The Psychology of Character Development

Welcome to my blog! I will post weekly on some aspect of psychology as it relates to writing fiction. Once I've run out of those topics--if I ever do--I'll move on into the marketing aspect of what I'm beginning to see as a new era in publishing. Maybe by then I'll actually know enough to write cogently on that topic!   

Since psychology is a comfort zone for me, it seems logical to begin this blog with a discussion of the psychology of character development. Have you ever wondered why some fictional characters feel so real it seems you could easily know them, while others feel wooden and contrived? Or worse, when an author builds a character who feels real up until they suddenly don't because of some event that simply jars your sensibilities; and you toss the book aside feeling cheated. Or, when you get partway through a book and all the characters feel alike? Or, they're two dimensional and it's difficult to understand why they're doing what they are. And you find yourself paging backwards to see if you missed something. Of course that's much harder to do with e-readers. (My only pet peeve w/my Kindle . . . I've never been a "linear" reader. So, to have lost my ability to go easily backwards and forwards in the Kindle is annoying.)

I'm sure all authors address character development a bit differently. And, truth be told, I wish I could because the way my characters come to life is intrusive. Once "born", they run about in my head like little mad things. And, if I try to make them do something they don't like, they let me know about it in no uncertain terms. That's why I'm an "organic" writer. I've tried outlining my material and found it to be a waste of time when my protagonist simply thumbs her nose at me if I push her in a direction she doesn't want to go. Me patiently explaining about my plot has proven meaningless. Besides, people think I've gone bonkers when they see me having conversations with myself!

Before I started writing fiction, I didn't understand this at all. So, years ago when I read an interview by Diana Gabaldon when she complained about her protag, Clare Randall, who simply refused to cooperate, I just rolled my eyes. Now, I understand perfectly. Apologies, Diana!

I suppose most of my books begin in my head with a protagonist. Once I have the protag, I need to figure out which setting would work best for them. Is it modern day America? Or do they live in a high fantasy world, or a science fiction one? They usually let me know right away if I've gotten it wrong.

Characters are just like us--except they're larger than life. What that means is, while you and I might think about an unusual act of heroism, my characters will actually do it. Oh, they'll be plenty scared; but they'll mow right ahead in spite of it. And, when you think about it, a working definition of courage or heroism is action in the face of fear. If I have a character in a situation that would scare me, of course it will scare them too. Unless, of course, the character is a sociopath. They aren't particularly sensitive to the feelings that plague the rest of us. Things like compassion, fear, honor, etc. Sociopaths manipulate others and are able to do so without much in the way of emotional fallout . . . at least to themselves. Everyone around them suffers terribly, of course.

So long as we're on the topic of sociopaths, the very best books have well-drawn, three dimensional antagonists as well as strong protags. Without digging too terribly deeply, I can generally find something in any antagnoist to at least try to link to a reader's sensibilities. For example, one of the antagonists in my novel, Psyche's Prophecy, had a perfectly wretched childhood. When he finally dies, my protag is able to engage in a believable moment of compassion when she thinks to herself that he never had a chance because some things that happen to children just can't be undone. Humans usually have mixed feelings about lots of things. It's important for characters to be able to see things from more than one point of view as well. That's one of the tools an author has to make characters feel believable.

Part II of the psychology of character development will follow next week.
    

Comments

  1. Nice post, Ann. Psychology gives us some interesting insights into how people tick, but as writers, we have to interpret it into our characters. And yes, even if they are figments of our imagination, they do what they want despite our best efforts at plot.

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