November 30, 2010

A Novel Deconstruction: Character Psychology

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I've been hesitant to ever post anything about the craft of writing for a few reasons. There are a ton of really good writing blogs out there written by people that put a lot more thought into writing than I do. I've never been published or even submitted anything aside from a few short stories at random websites. I am by no means an expert or even a self-educated amateur. In short, if you take my advice and your editor or agent comes to you and says "you idiot, what the hell have you done to your book!?", don't say I didn't warn you. Of course, I then realized that for the most part what I do on this blog is rant and rave about stuff I only have a rudimentary knowledge of anyway so why should writing be any exception? Now that I'm protected from a legal perspective we can get down to business.

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is creating psychologically complex characters that will keep a story intriguing over the course of a novel. The characters I love the most are living, breathing people that feel like someone I could have met in real life but instead see them placed in extraordinary circumstances. Everyone wants to create compelling characters but how the hell do you do it? I've been experimenting with creating psychological profiles of potential characters lately to keep me focused on why my characters do what they do. Our actions are all guided by our own aspirations, fears, habits and idiosyncrasies so our characters should be too. 

For the sake of experimentation let's create a completely random character. We'll call him C. Now C is the protagonist of our fictional novel and leads a bit of a charmed life. He's intelligent, good-looking, ambitious, a ladies man, an academic, sensitive, a good kisser, writes in his spare time and blogs about the importance of character psychology. Basically, our protagonist is James Franco but more modest and with a bigger penis.

So what makes him the way he is? Maybe his parents put too much pressure on him as a kid. Perhaps he has some weird pillow fetish and overcompensates by putting on a facade of perfection. He might just be addicted to Adderall. The details aren't important for the sake of this exercise. What is important is that you now know how and why he will react when it's time for your character to make tough decisions.

I thought I was really onto something once I had this profile thing going and then I wrote out a character and it just didn't work at all like it was supposed to. I had him doing interesting stuff and it was sort of working from a plot perspective but it just wasn't compelling. There was no mystery to the character because I'd explained absolutely everything about him already. Here I am with this great, well-defined character and he just isn't interesting anymore.

Recently I came to the realization that people don't explain everything about themselves, even to themselves. We act in ways that are a mystery to ourselves at times and need to account for that. Maybe C was dropped on his head as a baby a few too many times. He doesn't remember it but it gave him a bit of a twitch and the character has no idea why.  I have this thing where I think I'm the cleverest person in the world so if I come up with something cool like a psychological profile I have to put all of it in there to show everyone just how clever I am. I need to remember that when a psychologist psychoanalyzes someone they don't show their patient the notes - I shouldn't show my characters their profile either. I'm going to start leaving a little mystery.


  1. Creating characters is no easy task, it's a big part of why I don't really do fiction.

    But I do love James Franco, so a James Franco-esk character would make me happy. Really happy.

    Good luck with your development , ehem writing.

    Um, okay.


  2. Love this. Contrary to what you believe, I think you have offered some "professional" and valuable pieces of information regarding character psychology. I think you might have inspired me to write my own story about Christopher, the mysterious aspiring writer. :)

  3. YES! MOAR!

    This would be the along the lines of why monsters you don't see in movies or games are scarier than the ones you do see, right? o.O

    Oh yeah, got my furry on for you ;) Go check it out!

  4. Ye ... you're on to something, Christopher.

    I like salt and vinegar on my fish and chips and a whole lot of mystery with my man. Gives me something to do. :)


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