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Monday, June 01, 2009

Psychology and Characters

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will be released through Abingdon Press (March 2010). She just signed a 4-book contract for a military series with Barbour Publishing. The first book, Nightshade, will release July 2010. An active member of ACFW, Ronie serves as the Book of the Year coordinator and volunteers in various ways with ACFW. She also teaches creative writing at her local homeschool co-op. Visit Ronie at her website or her blog.

Ever been played? Yeah, it can be humiliating, but let’s back step a bit. How did the perpetrator elicit the response they wanted? Because they knew you well enough to anticipate your response. America’s Funniest Videos is full of such events where an individual’s personality all but predicts what they’ll do. Books are the same way with characters.

People are not one-dimensional in form, either physical or psychological, and the characters in our stories shouldn’t be either! It’s impossible to touch everything that could affect a character and their psychological makeup, but let’s tackle a few: genetics/nature, nurture, birth order, and personality, and how to layer these into the story seamlessly.

Personality is a bit of an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from facial expressions to types of responses. As such, personalities are not borne of one event or experience alone. There is much that goes into the person you are, and there should be plenty that goes into your characters, too.

Let’s start at the beginning. Actually, let’s peek into the past. Ever done genealogy? Have you browsed family photos and seen a striking resemblance between you and your great-grandmother? Our design has certain built-in aspects that are a gift, an intangible inheritance. Your characters will have that too. Even if this aspect isn’t revealed in the story itself, it will help you understand your characters and take them to a deeper level.

Nature versus nurture. Nature is your genetic makeup. Nurture is the way you were brought up, the way you were raised and taught. And nope, we’re not going to debate this classic psychological argument. Suffice it to say, everything in our lives leaves a mark—from choices, experiences, home environment, and birth order to personality. We are not one-dimensional people, so neither are your characters (and not the psychological phrasing of what I just said—your character actually is more than one dimension, but have you figured it out yet?).

Then there’s birth order. It almost seems silly but this aspect plays a huge role in personality. The eldest child has behaviors and features, such as taking charge, that a youngest child does not. A middle child may feel lost and meaningless, resenting those who are older (and probably in authority) and those who are younger and get all the attention. Their identity from their family order will heavily shade their reactions and motivations, and could be ample set up for conflict. Laurie Campbell, a writer and speaker, has great spreadsheets and “quizzes” that you might want to check out.

When writing, I start every book by learning about my character. I use 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt (based on Jungian archetypes—again, not going to debate the validity of Carl Jung’s theories) to start, then keep fleshing out the character. This helps me determine what happens when my character, who hates cities, is trapped downtown during rush hour. What sort of internal arc is needed to show their growth over the course of the story.

It may very well be one of these elements of a character that needs the growth and is the point of the story, but you want to make sure you gradually knead in the right altercations and challenges to effect that change.

In the TV series Lie to Me they explained about “micro” expressions, a facial response that occurs in about 1/25 of a second! So, in normal footage, a person may appear to smile, but slow it down, and the hidden micro-expression reveals the true response—anger, agony, etc. We think we are masters at hiding our true feelings, but ultimately, we are betrayed by those very feelings we try to hide.

In the same way, writers should layer in micro-expressions that are not quite so obvious to a reader, but when combined with other events what’s happening with our character becomes clear. A sprinkle of irritation here. A sharp word there. And we finally see it all come together in a final confrontation.

Psychology is used every day in so many ways, and the same is true in books! It’s our task as authors to have an intimate awareness of our characters. To know their back-story, to anticipate reactions so that when another character does something surprising (but something true to their nature), we know what sort of riveting response to create. People are fun and fascinating. Is your character?


  1. What an excellent post! Thank you so much Ronie by sharing your expertise. This information on character development was very helpful!

  2. I am so glad it was helpful, Carla! Blessings on your writing!

  3. Awesome article, girl. Very interesting and good stuff here.

  4. You make me want to take a psychology course. LOL! Very cools stuff. :-)

  5. Wow, Ronie, thanks for including my material in your lineup -- that's a lovely surprise! And if anybody's looking for psychology courses, I just started teaching one yesterday on the nine enneagram types. It's at and the lectures stay on file all month, so it's easy to catch up!

  6. This is a really good article, and very helpful as I usually prefer to make my characters as believable as possible.

    Psychology, oh the irony...


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