Understanding Psychology to Create Compelling Characters

Creating compelling and complex protagonists is a critical aspect of effective storytelling, and it requires a deep understanding of human psychology. By tapping into the complexities of human nature, writers and showrunners can craft characters that not only capture the imagination of viewers but also provide insights into the human condition.

Wilhelm Wundt is considered the father of psychology, and his contributions to the field have significant implications for writers when it comes to character creation. One of Wundt’s major contributions was the development of introspection, a method of self-observation that focuses on one’s own conscious experiences. This tool can help writers create complex characters by exploring their inner lives, motivations, and thought processes. By understanding the complexities of the characters’ inner lives, writers can create more nuanced and relatable characters.

Another useful theory for character creation comes from James Hillman, a psychologist known for his work on archetypal psychology. Hillman suggested that characters in stories can be seen as embodiments of archetypes that exist in the collective unconscious. By tapping into these archetypes, writers can create characters that resonate with viewers on a deep, universal level. For instance, the hero archetype is seen in Rick Grimes, the protagonist of “The Walking Dead,” who overcomes adversity to achieve a noble goal.

Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious emphasizes the exploration of unconscious motivations and desires when creating characters. Characters in stories can also embody archetypes from the collective unconscious, such as the hero, the trickster, or the mother figure. By understanding the archetypal patterns of human behavior, writers can create characters that resonate with audiences on a deep level.

Robert McKee’s theory of backstory is another helpful tool for writers. Backstory is the hidden life of a character, the personal history that explains why the character behaves the way they do. By providing a backstory that is grounded in the character’s psychological makeup, writers can create characters that feel like real people rather than caricatures. For example, Walter White’s backstory in “Breaking Bad” shows how his experiences as a failed chemist and a teacher who is undervalued and unappreciated have led to his decision to become a drug lord.

Erich Fromm’s theory of humanistic psychology emphasizes the need for humans to overcome their separateness and form relationships with others. By showing how characters interact with others and form relationships, writers can create characters that are more human and relatable. For example, the relationship between Joel and Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is the driving force of the story, creating a complex and emotional narrative.

Viktor Frankl’s theory of logotherapy emphasizes the importance of striving for a worthwhile goal, even in the face of challenges and adversity. By putting characters in challenging situations and showing how they respond, writers can reveal their true selves and create more complex and interesting characters. For example, the character of Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire” demonstrates his commitment to justice and willingness to bend the rules when frustrated with the limitations of the legal system.

Here are some practical processes writers can do to develop their characters using the theories above:

  1. Introspection exercise: Create a list of questions that explore your character’s inner life, motivations, and thought processes. Use introspection as a tool to gain insight into your character’s psyche. For example, what is your character’s greatest fear? What motivates them to keep going in the face of adversity? How do they see themselves? How do they see the world?
  2. Archetype exercise: Choose an archetype that you want your character to embody (e.g. hero, trickster, mother figure). Research the traits associated with that archetype and create a character that embodies those traits. For example, if you want to create a hero character, think about what qualities make someone heroic (courage, selflessness, determination) and incorporate those into your character.
  3. Backstory exercise: Create a detailed backstory for your character that explains why they behave the way they do. Use the character’s past experiences to explain their motivations and behaviors. For example, if your character is a criminal, what events in their past led them down that path? What motivates them to continue down that path?
  4. Inner conflict exercise: Identify conflicting desires or impulses within your character and explore how they deal with those conflicts. For example, if your character is torn between their loyalty to their family and their desire for a better life, how do they reconcile those conflicting desires? How do those conflicts affect their actions and relationships?
  5. Relationship exercise: Explore your character’s relationships with others and how they form connections. What do they value in a relationship? What do they look for in a friend or romantic partner? How do their relationships shape their behavior and decisions?
  6. Adversity exercise: Put your character in a challenging situation and explore how they respond. What do they do when faced with obstacles or setbacks? How do they handle failure? What motivates them to keep going?

What about writing for children?

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who is well-known for his work in cognitive development theory. While his theories are primarily focused on children’s cognitive development, they can also be applied to character development in storytelling.

One of Piaget’s key ideas is that children’s cognitive development occurs in stages, each with its own distinct characteristics. These stages are the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage.

Writers can use Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to create characters that are appropriate for their age and stage of development. For example, a child in the sensorimotor stage may not have fully developed object permanence, meaning they believe an object disappears when it is out of sight. This belief could be used to create a character who struggles with separation anxiety or is easily fooled by illusions.

Piaget’s theory also emphasizes the importance of play in children’s cognitive development. Play is a way for children to explore their environment, experiment with cause-and-effect relationships, and develop their imagination. Writers can use this idea to create characters who engage in playful behavior, such as exploring their surroundings or experimenting with different ways of doing things.

Another aspect of Piaget’s theory is the concept of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of incorporating new information into existing mental structures, while accommodation involves modifying those structures to fit new information. Writers can use this idea to create characters who face cognitive dissonance, such as when their beliefs are challenged by new information or experiences.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development emphasizes the importance of social interaction in children’s cognitive development. Children learn through interacting with others, and this social interaction shapes their cognitive development. Writers can use this idea to create characters who learn and grow through social interaction, such as a child who learns the importance of sharing or empathy through their interactions with others.