Writers – are we all amateur psychologists?

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Make yourself comfortable on the couch…and tell me, how does this make you feel?

len-k-a couch

When we write fiction, we play God within the boundaries of our own created world. Depending on the genre, we might invent a brand-new race of beings, decide what stage of development their civilisation (if we decide to even give them one) has reached and set up the conditions of their planetary system.

In other genres, we might set the limits on magic that can be used, whether the land is forest or desert, decide if vampires  turn into charcoal at the merest hint of daylight or if they just sparkle and look moody (you know who I’m talking about).

Even if you’re writing contemporary tales set in real cities (*raises hand*), the writer still must lay out a basic plan of many of the character’s lives right up to the point where we first meet them and – yes, I’m finally getting to the point – why they act the way they do.

In order to create a credible and engaging story, we must delve deep into a character’s motives and feelings as well as thoroughly document (even if we don’t publish) that character’s life history. Does that sound boring? Dull and unnecessary? Too much planning when all you want to do is write? Sure, you could write a female character who hates all men and sticks to that pattern throughout the book. But an interested reader will certainly, after a few chapters of your misandrous main character spitting fire and venom at her colleagues, begin to wonder ‘what’s with her? Why is she like this?’

As two-dimensional ‘evil villains’ have risen to the top of the ‘do not create’ list, shallow main characters are very close behind.

Each of us is the sum of our own experiences, so why wouldn’t a fictional character be exactly the same? Naturally, they would tend to be larger than life, otherwise they would be no more interesting that the average Joe. But for them to have arrived at the point where we pick up the book and begin to journey with them, haven’t they had a childhood, teenage years, formative characters all around them?

But, you might ask, what if my character was grown in a lab and has just escaped? Then you have an excellent blank canvas with which to view our society through their eyes. Remember, even the android Data (Star Trek, if you didn’t know) who was created in his adult form, was an extraordinary character and as we later learned, had a fascinating back-story.

But with more down-to-earth (or whatever planet you’ve chosen) characters, the shape of their mould (that’s not a medical term, by the way) can make the difference between a two- and a three-dimensional reading experience. Most would have had a childhood and at least a few years of life which would have left lingering impressions on their psyche. And the more profund the experience, the stronger the effect upon their thinking.

If you’re not sure how to do this, then this is the point where you get to play psychologist. If you have already created your character, or have a good idea how your character is going to turn out, ask yourself ‘why would they be like this?’ Go back down the line of their life and work out what event(s) set them off down this path; what turned them from being a happy child / teenager / adult into the person that you, the writer, need them to be? After all, we are born as innocents. It’s our circumstances that mould us – and perhaps to a degree, our genes do too.

Something I’ve found  to be very useful is my interest in time travel, particularly my fascination with turning points. Most of you will remember ‘Back to the Future’ and the event that flipped Marty McFly’s forty-something father from a wimp into a confident writer. He was backed into a corner by a bully and came out fighting – something that would never have happened without the intervention of his future son. That was a turning point – something that set him along a different path. Darth Vader? He began his slip towards darkness because he was forbidden from falling in love. In ‘Jersey Girl’, Ben Affleck’s successful life was turned upside down when his wife died giving birth to their daughter. You can probably think of many others.

Sometimes the causes can be more subtle. Would a beautiful and smart girl have different college experiences to a plain, smart girl? How would a parent’s estrangement affect a small child? Would a minor physical defect have a cumulative effect on a character’s confidence?

The flip side of this is; how will your character change throughout the story? Will they shed their emotional burdens and grow as a person? Will their baggage drag them down even further? Are they able to realise what they need to do as a person in order to change? Remember the Twelve Steps – the first step to a cure is to admit that there is a problem. As writers we must not only create the problem, we need to envisage the cure…or at least, the consequences.

For a reader to empathise fully, it is also important that the character can be reached and that there is hope of redemption (if they are low), satisfaction and justice (if they are malevolent) or happiness (if they are being oppressed). That way, the reader can engage and share the journey, whether it is good or bad. This is where stereotypical evil villains fail – they have nothing that a reader can empathise with.

Have you found a creative way to twist your character’s life from the straight and narrow? What have you done to add that third dimension to your character’s psyche?

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Introduce your villain competition

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Bloomsbury have just launched a competition to describe your villain in 500 words and win a pair of signed books.

See http://www.writersandartists.co.uk/competitions for details!

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