How many times have you read a book and fallen head over heels in love with a character because something about them just resonated with you? On the flip side, how many times have you read a book and found you wanted to smack the main character upside the head because they were so irredeemably stupid, or cruel, or self-centred or [insert undesirable trait of choice here]? Whether we realize it or not, authors of the books we read will either capture our hearts or lose our loyalty not only by the plots they contrive for their story, but how they move their characters through them. This essential skill requires a writer to get into the heads of their characters. After all, it is through the characters that a writer gets into the heads of their readers.
I recently wrote a post on my blog called Never a Villain: Why I Love Writing Lovable Characters as an Author. In it, I said, “A villain is a tried-and-true anti-character that can always be relied upon to challenge the protagonist and propel the plot. And yeah, they’re perfectly acceptable features, especially in genre fiction… But me personally? I don’t like writing them. In fact, I avoid them as much as I can, and when I have to use them, they’re never traditional (read: pure, irredeemable evil).”
This is a preference that piggybacks off of using psychology to understand my characters. Like it or not, even your villains are characters. They have a backstory, they have fears and doubts, and unless they’re akin to Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they’re not inhuman… even though we may intend for the reader to loathe them.
But when it comes to our protagonists and secondary characters, using psychology to deep dive into their heads is going to help you ensure they don’t end up as one-dimensional stock characters. In his book The Psychology Workbook for Writers, author Darian Smith explains, “Writers—the good ones anyway—are keen observers of human nature and they capture it in their characters and storytelling. They show the behaviors, the thought processes, and the ways people make meaning out of their experiences and events and turn these into provoking entertainment.”
Take, for example, the classic “best friend” stock character. She is the PB to your heroine’s J, the cabernet to her sauvignon. As a writer, you have two choices: #1 You can leave it at that and rely on the audience to blindly accept that the fast friendship is so; or #2 You can flesh out that relationship and make it as fragile and human as it is unwavering.
If you’re still reading by now, then I think it’s safe to say you’d go with option two. So, as a writer, use your observations of human nature and ask yourself why these two characters are best friends. Not just what their backstory is, or where they met, but what are all their quirks that sustain that relationship? Is your heroine a scatterbrain that her best friend puts up with? If so, why does your best friend put up with it? Is it her personality to see the good in everyone? Does your heroine offer something to her best friend that makes the relationship mutually satisfying? Or perhaps your best friend character the misunderstood wild child that your main character is protective towards. In this case, why does your best friend character behave this way, and what are her redeemable traits that allows your main character to tolerate this?
Let’s not forget that at the core of it, a relationship between any characters is a two-way street. By relying on your readers to simply swallow that these two characters are best friends, you’ll likely find yourself reading reviews with the dreaded “Show, don’t tell” finger-wag. But by diving into the psychology of your best friend character, you can craft an authentic relationship that brings her to life and makes her real.
In a post from self-publishingschool.com, author Bella Rose Pope sums this concept up by saying, “In order to craft your book in a way that speaks to readers how you intend it to, you have to understand how the human mind works… Once you know how people interpret different events, messages, and themes, you can weave them into your book so it has more impact when they’re finished reading… Psychology helps you create real and lifelike characters that leave readers itching to turn that page and read more about them and their journey.”
Don’t worry, you don’t need a degree in psychology to be able to apply this skill. As Joslyn Chase of The Write Practice points out, “Most writers are people watchers. We’re fascinated by the things people do, what they say, and especially any discrepancies between the two. People watching is the writer’s research.”
Here is a real-world example of writer’s psychology at work. As an author with other author contacts, I have the occasional privilege of being a beta reader. A few years ago, I was asked to review a manuscript where the hero is at the top of his industry and is in need of an executive assistant. Enter the heroine, an energetic and intelligent woman who has never done a job like this before. She is literally someone he points to in a crowd and offers the position in a matter of minutes.
When I read the story, I thought there was something missing to make this scenario realistic, and had to ask the question: why did he do this? Was there something he saw in her that made him think she was right for the job? Was there something in his past or his personality that recognized an opportunity? Or, was he just being a narcissistic asshat who condescendingly thought he was being benevolent to a poor, underemployed wretch? Even this last one is a believable reason… even if it doesn’t make the hero of this story overly likable.
As any writer will tell you, being a writer is exhausting. Not only do we have to deal with the problems and challenges, quirks and follies of our real-life friends and family, we must also do so for our made-up friends and family! But as the adage goes, your mind is a muscle. Diving into the psychology of your characters will not only make for a stronger, more authentic story, it will make you a stronger and more authentic writer!
Happy diving, my writer friends.