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Writer’s Craft #20 – Character Psychology

May 16, 2011

This week’s guest author is Ann Gimpel, here to introduce her new blog on character psychology and invite your questions or comments concerning the psychology of your characters. (Lynda)


Psyche's Prophecy by Ann Gimpel

Psyche's Prophecy by Ann Gimpel

When I was wracking my brain to come up with an interesting idea for a blog, I spent days considering and discarding topics. And then it came to me like a bolt out of the proverbial blue and I felt quite the fool. It’s not accidental that the wisest amongst us always say, “Write what you know.” Well, I know psychology. In fact, I know it far better than writing since I’ve spent the past thirty years as a practicing psychologist. Over that time, my field has changed. And not for the better. The advent of managed care has altered what used to be a very intimate relationship into a ménage a trios: just you, me and your insurance company…

But I digress. The juxtaposition of psychology and writing is obvious. Hence, my blog on The Psychology of Character Development. http://anngimpel.blogspot.com. My hope for this brand new blog is to do a comprehensive job covering how authors develop characters that are sympathetic and believable. Characters that leave the reader panting for more. If you think about it, when you’re anxiously awaiting the next book in a series, what you’re really waiting for is more of the protagonist because you’ve bonded with him/her. They feel like someone you know and care about. And you want to share more of their journey. Face it, if the protag is dead—as in wooden, one-dimensional, or dull—so’s the story. No one reads genre fiction (or any other type for that matter) because they’re hooked on descriptions of alternative worlds. It’s the characters that make those worlds come alive.

Without further blathering from me, I’d like to invite questions/comments from you. Pretty much anything about problems (or successes) you’ve had infusing life into a fictional character is fair game. It would be interesting to hear how you’ve gone about researching the psychological aspects of some of your thornier characters, too.

That’s likely enough from me. Questions are welcome. I’ll do my best to answer them. To borrow a line from Charles Schultz: The (character) doctor is in!

P.S. Through the end of May, I’m throwing a contest. Anyone who becomes a follower for my blog will be automatically entered into a drawing for a signed copy of Psyche’s Prophecy, my debut novel, released by Gypsy Shadow Publishing in February. The odds are good, folks! So far there are only six followers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2011 5:32 pm

    I decided to create a character who was sexually abused as a child after doing 1,000 hours as a crisis center volunteer — but I wanted to make him male because I thought it was about power abuse, not sex. Doing my research into male victims of sexual abuse, I discovered they are likely to become abusers, because they want to identify with the stronger role. But some don’t. The ones who remain able to empathize. So I gave Amel empathy. He is male/hetero in orientation so he winds up a bit homophobic until he makes friends non-abusive homosexuals. And he has a hard time accepting women can be abusers — prefers to view himself as a sex-therapist with a difficult client (book 4: Throne Price). I did stick him with another feature of male-abuse victims which is they tend to blame themselves rather than accept they were helpless. Finally, since Amel is the descendant of bioengineered humans, I was able to mess with the human norm by giving him more of a female psych profile in the empathy/nurturing dimension “shading into personality” as a psych analyst puts it in Book 1: The Courtesan Prince. Turned out to be a stranger thought experiment than I had imagined. Anything you can tell us, in general, about sex abuse victims of the non-bioengineered kind?

    • May 17, 2011 2:41 pm

      Probably the first thing I’d like to say is that sexual abuse is far more common than any of us would like to think. Brother-sister abuse is at the top of the heap, followed by father-daughter, then mother-son. The iterations that include father-son and mother-daughter, along with the mother-son coupling usually create far more dysfunction on the part of the child-victim than the other two. In most familial abuse, the parent perpetrator is not a pedophile. They are simply very emotionally immature and their own emotional needs are not being met within the context of their adult relationships so they turn to their own children. Interestingly, true pedophiles usually find their child victims OUTSIDE of their immediate family systems. By true pedophile, what I mean is an adult who needs children to become sexually aroused. They avoid sex with adults. In familial abuse situations, you have adult perpetrators who are having sex with adults and children alike.

      Whew! Against that backdrop, you asked about abuse victims. Depending on the coercion level and the age difference, brother-sister molest often doesn’t have a negative impact on kids as they grow up. Think playing doctor, but taken a few steps further. For kids who are forced to engage in any sort of sexual behavior with an adult though, there are a welter of conflicting feelings. For one thing, unless the adult is a complete barbarian, the sex feels good. So, there’s conflict number one. “I enjoyed it.” Since the child knows what happened is wrong, the fact it felt good presents a problem for a young mind. Conflict number two is that the adult usually threatens the child with something if they tell. Keep in mind that this is daddy or mommy. We’re supposed to love and trust them. They’re supposed to have our best interests at heart. But we can’t tell. So, the child becomes complicit and there’s one more thing to feel guilty about. Worse yet, the child actually screws up their courage and tells. The other parent accuses them of lying. CPS drags the kid out of the home and they end up living with strangers. So, the child has even more guilt. They believe they broke up their family. That whatever happened is their fault and they shut down even further.

      As adults, people who were molested often have a very difficult time engaging in trusting relationships. They will often replay their early scripting and end up in relationships where their partner is either covertly or overtly abusive. Or, they will grow up to use sex in destructive ways since they’re never able to separate out guilt from pleasure. Something like 90% of female molest victims struggle with substance dependency issues and about 75% of males.
      Truth be told, molest is one of the worst things that can happen to a child because it is a perversion of a trusting relationship that happens during a critical developmental period. There is a fix and it’s lots of psychotherapy to get to a place where the person recognizes what happened to them wasn’t their fault. And, the recognition has to be at an emotional, not just a cognitive, level.
      Hope that helps.

  2. Kari T permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:43 pm

    What a well timed article, I’ve been struggling with making my lead more likeable these past few months. My problem is when I draw on my reading history, all the characters I felt for were ‘disadvantaged’.

    Mariam in a thousand splendend suns. The opening line of this book is “Mariam was 5 years old when she learned the word harami.” OK, so Mariam is a bastard. As she grows older she believes her father would be happy to have a visit from her, and is sadly disappointed when she spends the night outside his door, sleeping on the street like a dog. Her mother hangs herself because she believed Mariam abandoned her for the father. The father marries Mariam to a man three times her age and never takes her to his movie theater like he promised.

    Well now, what to do if you don’t want your character to be kicked around like that? How do you make readers care about a character that comes from a stable home and from privelege? i’m trying to find out.

    • May 17, 2011 2:26 pm

      Characters don’t have to come from a strong, loving background to have inner strengths. In fact, some of the most damaged clients I’ve worked with over the years came from priviledged backgrounds where they were overindulged and never developed any ability to self regulate. More pertinently, virtually every protag I’ve developed came from some sort of challenged background. That’s how we learn we can rise above adversity. That we have value in spite of desultory–or even negative–parenting.
      In your example about Mariam, what does your worldbuilding look like? Is it a paternalistic society that devalues women? If so, Mariam has far more than being illegitimate to overcome as a woman in a society that sees her gender as second class.
      For children, one of the things that can infuse strength is someone–and it can be anyone, an adult friend, a relative, a stranger–who extends a helping hand to the child. This person doesn’t even have to hang around for very long. Simply a single act of kindness that validates that the child has worth is often enough to help him/her believe in themselves.
      There’s a word used to describe some women in genre fiction: kickassitude. I think it tends to be a bit over-the-top as it sometimes plays out, but the ability to stand up for oneself, even if you do it quietly, helps to make for a sympathetic protag. I’m not so concerned about Mariam’s father breaking his promise to take her to the movies; but far more concerned about the arranged marriage. That’s why I asked about your world building. Maybe there’s a rogue group of women who banded together to escape the ravanges of arranged marriages? Somehow she could find out about them, either before or after the marriage, and plan an escape? Just an idle thought.
      Tension makes stories. And, if you can develop sympathetic characters, the tension works even better because the reader cares about what happens to your protag.
      To answer your question more specifically, I think you can make a reader care about any character, regardless of what sort of background they come from. Priviledged homes have their own set of problems from parental substance abuse to parental infidelity to, “Oh, go watch TV and let Mommy alone”. Those things aren’t unique to poor homes. There are defining moments in every child’s life that build character. They can be as dramatic as the death of a parent, or as subtle as the day Aunt Sarah told us she was gay. They are events that encourage children to think about how the world works and their part in that world.
      Hope that helps.

  3. May 17, 2011 11:12 am

    I’ve always had a bit of trouble with making likable characters. Not a few of my characters come off as, if you’ll pardon my French, “assholes” for lack of a better word. Still, I don’t believe I designed them to be such for the sake of being so, but I find that, in the stories I’ve worked on at least, it allows for some introspection and a bit of development. Granted, the stories with these characters do tend to be written from the first person, so one has to wonder what that says about my psyche, hehe.

    On a different note though, I do also find that there is a fine line between making your character likable and merely pandering to the wants of the reader. Not to bash fan-fiction or anything, but a lot of fan-fic (Mary Sue please) does feature characters that readers (granted, of limited readership) can identify, or hope to identify with. The character could be misunderstood, not liked by many people, but is actually very special in some way or the other, etc… etc… While this can be written well, I’ve found that many times, that if the writing focuses on that single aspect and drives from there, the story suffers.

    But perhaps I’m being a bit incoherent, as it is 2 in the morning over here. Ah well, but that’s just me.

    • May 17, 2011 2:13 pm

      What makes us likeable is our human-ness. It’s sometimes hard to like someone like Jack Bauer who seems larger than life, bouncing from one death-defying scene to the next. He begins to look a little ragged around the edges, but he does *not* do what most of us would which is to say, “Uh, you know, guys. I’m bushed. How about if you take over for the next few hours?” Of course he doesn’t do that, because we’d lose our action hero.
      Let’s compare him to, Frodo, for example. Meek little Frodo who could never be confused as a terrorist. What makes him loveable and easy to relate to is his quiet, unassuming demeanor that comes across as absolutely genuine. He never wanted the buden that’s placed upon him, yet he does the right thing against impossible odds. Most readers will wonder if they’re made of as stern a stuff if they were put to the test.
      When the “experts” talk about three-dimensional characters, they are talking about thoughts, actions and feelings. As writers, we strive for congruence. Do my characters’ thoughts match their actions. And, is what my character feeling? Is that what, for example, someone else would feel in a similar situation? If it’s terribly divergent, do I have a credible explanation somwhere in my story?
      This next part is fairly personal, so please don’t take offense since none is meant. If your characters end up feeling like jerks, or like doormats, or any other common theme, I suppose I’d wonder what part of you feels that way? In many ways our characters are projections of parts of our own psyches. Oftentimes parts that make up our shadow side. Those are the parts we sort of stuff in a little sack and drag around behind us, hoping no one else will notice. We all have shadow components. And we all have complexes. They’re the energy centers of the psyche. Without complexes, we’d be dead! So, revel in them and let them infuse conflict and life into your characters.

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