Character Creation Using Psychology

When I was younger, I loved watching Harriet the Spy (Is it weird that I feel as if I am betraying someone by saying that I loved a movie instead of the book?), and I especially loved when Ole Golly says, “There are as many ways to live as there are people in this world, and each one deserves a closer look.” This is the approach that I take toward personality.

Some of the biggest complaints regarding fiction are that the reader/viewer was unable to identify with the character, inconsistency in behavior, or that the character is flat and has no discernible personality. This can happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps the character isn’t fully realized. Perhaps the author is unable credibly portray that character’s point of view. Or perhaps the character’s motives are inadequate reasoning for their behavior. If it isn’t a matter of writing, then it’s a matter of psychology. This post seeks to introduce a few subjects to aid authors in figuring out how their characters tick.

Psychology is more than just a personality. It brings to light the biases and assumptions that belong to not only the character but the reader as well. The more that the author understands about these driving forces, the easier it will be to create believable characters, and the easier it will be to manipulate the feelings of your reader. Sometimes I feel bad about that last part, but other times, I just touch my fingertips together and cackle.

Personality Types & Tests

Myers-Briggs
My personal favorite of all the personality tests is the Myers-Briggs test. Its foundations lie in Carl Jung’s theories, and it states that a person is made up of four types of traits. They are either introverted or extroverted, intuitive or sensing, feeling or thinking, judging or perceiving. This ends up in sixteen different personality types to choose from. When I’m stuck on a character, sometimes it helps to read through them. I appreciate this due to the variety, subtle differentiation, and how thorough it is. Also, it’s a really fun test to take. You can find the Myers-Briggs test here: http://typelogic.com/ (All links open new windows.)

Enneagram

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Another popular test is the enneagram test. I’d forgotten about this one until recently. It reduces personalities into nine types: the reformer, the helper, the achiever, the individualist, the investigator, the loyalist, the enthusiast, the challenger, and the peacemaker. I like this test, because it helps to determine what traits motivate a character most and determines his or her biggest flaw. It can also predict how a character will react to stress or events and shows how these personalities are related to one another which Myers-Briggs doesn’t do as well. For more on the enneagram test, you can visit the Enneagram Institute: http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/intro.asp#.UijH3casiSo

Personality Disorders
And if you’re looking for more than your basic personality, you might be interested in the wide world of personality disorders. There are three clusters of disorders: odd or eccentric; dramatic, emotional, or erratic; and anxious or fearful. I do sometimes like to give my characters personality disorders or personalities prone to these traits, because they tend to be more interesting than your every day characters. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has really detailed descriptions on typical behavior manifestations and what might cause them. A word or warning: it’s not recommended that you try to diagnose yourself or others based on these descriptions. You can find a fuller list of personality disorders here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality_disorder

Defense Mechanisms

In every story, you’re going to have conflict. If you don’t, let me be the first to tell you, you’re doing it wrong. Whether it be an internal conflict or external conflict, your characters will need to find a way to cope. Sometimes these are obvious reactions and other times less so. Either way, I have found that Freud’s fifteen common defense mechanisms to be most helpful. (See? He wasn’t only obsessed with sex.) Of course not everyone copes with stress or conflict in the same way, so knowing all the various ways that someone might react comes in rather handy. I suggest using some caution, because you will want your character’s defense mechanism to match his or her personality. For more reading on these, you can check out this website: http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/0001251

Attribution

I learned about attribution from a Social Psychology class. (This is different than sociology by the way. Sociology studies how culture influences behavior and social psychology study how different situations affect social behavior.) On the very first day, this short, elderly woman trudged into the room, slammed her brief case down on the desk, scowled out at us, and said, “Social psychology is simple: we want to feel good about ourselves all the time. That’s all you need to know, but we’re going to spend the next ten weeks studying it anyway.”

This was one of the most important lessons that I could learn when it came to character creation, especially when it came to villains. No matter how evil a character is perceived, that person wants to feel good about him/herself, and their actions will reflect that. The logic might be sick and twisted, but even the most evil or sociopathic individual has thoughts and feelings that will lead them to act in ways that serve this core desire. And there are things that we often do subconsciously in order to protect our egos. This article on attribution highlights a few of these biases that you never knew that you had.

Kendra Cherry “The Psychology of Attribution” http://psychology.about.com/od/socialpsychology/a/attribution.htm

Of course, no one can be whittled down to a super fun archetype, but it’s a great place to start if you’re having trouble with your characters. Is there anywhere that you go that helps you with character creation? Feel free to comment below!

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