How to Use Psychology to Create Compelling Characters

By Joslyn Chase

To build characters that strike a chord within readers, you need to craft someone who feels realistic, someone your readers can relate to because their motivations and behaviors are modeled on the way real people think and act.

As a writer, have you ever thought about using a sort of psychotherapy to develop your characters? Therapists who adopt this technique encourage the client to tell her own story, to examine it, recover the missing pieces, and to challenge it in a quest to discover how the narrative she tells herself affects different aspects of her experience. By changing the story, she opens the door to change in her life.

If you write fiction, you’re already using psychology to some extent. Psychology deals with analyzing and understanding why humans think, feel, and behave as they do. One way or another, writing does much the same. Psychology and writing go hand-in-hand.

A lot of this comes down to instinct and experience, but a knowledge of psychological theories and counseling ideas can help writers create compelling, well-rounded characters that come across as genuine and interesting.

Herein Lies the Difference

Here’s a funny little twist on the subject—therapists help clients work through their stories in an effort to resolve their issues, while writers who use the same technique do so with the aim of creating issues for their characters. At least, initially.

It’s part of our job to tease, cripple, and torment our characters, intensifying their inner flaws to an almost unbearable level before finally resolving them. Or at least putting our character on the path to resolution.

To get you started down the road of psychology and writing, I’ll touch on a couple of approaches used by therapists. Apply as much or as little of these techniques to your work as you see fit. Therapists generally settle on a couple of methods they find most comfortable and that works for writers, too. Use what makes sense, and throw away the rest.

Blame the Parents

Most of us, when we think of psychotherapy, harbor some vague image of a patient reclining on a couch while the note-taking doctor says, “Tell me about your mother.” Fair or not, parents get a lot of the blame—and credit—for how their children turn out.

The influences of our early years have an enormous impact on how we behave later in life, and it can work the same way for characters. In my own writing, I don’t implement a lot of in-depth character studies, but I do focus on character flaws, those mistaken ideas that motivate behavior, and the past events that helped form and solidify the flaw.

It’s important for writers to determine the kinds of early messages our characters were given in order to understand how they operate in the current setting of the story.

Transactional Analysis

I don’t want to get lost in the weeds here, but I do want to mention two types of influential messages our characters might have received during their formative years.

1. Injunctions

These are the negatives, the DON’Ts. They tell the character there’s something wrong with them, that they are not allowed to do or be something in particular. Please be aware that these messages are rarely intentionally given. They are delivered in subtle ways, through behavioral cues, and absorbed into the subconscious.

Here’s an example I came across in my own life. A friend of mine recently told me how she almost destroyed her relationship with her sister by sending one of these unintentional yet harmful messages.

Their brother was killed in a car crash while my friend’s sister was driving. For years, my friend told people her brother was killed, delivering the unspoken cue that her sister had killed him. Now, when the subject arises, my friend simply says he died.

Words convey messages, often beyond what we intend. Body language even more so, but that is a subject for another day.

Big Bad Whammies

These injunctions are a terrific source of insecurity for a character:

Don’t cry—emotions are shameful, keep them to yourself.

Don’t think—your opinions aren’t worth much. Or, boys don’t like smart girls.

Don’t be you—why can’t you be more like (fill in the blank)?

Don’t exist—I gave up my own hopes and dreams so I could take care of you.

Don’t belong—trying to fit in will only get you hurt.

Don’t be a child—grow up so you can look after me.

Don’t grow up—children are cute; teenagers are a drag.

Don’t be the sex you are—men are disgusting, cheating slobs. Or women are weak and fickle.

Don’t be important—you don’t deserve accolades or attention.

Don’t love—if you get attached, people will only hurt you.

A child deals with such injunctions on a subconscious level and may either accept the messages, which causes him to believe and behave as if something is wrong with him; or rebel against the message, developing inappropriate coping behaviors that are destined to make his life all the more difficult.