and "strengths."

I like to create psychologically-based character guides. (Go figure, right?)  I do this in two ways: though a psychological profile, and through psychological tests. I'll write more about using psychological tests in an upcoming post (post added here!), but let's focus now on the parts of your character's psyche that he or she would rather you not know.

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To really appreciate any person, you have to realize that they're going to be driven—at least in part—by things they're either not 100% aware of...probably because they don't want to see their own terrible flaws and weaknesses. But that doesn't mean that you, as the author, shouldn't know!

The Psychological Profile

Try identifying the following for each of your major characters:

1. Primary Goal

Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that human beings are a "wanting animal." As soon as one want or need is fulfilled, we move on to wanting something else. So what does your character want more than anything?  What is his character's overarching goal?   What is the purpose that not only gets him out of bed each morning, but also drives him or her throughout the story?

a. Obstacles to that Goal

Who or what stands in your character's way?  Note that your character may face more than one obstacle, and that other characters' wants or needs may be in direct conflict, creating a battle of wills.

b. What s/he'll give up or sacrifice to achieve that Goal

When someone really wants something, she's willing to make sacrifices.  She may not know what those sacrifices are until push comes to shove, but she will make them. When a goal is just out of reach, it's tempting to give up just a bit more than one should. And if that goal stays just out of reach, your character may find herself on a slippery moral slope, inching across a line she never thought she'd cross. 

Sacrifices should be things that cause some conflict because they're given up only when the character really has to make a choice between what must truly be a consuming Goal and the rest of his or her life. It's important that you don't just think about physical things. Also consider values and morals. What has your character promised herself she'd never do?  And how can you push her past that promise by dangling the Goal in front of her?

One of my favorite examples of a character who goes too far in his pursuit of a Goal is Farscape's John Crichton. Astronaut Crichton is launched into a distant corner of the universe by a wormhole, and he spends much of the series trying to find another wormhole that will get him home. He becomes a man truly obsessed, and more than once it becomes clear that he will do just about anything—including put his friends' lives in terrible danger—to conquer wormholes.  He is, of course, pursued by a villain who wants the same thing, which makes Crichton's quest even more dangerous. If Crichton acquires wormhole technology and his nemesis gains that technology through him, said nemesis will use that knowledge to destroy the Earth.

2. Fatal Flaws 

Every great hero has at least one Achilles heel. What is your character's?

These flaws may be things the character tries to hide or disguise behind more noble qualities. For example, a character who's afraid to express who he really is and what he really wants may see himself (or typically be seen by others) as modest. A character who's terrified of being hurt again may hide behind intellectualization and assertions that he doesn't need relationships.

Your character is most likely to recognize his fatal flaws in those cold dark hours of the night when he's worn down, exhausted, and out of options. What is it he really wants in those moments? Those wants are his weakest point, and if your villain recognizes them, she might do your hero a great deal of damage.

3. Strengths

Be sure to focus on personality characteristics!  Is your character a charismatic leader? Does she persist in the face of great difficulty? Does her determination help her push through obstacles that might break a weaker character?  

Don't forget to look at each of these things for your villain as well, including strengths. I strongly believe that the best villains have admirable qualities, but have simply fallen prey to their own flaws and wants.  In some cases they may have lost their moral compass, but in others they may be as justified in their wants as your hero or heroine. So don't forget to give your villain strengths as well.

4. Fears

What is your character most afraid of? A loss of control? Or just losing the battle against the villain? How can you force her to face that fear in the story?

People do incredible things in the name of fear.  I am particularly taken with the story of Snow White, especially in an age of Photoshopping and Botox. Do you remember what drives the villainous queen? She has always been the most beautiful woman in all the land, until one day the magical mirror says that Snow White has become even more beautiful than her. Perhaps this is simply Snow White blossoming into a lovely young woman, but I suspect aging plays a part in the queen's downfall. And the queen is willing to do anything—including murder—to regain her status.

Although Snow White seems blissfully unaware of her own goodness and beauty, at some point she too will age, and people will begin to treat her differently. What might she do to stay young and beautiful and keep everyone's attention on her?  You might think she would avoid the kind of evil to which the queen falls prey, but real life suggests that people often become what they hate most, perhaps because of that hatred. 

5. Terrible Secret/s

What is your character hiding from everyone else?  Is Snow White secretly reveling in her power over the dwarves and the prince, for example?  Or perhaps your intellectual hero, who always stands independent and alone, secretly craves a partner.  Or maybe he's miserable and disillusioned in his leadership role, but has to stay strong because there is no one to take his place.  Maybe he was once close to the villain, and in spite of himself he still secretly loves her.

Pulling It All Together

There's a good chance that what you write in the different categories will be related. For example, your character's greatest fear may be tied to her Terrible Secret. And she may be willing to give up just about anything to protect that secret.

What have I forgotten? Do you dig into a part of your characters' psychologies that I've missed?

Want more tips on characterization and conflict using psychology?  Check out The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human BehaviorMore information is available on the book's website.

© 2011 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

 

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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