The writer’s relationship with their characters is a fundamental component of a successful story. The strength of those characters says a lot about the story and how they interact with other characters, but more importantly, it’s essential to focus on the motivations behind what they do, and why.
The psychology of characters isn’t about doing a character outline. A character outline is, in a nutshell, characterisation – the little things that make your character multidimensional, such as the colour of their hair, their eyes, skin, how tall they are, their fashion sense, their nationality, their beliefs, likes and dislikes, flaws and so on. Character traits make a character. It doesn’t tell us why they act the way they do.
The psychology of characters, therefore, goes much deeper than mere likes and dislikes etc. It’s about what truly drives the character and, consequently, the story. It’s all well and good having a character that has lots of recognisable character traits and so on, but it means nothing if the he or she lacks the essentials that drive that character to act in the first place.
There are certain elements that provide the building blocks to a character’s physiological make up, and from a simple story perspective, these are set out below:
Motivation – Every main character must have motivation. In other words, it means that there is ultimately a specific goal to achieve. Motivation is what drives the character.
When pushed, people are capable of many things; things that are sometimes ‘out of character’. We are motivated by many things - many influences, experiences or situations, and we act upon them.
Primary Goal – This is the very reason the story is created, to find out why the character sets about on his or her journey. The main character will have a primary goal, which he or she will need to achieve by the end of the story. That goal could be anything, but it must be reached, whatever happens, so the incentive is strong and palpable.
If there is no primary goal, there is no story. There may also be other goals – these would be considered secondary goals, and again, it’s important such goals are reached by the conclusion of the story, because if they are satisfactorily closed out, what would be the point of the story?
Through the course of trying to reach that goal, the character will undergo series of actions and reactions, mostly because of a combination of obstacles to overcome – deliberately placed in the way of the main character to stop him or her achieving the main goal - and the resulting conflict that it creates.
Actions and Reactions – the character’s actions as the story unfolds are an important indicator of his or her psychology. As mentioned above, actions and reactions normally happen through conflicts. In other words, the motivation, the need to reach that goal, the obstacles in the way that must be overcome all lead your main character to act and react, depending on the situation and the people.
If someone steals something from you, then it’s very likely you are going to react in a certain way, or if someone threatens or attacks you, then you will act or react in a certain way. How we act and react is down to our individual personalities. This is not dissimilar from cause and effect.
Another factor to consider is the past. What has happened in the past often drives us in the present. It serves as a foundation to behaviour traits, hence certain actions and reactions from characters.
So motivation, the primary goal and the actions taken by a character during the story play an integral role in understanding and developing the psychology of your main characters.
Personalities are one thing, but the psychology of any character always goes much deeper than that.
Next week: The primary causes of character conflict