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The Psychology of Character

February 17, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 18, 2011

We all have friends who’ve acted out of character, who’ve done or said something that wasn’t like them at all.

When we recognize that someone isn’t acting like himself, we’re saying we know him and how he should behave, how he typically behaves.

The same should be true of our fictional characters. We should know them, how they do and should and typically behave. We should know what floats our lead character’s boat, what makes him do what he does, what gets him moving each day.

We should know the same things about the antagonist and, to a lesser degree, other characters who play major roles in the story or who get a lot of time with the reader.

By the way, I’m talking about something beyond plot motivation here. Yes, your character needs a goal and a motivation specifically tied to the story and to the situation you’ve dumped him into. But beyond that, he needs motivation for his daily life. He needs to be someone who does what he does for a purpose, even if that purpose is only implied and never stated.

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Behavior theorists and psychologists and those plain curious about human nature have studied motivational and personality theory. They’ve looked into the causes, the drivers, of human behavior. They’ve looked for explanations for that behavior.

A good writer needs to know both cause and effect, needs to understand that there is impetus behind the actions of his characters. When the writer knows a character’s motivations, she can write actions that make sense for that character in a specific situation.

Knowing the psychological makeup of your lead characters and then using that knowledge to steer your characters’ actions can add depth to your stories.

Again, I’m not talking about what motivates the character in the plot sense, that compulsion that makes him go on the quest or search for the bad guy or fall in love with a particular woman. The motivation I’m speaking of here is specifically what makes your character drive one car rather than another, work at a particular profession, pursue certain hobbies, or avoid his mother except for one day a year.

Knowledge of character motivation—knowledge of who the character is and why he is that way—helps the writer add layers and depth, veracity and cohesion, to story. It gives truth to fiction.

If Marlon values keeping his word, he will strive to keep it no matter what impediments stand against him. He may break societal rules, even laws, if they get in the way of him doing what he promised he’d do. Marlon acts a certain way because of who he is. And it’s the writer’s task to know Marlon, to see that his motivations and actions fit his character. If one of the three is off, the reader is distracted from the story, taken out of the fiction.

He realizes something isn’t right.

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Writers have any number of ways to show who a character is and what motivates him. Every time a character makes a choice, he’s revealing who he is. Each time he acts, he’s doing it based on some motivating factor or factors.

And not only can he have an array of motivations that drive him, but those motivations can come from a variety of sources.

Motivation can be based on what the character learned as a child, what he heard from or saw in his parents. What he learned then affects what he does now:

Men take care of women; stealing is never right; taking from others is okay if they’re rich; quitting is not an option; flaunt your wealth; hide your wealth; take shortcuts; do it right or don’t do it at all; keep your nose to the grindstone; work to live, don’t live to work; defer to others; might makes right.

Who a character is may come from his inner makeup:

He’s a nurturer; he’s a helper—helping someone else makes him feel good; he’s a leader, able to get others to follow with little effort; he’s a teacher, always giving lessons even as he’s doing other tasks; he prefers people and social situations; he prefers things to people and shies away from crowds; he’s a perfectionist; he’s scatterbrained; he’s generous; he cares about justice; he has something to prove; he has nothing to prove.

A character can have any mix of personality traits:

He’s a talker; he’s contemplative; he thinks before he acts; he acts before he thinks; he’s intuitive; he’s affectionate; he’s fearful; he’s bold; he’s an innovator; he’s willing to let others go first; he’s unwilling to share the glory; he prefers being behind the scenes; he’d rather be in the spotlight; he’s independent; he’s needy.

The way a character learns and what he notices will affect his behavior:

Some learn by watching, some by reading instructions, some by hands-on experience, some by listening to oral instructions; some characters are visually oriented, others want to put something in their hands, still others want to taste; some notice everything, others notice nothing; some anticipate problems, having solutions ready, while others never consider possible problems.

~  Characters have different reactions to situation and stimuli:

Chronic pain may keep one character on pain pills but another, one who’s seen what pills did to his father, far from relief; politics, religion or social concerns might drive one character and mean nothing at all to another; someone else’s pain may hurt one character and never be noticed by a different type of character; one character may crave physical contact while another shuns it.

Anything that can move, influence, touch, or drive a real person can do the same for a character. And can do it to greater degree.

You can imagine how a character who’s curious and a visual learner will always be watching, studying things and people. His trait of curiosity and his practice of watching might clue him in to a crime just before it happens. Or, it might get him arrested on suspicion of being a peeping Tom. Or, it might garner him opportunity to work for a crime boss who’s looking for someone with his skills.

Motivations lead to action. And action leads to more action. And problems. And conflict. And thus to story.

Having a character behave in character makes him real. Does Joe love gadgets, like to figure out how they work? Give him a scene where he’s putting together something he took apart—even if the main purpose of the scene is the dialogue he’s having with the antagonist.

Giving him something to do, something that’s part of his makeup, brings veracity to the story. It reveals his character. It makes sense in the course of his day. (And then what doesn’t make sense, what’s odd or disquieting, stands out even more.)

And then, of course, you don’t leave Joe’s motivating factors there, with only one example.

Perhaps he’s been waiting for a new turbo XG-5 and when it arrives, he discovers it’s been broken open by his nemesis (his brother, his ex-wife, his boss) looking for company secrets hidden within it. This destruction of something the character values (Joe loves gadgets, remember) can set him off after his nemesis (brother, ex-wife, boss) in a mood even more foul than if only his office had been broken into.

This, the use of what we know of motivation and personality, is a layering, a weaving of threads, that makes for rich stories.

You can also take Joe’s interest in knowing how things work and turn it toward people. He might study his enemies, trying to figure out what they’ll do and how he can manipulate them into doing what he wants and on his schedule.

What motivates Joe motivates him all the time; it’s essential to his character.

And so this interest in figuring out things and people might logically extend to an interest in puzzles or to a specific career.

Thus, character motivation can be laced throughout the story in a number of ways, all done for cohesion and depth and to give realism to the fiction.

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You can use what you know of your character—and what you’ve revealed to the readers—to push him beyond his limits. What is he like when his life is out of whack?

Who pushes his buttons, his mother? Put him in a situation where she needles him and then show us what he does. How much does it take to create an explosion? Or, will he explode? Maybe he’s the type to get even, to needle back. Or to suffer in silence.

How much can you pile on before the character breaks? How does he break? Is he quietly violent? Does his rage last only for the moment or does he have to work to restore equanimity afterwards? Maybe that’s why he never lets himself go, because he can’t get back to peace for days or months. Maybe he’s violent but doesn’t want to be. Does he forgive and forget? Does he hold grudges?

Put your character into situations where his buttons are pushed. This definitely reveals who he is. See if he still acts in character. Or, if he’s pushed beyond what he can handle, what happens? Does he feel great about stepping out of character or is he remorseful? Does he discover in himself something he can be proud of? Maybe he discovers he’s not the man he thought he was but instead the man he feared he was. What does this do to him? Talk about increasing conflict.

A man who discovers he isn’t who he thought he was is a man with nothing to lose [or a man with everything to lose]. And the way he acts when he’s pushed beyond his limits may be his true character, something he fears or something he can be proud of.

Characters can have complementary as well as competing motivations. 
And a man at war with himself, with his very nature, makes for intense and powerful fiction. Will his internal war destroy him or make him stronger? Will he do what is right, only to ultimately lose what he wants, or will he grab for what he wants, only to lose his self-respect?

Knowing the mind, the heart, and the essence of a character allows the writer to create great fiction, stories that engage the reader in his own mind and heart.

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I do have a warning, however, regarding the use of character motivation and behavioral psychology. Too much stress on any one cause or reason for a character’s actions will annoy the reader. Add depth and layers, but don’t smother. Provide reasons, but don’t be so blatant that the reader feels you’re beating him over the head with the explanations.

Allow the reader to discover character motivation, don’t simply state and restate it. Readers enjoy discovery, they like connecting the dots. They don’t necessarily enjoy tracing the lines you’ve so clearly drawn for them.

Don’t go overboard with your use of motivation. Everything doesn’t have to be about what moves the character. Establish reasons for behavior and allow the character to act as he should, given who he is, while at the same time keeping the story moving forward and focused on plot.

Balance the elements in their proper proportions.

Write good story.

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8 Responses to “The Psychology of Character”

  1. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Fascinating thoughts here, Beth. Knowing your character well enough to know how h/she will react in any given situation. Even creating situations to show who they are.

    Good article and one worth reading more than once. A lot to think about.

  2. Sia, there is a lot to consider. And I think I tried to cover it all here—a long article, to be sure. But there’s so much we can do with our characters, simple touches that make the fiction that much more real to the reader.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  3. Voula Grand says:

    Such an interesting topic….. I particularly like the exploration of competing motivations in a character, the internal tensions that generates and the contradictory behaviours…. that can often feel more real to me than a character who is very consistent in his/her behaviour, whether good or bad… you don’t want characters who are too predictable after all! Thanks for such a thought provoking piece. Voula

  4. Voula, you’re exactly right; while the inevitable is good in fiction, the predictable is not as welcome.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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