Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Psychology of Character

Everyone loves a good plot, but a book is nothing without its characters. You can have the most exciting premise in all of literature, but if your characters are stock cardboard cut-outs, that book will never get off the ground. So what makes a character worth knowing? Human complexity.

My friends over at The Bookshelf Muse give us tons of valuable information and interesting descriptions to help you create the emotional depth that breathes life into a character. Lots of great phrases that portray the characters' feelings in those subtle ways that speak to our subconscious. And that is the key, isn't it? The character must speak to us. Not in his words. Well, not only in his words. But through his actions. It's that whole "show-don't-tell" thing that gets pounded into you at every critique and workshop. As writers, we have to go beyond the obvious and even play amateur psychologists.

Here's the real question: How do you build that complexity without simply slapping together some basic cause/effect descriptions? Sure, if a hot girl talks to a shy boy, there are certain physical signs that give away his true emotions (including the stereotypical sweaty palms and stuttering). But what about when there is no hot girl? We are who we are even when we are not asked to respond to a specific question or statement. So shouldn't our characters be all that? And how do you show that? This is tough, especially when you have a small space to work in and an audience with a sometimes limited attention span. Quite simply, it's all in the details. The clothes a character chooses, the way he ties his shoes, how he keeps some emotions captive, only to unleash them later in the most inappropriate situation.

I've been watching my kids a lot lately. They are dealing with some really crappy stuff, and I see it all over the place. For my daughter, things are much murkier. She knows we are moving, but who knows when... She misses her daddy, but can she trust Mama to take care of things while he's gone... She talks to Daddy every day, but when will he be able to tuck her into bed again? (When the damn house finally sells...but that's for another time).

At almost 8 years old, she isn't always willing to talk about things as specifically as we would like, but that doesn't mean she bottles it all up. No, her anxieties usually show up at school, with the least provocation, or at home when she is asked to break away from her fantasy play to go to the bathroom or pick up her room. Add into all this a genuine developmental issue like dyspraxia and you get even more fire to play with. My son just gets weepy at times, or he starts to mumble, as if his lower lip just doesn't have the motivation to form the words. I guess what I'm getting at is that like us, our characters express their complex personalities all the time, even in the way they carry a box or close a door. The actual cause/effect is not always immediate or discernible. But your readers will get it. If nothing else, they'll be asking questions: "why does he talk like that? what made him act that way...".

There has been some discussion on the blue boards about ODD and I've seen other chat about a variety of diagnoses that writers might include in their stories. But they don't need to make it the obvious focus of the story to use it effectively. I have often thought about including a character with dyspraxia or ADD or OCD, but it doesn't have to be a labeled condition to make a character real to the reader. It simply has to be genuine.

I am still working on these things in my writing. As I revise old manuscripts and dive into my current WIP, I have an eye turned towards these kinds of details. Even in a plot-driven novel, the characters need to seem real to the reader. We have to care what happens to them. We have to feel as if we've met them already.

Just a little psychology.


  1. Mary Ann, a very thoughtful post. I am reading Cynthia Lord's Rules right now, and she conveys her character's emotions so well, I can't even point out the specific devices she uses! It just flows effortlessly, the difficulty Catherine has with handling her autistic brother. And David's speech tells you immediately all about his issues. Great read.

    I really feel for your kids. They are in limbo right now. You are doing a wonderful job of keeping it all together! You win my vote for Mom of the Year.

  2. Thanks, Tara! I'm doing my best not to freak out, and for the most part, I've been far.

    In my first 2 novels, the characters just sort of evolved as I wrote. I thought about them, but I could have paid more attention to the smaller details that truly give them life. I still love them, and I'll keep tweaking what I need to until they are sitting on the bookstore shelf. As always, it's a process. Even now, I don't see a book as a static thing, published or not. It continues to grow with each reader.

  3. This is a great post. I think for me it's the condensing of details I struggle with. I can think of several ways to show an emotion or characterize, but as you say, we have to be brief to hold the reader's attention. I tend to agonize over how to 'show' the most effectively and not take up twice as many words as I need to. One strong action is better than three weaker ones. It's a work in progress for me, lol.


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