Use of Psychology to Create Characters

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I have been listening to the “Freud Knows Romance” Workshop given by Sandy James during RWA’s 2010 Conference. While it contains a lot of great information about psychology in writing, there were a few concepts I found especially interesting. These are basically nature vs. nurture concepts to examine when thinking up a character.

  • Nature

This is a study of temperament, an inborn way a person acts and reacts. There are four types of temperaments:

  1. Sanguine: Kind, fair, generous, adventurous, spontaneous. Comic sidekick. Think Iron Man.
  2. Phlegmatic: Patient, rational, innovative, unflappable. Think Obi-won Kenobi.
  3. Melancholic: Serious, pessimistic, idealist, moody. Brooding heroes and tortured heroines. Think Mr. Darcy. Could use a comic sidekick to offset moodiness.
  4. Choleric: Courageous, enthusiastic, bossy, stubborn. Alpha males and strong heroines. Think Hans Solo.
  • Nurture

This concept relates to the types of parents a character has, and how this shapes their personality. There are three types of parent figures:

  1. Authoritarian Parents – very strict. The offspring of authoritarian parents either rebel or are too afraid to go out on their own. Psychopaths tend to have a strong authoritarian parent (think villains).
  2. Permissive Parents – give their children their way all the time. The offspring of permissive parents tend to lack focus and motivation. They can be your playboy-types.
  3. Authoritative Parents – work with their children. They tend to have well-balanced, independent offspring (which, let’s face it, can make for a boring character).

I have to admit, I don’t consciously examine psychology when thinking up my character, but the above concepts seem like useful tools for crafting 3-dimensional characters and rationalizing their motivations.

For you writers, do you examine psychology when creating your characters? If so, do you find it helps you to create a fully fleshed-out character?

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11 thoughts on “Use of Psychology to Create Characters

    kayspringsteen said:
    February 9, 2011 at 8:06 am

    I’ve never applied Freud but I have fleshed out characters by giving thought to their histories, parents, memories, etc. I think I’m going to try the things you’ve outlined here because even if you don’t include the specifics in the writing, the characters will shine through.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 9, 2011 at 8:16 am

      That’s exactly what I’m thinking, Kay. I’m also currently taking “The Conflict Grid” workshop and the instructor references a list of Archestypes listed on Tami Cowden’s website. Very interesting stuff.

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        February 9, 2011 at 8:17 am

        Oops, I mean “Archetypes”. 🙂

    Terry Spear said:
    February 9, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Absolutely, psychology plays a role. My mother used to say that the child psychology course she took when she was in her twenties helped her immensely with dealing with my dad–tongue-in-cheek. He always had a great sense of humor. I took a lot of psychology in college too. It’s helped immensely in writing.

    It’s a great way to make characters real–to show why they’re motivated to do what they do, to show their flaws and what they excel at. It’s too easy to stereotype otherwise.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 9, 2011 at 8:44 am

      That’s such a good point, Terry. That’s what we writers strive for: real, memorable characters. I found that Archetypes list interesting because it gives a good starting point from which to build a character.

    Elizabeth Frost said:
    February 9, 2011 at 9:52 am

    I will be using this approach going forward. I do give some thought to the history that provokes the current reactions butthis is so concise and usable. Nice!

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 9, 2011 at 10:05 am

      I agree, Elizabeth. I thought so too! It’s a great character-building tool.

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    February 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Well, the characters bring a great deal of baggage to the table – all that psychological baggage. I’m more Jungian than Freud, but Freud was a genius in his time and some of his concepts still apply today.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

      It’s so true, Julia. I know my characters’ history, but I’m looking forward to exploring that a little more in depth with the use of temperaments to guide me. I’m eager to see how it turns out. 🙂

    Katalina Leon said:
    February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I think this is great exercise, if only to sit down and really think about a character’s background and motivation. You really can’t go wrong by adding a little more depth to a character, even if it’s very subtle.
    XXOO Kat

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      February 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Such a good point, Katalina. This is all very subtle, but it’s those subtle layers that create a great character.

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