How do you create good characters? The dilemma of every author. In this guest post by fiction and fantasy author Angela Chrysler, she writes about one way of creating good characters – by delving into their psychology to give them depth, and, in the process increase interest and relevance to the reader.
In turn, I have written about a similar topic – using fiction writing itself as a kind of therapy and how stories bind us together as a human race. You can find it on Angela’s blog here:
Speaking of which, before we get to the post, Angela references some of her own works in the post below. You can find out more about her books at http://www.angelabchrysler.com/books/
Click on the picture below for information on one of her latest, a dark fantasy, with an equally dark and epic trailer. Check it out!
And now, without further ado, here she is.
A blank page. Endless possibilities stare back at the writer. They start with a character that stares back up at them—nameless, faceless, void of identity and gender. So the writer invents a face. A name is chosen (unless you are H.G.Wells), and with it the first of an identity is formed.
In most cases, the career is selected and a plot is built around this character. You see conflict, strengths and weaknesses being shaped and assigned. Habits, hobbies, and a back story is eventually selected and, by the time the book makes its way into the hands of a reader, that character leads the story on to the conclusion.
Some readers put the book down and the analysis begins.
“Shallow. One dimensional. Contradicting behavior.”
This is the part where the author pulls their hair out screaming to the muse, “What did I miss?”
The back-story was there. The name, the history, the conflict, but the reader is right. Something was missing.
In the ten years I’ve spent examining the writing world, and the thousands of writers who I’ve debated with, one topic seems to always be neglected in character building. The human psyche. The subconscious.
I will be the first to tell you, adding a subconscious to my characters was one of the hardest things to accomplish, especially having no degree in Psychology. For Kallan, Rune, and Bergen, I took the advice of one of my favorite authors. “Write what you know.” (Mark Twain)
I know me better than anyone else. I didn’t just give Kallan a back story. I gave her a complex with that story. I gave her my complex.
I’m going to step away to one of my most favorite shows for a moment. M*A*S*H. There is an episode when the main character, Hawkeye, is working his way through triage when they come to a soldier with wet clothes reeking of mildew and swamp water. And so begins the psychology of Hawkeye.
Hawkeye begins to sneeze. He starts to scratch at a rash that isn’t there. Hawkeye is surrounded by a full medical team. He is a surgeon himself, and they know, after some simple tests, that this isn’t anything physical. They call in the Psychologist. Dr. Freedman (Rest in Peace).
The sneezing is so intense, that Hawkeye can not operate. Dr. Freedman arrives and viewers get to witness the therapy session that follows.
You see the denial, the conscious mask Hawkeye wears that allows him to remain in denial. “My cousin and I were fishing,” he says. “We were out in a boat and he saved me.”
“How did he save you?”
“Well, I was in the water and he…he saved me.” Hawkeye scratches at his chest. Freedman glances at Hawkeye’s hand.
“How did you get in the water?” he asks.
The session continues, and Hawkeye releases a Freudian slip that clues Freedman in on the fact that the cousin Hawkeye so admired was the one who pushed him into the water to begin with. The event traumatized Hawkeye, but the cousin devalued Hawkeye’s trauma and laughed, calling Hawkeye a clutz. Viewers have the rare privilege of watching Freedman walk Hawekeye through denial, into awareness where Hawkeye can accept the truth and finally, after thirty years, grieve. All of this because Hawkeye smelled the swamp water that triggered a subconscious memory he had forgotten.
The event isn’t brought up again, but it did one thing. It added definition to Hawkeye’s character. A level of definition only the subconscious can give.
I applied the same method to Kallan, Rune, and Bergen.
Because of my limited knowledge in psychology, I pulled on what I know: grief and an inability to accept death. I took a week and studied the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression, Acceptance. After witnessing more than twenty deaths by the time I was twelve years old, I was an expert on this topic.
I assigned Kallan the same inability to accept death and assigned her a need to become powerful enough to stop it. Frankenstein is one of my most favorite books. The same need I too have. I lived vicariously through Kallan, giving her the powers I wish I had to stop the dozens of deaths I saw (A total of sixty by the time I was thirty-two). Suddenly, I was moving Kallan through the five stages in Dolor and Shadow.
I then moved on to Rune. A king burdened with a need to protect, a need to end the grief. He too had witnessed the death and he saw what denial can do to a person. He watched the second stage—Anger—consume his brother. He watched the Negotiation devour his father and fuel his madness. He watched the Denial destroy his mother. Rune knows of the process, although he never calls it what it is. He knows and he understands how Dolor can become a Shadow and kill.
He makes that Shadow his nemesis and when he sees his political enemy, Kallan who seeks to destroy him, hording that same Shadow, Rune moves to fulfill his vow and help Kallan. Rune is the character I wish I had. The hero I so wanted who came in and took me by the hand to help me through that grief I suffered alone.
Bergen, I reserved for last. Bergen, I burdened with failure. An inability to save his loved ones…over and over and over. It consumes him. He never stops. He becomes stronger, more determined, but he is up against a Fae goddess. He can’t possibly best her, but he must try. The inability to save his loved ones haunts him, and Bergen is unable to give up.
In all three of these characters, I bestow my final issue. One that I still am not able to accept myself, an inability to accept their own weaknesses and limits. I often summarize Kallan by saying her greatest weakness is accepting her limits and her own weaknesses.
I live every day biting off more than I can chew. I burden myself with the need to accomplish more than I am able. In addition, I have an eye for spotting weaklings in need. (We call this identifying with the victim). I have a need to rescue, protect, and save regardless of my own limitations.
I have the makings of a cat hoarder. I see a stray cat on the street and I am overwhelmed with a need to take her in and protect her. I see a homeless cat in a shelter and am consumed by a need to adopt the cat. “No one else can do it. I must do it. Only then can I know they are safe.” My husband keeps this in check.
This takes me back to the end of one movie I can not watch. Schindler’s List. I identify with the victim remember? I can not watch this film without wanting to save the millions who were lost in the concentration camps. And I failed…it’s a burden I have to live with every day. I have nightmares of being stuck in Hiroshima and being helpless to save the thousands/millions who died by US technology.
At the end of Schindler’s List, Schindler falls to the ground and says, “I could have saved just one more.”
Schindler identified with the victim as well and, like me, he did everything in his power to save those who needed help. And no matter how many Schindler saved, it still wasn’t enough. He needed to save just one more.
How many saved would have been enough? I smile. I know the answer. When there are no more who suffer…anywhere, ever again. This is the true burden of identifying with the victim.
I watched the first thirty minutes of Schindler’s List (I turned it off right after they killed the one-armed Jew and then open fired on the children in the hospital. I was fifteen years old). I also watched the last two minutes of Schindler’s List. I also know the premise is about Schindler creating a list to save victims from the concentration camp. Schindler saved hundreds. It was barely a drop in the bucket.
From that little bit of information, I was able to assess his need to help, to rescue, to save. The writers of Schindler’s List did an excellent job not neglecting his psychology. Without it, the entire movie would have been “just another movie.”
It is the psychology that gave Schindler’s List the impact it had. It is Hawkeye’s subconscious that gives that episode the impact it had.
One more example I love drawing on because so many of us can relate to this one. Daryl Dixon in the Walking Dead. The writer’s outdid themselves with this little number. Yes, you have the most awesome Daryl portrayed by Norman Reedus. Yes, you have the unstoppable, dia-hard redneck. But that isn’t what we all relate to. This isn’t why we swoon.
It is his psychological make-up that steals our hearts. Daryl stands in the stables with Carol who gets close to Daryl. This scares him and he pushes her away. Carol takes it. She is impassive and not assertive, so she holds in the abuse while Daryl (and her late husband) lash out at her. Daryl is scared of intimacy. Terrified of having anyone close to him because anytime anyone got close to him (his brother), it hurt him. Remember Beth? It only re-affirmed that when he lets people get close, he gets hurt.
But he wants to be close. He’s lonely. It’s natural, so he strengthens his relationship with Carol until it scares him again and he lashes out. He yo-yo’s between what he wants—a friend or companion…to not be alone—and self-preservation, a distorted perspective that has taught him that having a companion will hurt him.
Carol is just as fun to analyze. She has learned a similar lesson.
In psychology, there is passive, assertive, and aggressive. I believe, a healthy mind toggles between the three, spending most of the time on assertive (My assumption based on an educated guess). Assertive is having the strength to stand up to an abuser, but not identifying with the aggressor and lashing out. This is where bullies come from. Bullies identify with the aggressor and lash out at smaller beings (animals or people) to feel empowered and feel like they have gained back some of the control they have lost. Merl Dixon. Carol’s husband.
Daryl is assertive.
Carol is passive.
Well, she starts off as passive. This is really amazing to watch! Carol starts off as an abused house wife. She holds in her pain and takes it. She may even feel she deserves it. She sees the same pain in Daryl and this is why she latches on to him. She identifies with him. She identifies with the victim.
Apply Daryl’s own subconscious issues and now you have a match made in heaven. Carol, being passive, has all the patience in the world while Daryl works out his own issues.
Carol learns to be assertive from Daryl. Their friendship helps Carol come into her own. I’m waiting for Carol to identify with the aggressor and become the bully. It’s started with the boy in season five…kind of. I’m curious to see how far it will go.
I doubt Carol and Daryl will ever kiss or form a sexual relationship. Neither have the psychological makeup to entertain that possibility, not without some serious therapy and mental changes from both. Carol is almost there, but Daryl has a long way to go…if he gets there at all. Beth’s death mentally set Daryl back. Logically, I just don’t see it happening at this point.
The one thing these characters have in common is that they are fictitious, in Schindler’s case, a fictitious depiction of a real man. Psychology adds a level of character development rarely seen in literature. Many writers insert their character’s psyche on a subconscious level. Some get it right while others get it very wrong (Fifty Shades of Grey). Some writers insert psychology without realizing that is what they are doing. Psychology is the secret ingredient that brings fictional characters to life. It’s what makes us fall in love with the good guy, cheer on the underdog, and loathe the bad guy. In almost every case, we despise the person who identifies with the aggressor.
Next time you watch a movie, read a book, or write a story look for it. Analyze the characters. And when you have a moment or two, read up on psychology.
Angela B. Chrysler is a writer, logician, and die-hard nerd who studies philosophy, theology, historical linguistics, music composition, and medieval European history in New York with a dry sense of humor and an unusual sense of sarcasm. She lives in a garden with her family and cats.
You can read more of Ms. Chrysler’s writing and accomplishments at http://www.angelabchrysler.com/