The Psychology of Characters

"Writing is a form of therapy."

—Graham Greene

Just as you can't "Judge a book by its cover," you can't judge a person by the way he looks or behaves. You probably know from your own experience that the way you portray yourself to others may be entirely different from the way you are feeling inside. Perhaps you feel insecure when you first meet people, but do you tell them how frightened you're feeling inside? No. You smile, try to be pleasant and make conversation. Little do they know your palms are sweaty and you have butterflies flying around inside your stomach. You are acting one way and feeling another and trying to get those butterflies to fly in formation.

Well, you're not alone! Most everyone feels exactly as you do! All of us live inside ourselves. We all wear masks and only on those rare moments are we able to connect to another person in a meaningful way. This accounts for the feelings of isolation and alienation among people in our society today. We have a complete internal life apart from other people and known only to us alone. And if we're lucky there may be a handful of friends or family who get glimpses of who we really are.

When you begin to create your characters you must not only think about their emotional, social, and physical aspects, but also their internal life. Ask yourself if your character is behaving like an extrovert, but is really feeling shy inside? Do you have a beautiful female character who feels ugly inside? Is your character a mild-mannered young man, just waiting to explode?

Think of all your characters as you would think of your fellow human beings. Give them the same internal problems humans have, so they will come alive and be real. You need to develop the psychology of your characters to avoid the stereotypical or stock characters you see in B movies.

Imagine some of the conflicts you have in your every day life— feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, lust, hate, love, pain, loneliness, depression and rage. To be alive is to feel! Feelings are the true barometer of who you really are. What are your character's hopes? What does he fear? What is he struggling for? What does he desperately want? How does he feel inside about himself? Is he confident, insecure, doubtful, narcissistic, secure, afraid, angry, egotistical? Can you find the right adjectives to best describe your character?

Look in a thesaurus and make a list of all the adjectives you can think of for your character's personality. What one adjective best suits his over-all personality? Which adjective describes your characters most prominent personality trait. Write it down and when you put your character in situations, think of the adjective that best describes him. This will give you a handle to capture the essence of your character and find his core. Do this for all of your characters and you will see how consistent and realistic they will become.

Think of some of the all time classics that never stop being popular even though they were made years ago. Some of these films are Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Dirty Harry, All About Eve, To Kill a Mockingbird to name a few. What are your favorite classics? And why?

It's the characters who make these film memorable, because they're able to withstand the test of time. These characters are so well-developed and layered that you probably were able to immedi ately think of the most accurate description for each one. What are the characteristics that make Scarlett and Rhett; Ilsa and Rick; Eve and Margo; Atticus Finch and Harry so larger than life and layer human beings. It's their psychology that plays a major part in making them outstanding.

Try to describe the various character traits of each of the above characters. List them on a piece of paper and next to each name write down the best adjective or adverb for each one. By doing this you'll discover that each major role can be described by a major characteristic, which creates the character's motivation, conflict and dialogue.

Who are some of the major characters you remember and like in other classic films? Do you understand what characteristic makes each character unique? Using this method of relating a major characteristic with your own characters will enable you to create ones who will be memorable and outstanding.

Let's face it, there are no new plots under the sun. There are only character's who make a film stand out from all the rest. Just look at the success of the small personal films that are more character driven and contain little if any plot. It's because the characters are fresh and aren't the same tired, cliched ones that you see in most films. Some of these films are American Splendor, The Whale Rider, and Pieces of April. These are quiet films yet they're filled with emotional conflict because of the main character interacting in relationship to other characters.

The successful characters in classic films display additional personality traits beside the major one. This is why they are complex characters, rather than one dimensional, multifaceted rather than stereotypical. By developing a major characteristic for your characters, plus knowing their quirks, neurosis and flaws, you will create three dimensional characters with many personality traits, yet still have a basic spine or core personality.

After you have thought about all of his internal feelings, you need to find out why your character feels as he does. To discover the answer to "why" means you must go deeply into your character's past, asking all kinds of pertinent questions along the way. Just as a psychologist asks questions of his patient to get a case history, you must ask questions of your character to get his past history.

Who raised him? Did she have a happy childhood? Where did she grow up? Were his parents divorced or were they happily married? Did he have any brothers or sisters or was he the only child? Was she the oldest child or the youngest? In school did he have a lot of friends? Was she a loner? Was he popular and did he belong to the "in" crowd or was he the class "nerd?" Did she date or didn't she like boys? Did he get good grades or was he a poor student? How did she get along with her parents, siblings, friends, relatives?

Keep asking these types of in-depth questions to get a vivid past life of your character, up until the time you first introduce him in your story. Your character does not live in a vacuum, and he must have a past history that you develop. To learn his history you must play psychologist. You need to discover why he acts as he does in the present by studying his past.

By the time you finish creating a personal life for each character, you will know his parents, his grandparents and even his great-grandparents. By developing a history for your character, you will be able to understand his present behavior and be able to develop the necessary motivations for his present actions.

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