Saturday, June 24, 2017

Character Reality

The topic this month is about how a story's main characters get developed. I have to say how I do it varies from story to story, but only once did a character haunt my mind. It was my first book and she morphed between instigating my desire to write and how she appeared in the book. So how does a story's main characters get developed? For me, it varies.

Most often I begin writing the opening or a confrontational scene, and then I go back and determine why the characters reacted the way they did. Their personality and their experiences have shaped them, so I need to think up their histories. Sometimes I draw an image of the character. The personality part, though, often leads to psychological profiles, which can require research. Psychology drives motivation, behavior, and emotional response, which is how the reader will hopefully connect with that character. Why so much effort? To make interesting and believable characters or to help the reader understand why they behave the way they do.

Surprisingly, Psychology Today likes to give writers this information. Carolyn Kaufman, who has a Ph.D. in Psychology, has written several articles such as What Really Drives your Character, which is about "Terrible secrets, fears, and flaws: discover what's driving your characters!" The article also provides a profile to consider for characters' development. Such information abounds on the Internet and in printed books. 

Yet no matter how much time I spend defining a character, I know it only lets me understand them, and almost everything I learn about them won't even appear in the story. It only tells me how they might act in each scene.
Hero or villain, worried, evil, angry, or tormented?

Stories are not real life. I say this knowing I also have doubts about the 'reality' of many biographies I’ve read. Fiction stories are for entertainment and readers' desires to delve into lives other than their own. Each character must have a purpose in the story. Readers learn or interpret hints about the most important characters, starting with basics like description and continuing to each character's history and goals. The characters needed to create a setting are often more like furniture, unnamed except for function, like a waiter, doorman, nurse, who shows up once or twice.

Since the earliest traditions of oral story-telling, the mythic dimensions of stories give readers insight into themselves, even if they don’t realize it. This has carried over into today’s fiction. I wonder if those on-line games, which many might be readers are turning to, have the same fundamental purpose. Without factual experience or knowledge, I’d guess that they do.


  1. What a great suggestion with the Psychology Today articles! Another great tip to add to my arsenal.

  2. Rhobin, I agree with your association of fiction writing and psychology. I think psychotherapy and writing have highly overlapping skill sets, the main one being empathy.

  3. Rhobin, thank you for the suggestion of reading Psychology Today articles. As always, your blog posts are very informative.

  4. You know, I think that sometimes I write because it helps me understand the people around me. That insight into humanity gives me a clearer picture and allows me to show them a bit more grace than I would normally be inclined to give.

  5. The most recent thing I read about reading suggested that the more you read, the easier it is for you to develop empathy for others. After all, what are you doing when you read, but becoming the character in your mind, for the duration of the book. So you are experiencing life through someone else's viewpoint...which is empathy. I think authors do this even more least the ones who create realistic characters. I hope I do that.

    Great topic this month! Thanks.

  6. I enjoyed your post especially about psychological research. I work on why characters do something but haven't tried psychological research. And thanks for the reference book.

  7. Always enjoy reading about the time and care you put into creating your stories.

  8. I had never thought much about the psychological aspect of my characters. I've bookmarked the link to the article What Really Drives Your Characters - hopefully I learn something new and write more compelling characters. Thanks, Rhobin!

  9. Great post! I am going to check out that link about characters. Secrets are always good, a writer's stock in trade. You were spot on about not telling the reader everything you know about a character: a back story dump. The writing about the character is informed by all the things the writer knows but isn't telling the reader. It sneaks in there anyway, and that's all to the good. Great post. Another great topic!