Creating and Developing Characters: A Psychological Approach

Introduction

My writing group asked me how I created and developed characters. At first, I was met with confused eyes; I think they expected character sheets and all the other exercises writing gurus suggest. Over the years tried those methods and found them to be a waste of time because the characters felt forced. Now days, I take a more organic philosophical approach, drawing on psychology, after all characters reflect us. First a basic understanding the relationship between story, plot and characters is required. 

Story, Plot and Characters

In simple writing terms: ‘story’ is conflict. Conflict is any obstacle that keeps the protagonist from obtaining their needs and wants. To this day, my brain conjures arguments or physical fighting when the term “conflict” arises and I know I’m not alone. When crafting stories, conflict is much broader than verbal and physical altercations, and includes obstacles (internal and external). For example, a character needs to drive an injured love one to the hospital or they will bleed out, and crap the car refuses start. This is a major conflict, the need is medical attention to stop the bleeding, and the failing car is the obstacle (the protagonist is prevented from seeking help). 

Story plot is several conflicts, big or small, weaved together to form one or more storylines, and characters are vehicles pushing the plot forward with their actions and reactions to conflict. 

Creating Characters: Nature vs Nurture

Within the writing realm, writers are divided on whether story development starts with plot or character. Most writers are either on team character or team plot. I’m team plot. It’s not that being plot orientated is better than being character oriented. Many writers have created fabulous stories by creating the characters first. A character can just jump up out of nowhere according to some. 

However, I take a psychological approach and apply the age-old debate nature versus nurture. Nature suggests that we are born with our personalities (biology), while nurture suggests that life experiences impact on who we are and the decisions we make (sociological). Fictional characters are no different to us as people, writers are mimicking the human condition. Therefore, when employing the theory to fiction, nurture is viewed as the plot, events and conflicts that shape character. The plot influences a character’s every move. A character needs to be fitting of the plot. 

Example: The Little Mermaid (a sociological reading)

The premise of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, based on the fairytale, dictated the character of the protagonist; she is a mermaid who craves to be human and wants to marry a prince. The plot premise suggests the heroine is curious and strong willed, because these are traits that drive people to be adventurous and willing to give up the life they know to explore the unknown. If Ariel didn’t have the head strong traits, The Little Mermaid as the story as is couldn’t exist, the premise broken. A meek and mild Ariel would have been too afraid to venture on land alone, not to mention chase after a stranger prince. Thanks to Ariel’s reckless streak, she didn’t overly think about the dire consequences of her transaction with The Sea Which (the antagonist) and turned human. 

In sum, character traits have to align with the plot. Likewise, if we had different parents and opportunities in life, our life stories would be grossly altered and we wouldn’t be who we are, we react to our environment.

Working with Established Characters

On the flip side to the nature vs nurture argument and developing characters, is it possible to create characters first (nature) and mould a plot to fit a character (nurture)? According to my writing group – no. Even those who claimed to be character orientated discovered they relied on plot to create character more than they thought. Most writers will start with at least a vague idea of the overall story or premise before developing characters. The initial story relies on events to shape the character. 

However, if the writer is working on a sequel, series or fan fiction, the reserve is true, the established characters drive the plot, because while characters should grow, their personality is already developed. In other words, the character is already created. The plot moulds around established characters rather than established characters moulding around the plot. Ideas for stories are generated by dumping an established character into a situation (conflict). Employ any “what if” question against the established character. What if the super hero protagonist temporarily loses their powers? How would they react? How would the antagonist respond? How screwed is the world?

How established characters respond to conflict is determined by their personality. Personality traits affect every choice we make in life, big and small. Characters are the same.

 Character Cosmetics vs Plot Devices

Believe it or not, generally speaking, character isn’t appearance. Appearance is cosmetic. It doesn’t matter if the mean bitch antagonist has red, black, brown or blonde hair. In the same vein, eye colour, height and weight don’t matter. Although, appearance is considered a character trait if the trait weighs on the plot. For example, an obese character is going to have different life challenges than an average weight characters; fat shaming, health issues, low self worth, accessibility issues – are possible story conflicts.  

Plot points should generate conflict around these challenges that individuals face regarding their appearance. The fairytale “The Ugly Duckling” is a classic example, the moral of the story is the ugly duckling turns into a swan. The tail focuses on the prejudices the duckling went through because of his appearance and his transformation into a beautiful swan at the end. His appearance is the conflict and drives the plot.

Likewise, a character’s likes and dislikes should be weaved into the plot or they too are cosmetic. The plot can dictate what characters like and dislike. Using Ariel (The Little Mermaid) as an example, she collected and hoarded human objects. Her under the sea trophy room is destroyed by her father, The Sea King, as punishment for disobeying him and visiting the surface. In turn, Ariel signs her voice over to The Sea Witch in exchange for legs. Character preferences influence their course of action. Their decisions drive the plot forward. If Ariel didn’t obsessively care about her treasures, King Triton blowing her cave up would never have driven a wedge between father and daughter, thus triggering Ariel’s determination to walk on land at any cost. Her love for human items is anchored to the plot, plus adds to her characterisation at the same time.

Conclusion 

Characters and plot are married like Nature and Nurture, they co-exist together. There is no right or wrong way to write a story. Creativity is a fickle force, and every story is formulated differently from the last. Initially, characterisation falls into place as the plot unfolds, the focus is on the plot. The process is organic, characters change over the course of the story, just as we change with life events. 



Categories: Characters, Writing

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