I learn so much from every thesaurus that we write. If there’s one thing I’ve gleaned from our Negative and Positive Trait Thesaurus books, along with our current Emotional Wounds Thesaurus, is that, like real people, each character is different. Some may be similar, but every one is uniquely individual. Many factors affect who a character is, but one we’ve never really explored is psychological development.
Now, I’m no psychologist. But Maria Grace is. And that’s why I’m super excited that she’s offered to shed some light on this subject, which I believe is going to be hugely important in helping us write our characters realistically and consistently…
As writers, we struggle to get our characters right. We examine personality types and create dossiers trying to figure out what makes them tick, but there’s another factor we need to consider: the impact of psychological development.
Why Worry About Development?
Development explains how people who are similar can respond very differently to the same experience. Writers Helping Writers features a phenomenal Character Wound Thesaurus exploring various painful experiences that might affect a character. Developmental differences can help explain how two characters who experience the same wound might have totally different responses.
Let’s imagine three co-workers in a bar after a rough day at work. They’re the same gender and are close in age, education, personal history, and personality type.
“What a jerk!” Alpha slumped against the bar. “I’m there for eight freaking hours, and all the boss does is complain! Nothing I do is good enough for him!”
Bravo leaned forward. “He’s under pressure to meet his own goals. He does a better job than you give him credit for.”
“That’s easy for you to say. He likes you. That’s why he gives you comp time when you need it and blows me off when I ask for the same thing.”
“Maybe that’s because I meet all my quotas.” Bravo glanced at Charlie.
“You’d think he’d be willing to cut the little guy a break once in a while.” Alpha shoved an empty glass aside. “Must be nice to sit back and let us do all the work while he rakes in the money.”
“Help me out here, Charlie,” said Bravo. “Maybe you can explain it better than I can.”
“My opinion will probably just complicate things,” Charlie said. “But since you asked…I think boss-man is fair about the whole time off thing. He tries pretty hard to work with everyone; I’ve noticed that at his mentoring sessions. If you want to get to know him better, attending one of those sessions might help. And sure, he can get pretty touchy at times, but he’s going through a lot with his kid. Everybody needs to be ‘cut a little break once in awhile’—even the boss.”
Alpha shook her head. “You always have an excuse for him. Why don’t you take my side for once?”
“And this is why I keep my opinions to myself,” Charlie said with a shrug. “On that note, I’m calling it a night.”
Once the door closed behind Charlie, Alpha reached for a second beer. “I just don’t get Charlie. It doesn’t seem like we’re even looking at the same situation, ya know?”
Even though these characters are the same age, it’s pretty easy to picture Alpha as the youngest in the group and Charlie as the oldest. Why? Because developmentally, Alpha is at the earliest stage in the group and Charlie is at the most advanced.
So Which One is My Character?
Understanding where your characters are developmentally is the beginning to writing them consistently and creating realistic arcs for their growth and development. Consider these questions about your character:
- Which motto is your character most likely to endorse?
- Don’t get caught.
- All for one and one for all!
- Everything is complicated.
- How is your character mostly likely to respond to the statement that his/her gender is superior?
- I’m not supposed to agree, but we all know it’s true.
- The genders are absolutely equal.
- On the whole, men tend to be better at some things, and women are better than others. But individuals are all so different…
- Which statement is most likely to appear on your character’s Facebook wall?
- I don’t care who I offend—I’m going to tell it like it is.
- We may all look a little different, but all true members of our group will agree that…
- These issues are so complicated; no side has a monopoly on the truth.
- What kind of friend would your character most likely enjoy spending time with?
- Someone more interested in having fun than worrying about the consequences.
- Someone who would fit in with his/her current group of friends.
- Someone who challenges him/her to see a different point of view.
If the answers for your character would mostly be As, he/she is in the early developmental stage, like Alpha. Mostly B answers would indicate a middle-stage character like Beta. Cs would pair your character with Charlie, at the most advanced stage of development. Answers split between A and B or B and C suggest a character that is in transition between stages. Answers split between A and C or all three possibilities suggest an inconsistent character who might not come across as very realistic to readers.
Writing Convincing Characters
Determining our characters’ developmental level is a good first step toward writing them realistically. Next, we need to know what each of these levels looks like, so we’ll know how our characters will respond and the best way to help them grow.
Early-Stage Characters Like Alpha
- sound a great deal like perpetual teenagers.
- understand rules but live primarily by their main mantra: Don’t Get Caught
- have shallow relationships.
- don’t engage in self-criticism or self-reflection.
- may perceive hardships and wounds as unfair personal attacks.
Notes about Alpha Characters:
- A character can stay at this level of development their entire lives. Prime examples of this are Homer Simpson and Archie Bunker.
- Rejecting a group or being rejected by one may impede their growth.
- Avoid having a more mature character lecture them, since they need to come to their own ‘ah-ha’ moment.
- To help them grow,
- allow them to get caught breaking the rules and feel the consequences, or let them observe others getting caught acting selfishly and feeling the results.
- allow them to observe others getting what they want by following the “rules” and caring for other people.
- have them join a group, perhaps unwillingly, and learn the value of belonging.
- give them friends who seek to include them and exert positive “peer group pressure”.
Middle-stage characters like Bravo
- seem rather normal, because this is the level of development for most adults.
- know that
- stereotypes don’t paint a complete picture.
- rules aren’t everything.
- rights and fairness are important.
- understand individual differences.
- value fulfilling their responsibilities to others.
- emerge from a wounding experience
- understanding others better.
- seeing how they might have also been at fault.
Notes about Bravo Characters:
- Remember that only a few characters will grow completely beyond this level. To do this, Bravo characters
- will benefit from opportunities to embrace ideas and people who are very different from themselves.
- need deep, long term relationships.
- need to take on responsibility for others, such as parenting a child or caring for a dependent elder.
Advanced-Stage Characters like Charlie
- are relatively uncommon.
- understand the complexities of people, situations, and relationships.
- are very tolerant of differences.
- recognize and meet their own needs without apology or anger.
- value relationships while retaining a sense of identity within and apart from their relationships with others.
- respond to wounds philosophically, seeing them as a chance to grow.
Unique Challenges For Characters Like Charlie:
- Others don’t usually “get” them.
- While they’re often recognized as wise and well balanced, they can be socially isolated.
- They may
- experience depression due to being misunderstood.
- get frustrated and feel powerless in the face of petty squabbles and conflicts.
Characters, regardless of their personality types, will behave consistently within their developmental levels. To grow and change, a character has to experience something important; ideally that’s what our plots are about. Applying these developmental perspectives to our characters can help us better predict how they will react to the obstacles we throw at them, as well as allowing us to plan realistically for their growth and development.
Maria Grace has her PhD in Educational Psychology and is a 16 year veteran of the university classroom where she taught courses in human growth and development, learning, test development ,and counseling—none of which have anything to do with her undergraduate studies in economics/sociology/managerial studies/behavior sciences.
She blogs at Random Bits of Fascination, mainly about her fascination with Regency era history and its role in her fiction. Her newest novel, Wholly Unconnected to Me, was released in May of 2015. Science fiction and fantasy projects are also currently in the works. Her fiction and nonfiction books are available at all major online booksellers.
You can follow Maria Grace on Twitter and like or friend her on Facebook.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Stephanie Ward says
Wonderful post! I especially like the way you presented different levels of psychological development. It’s very nicely done. 🙂
Sherrie Miranda says
You are a true master! Thank you for this. Luckily I did right by my protagonist and other characters, but this would have helped me get there faster.
But the thing is, I learned a lot about myself and others. Wow, you must be an amazing therapist!
All the best,
Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
BECCA PUGLISI says
No therapists here—well, except the armchair kind. 🙂
Sherrie Miranda says
Oh, I guess I got confused because Maria Grace has a PhD in educational psychology.
My best to you, Becca!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
This is utterly brilliant! Sorry to be late to the party–not much wi-fi in the outback, lol. So very happy to catch up while vacationing to read this post. Thanks so much for sharing your brain with us! 🙂
Maria Grace says
Thanks, Angela. I go into withdrawal these days when I don’t have wifi! Hope you’re having a wonderful vacation! Glad you enjoyed the post.
Victoria W. says
Thank you for such a wonderful post! I never leave this blog feeling empty! Posts like this one especially, I am given pause and thought beyond the writing pages. 🙂
Maria Grace says
I am thrilled this left you thinking about your characters in new ways.
Traci Kenworth says
Good things to look into.
Maria Grace says
Glad you found it helpful.
Celia Lewis says
Writing – a complicated way to encounter our own demons and flaws!!
I love your posts and always learn more about this challange of writing. Currently I’m so annoyed with my heroines (trilogy) who are much too “reasonable” – or if they’re not being too reasonable and accommodating, they sound whiny and… sort of like a teenage volcano of petty emotions. Big sigh. Holds mirror to self and past life…
Thanks so much for bringing so much to the table, Becca & Angela. Much appreciated.
Maria Grace says
Characters who are at early stages of development can be very challenging to write. Getting them consistent in their stage can be a real effort.
Manju Howard (@ManjuBeth) says
Thanks for sharing thoughts on developmental levels. Personally, I mostly relate to Charlie. But in some groups (school related), I would rather everyone just work together without waves. Thus our characters may act differently in various situations.
Maria Grace says
I think that is one of the biggest challenges with understanding and using psychological development as part of characterization. It isn’t simply a matter of what our characters do, but why they are doing it. Two characters may seem to be choosing the same course of action, but are doing it for very different reasons, and that can make all the difference in how we write them.
Carol Baldwin says
Excellent post. One to drink in and reflect on over and over. Thanks! PS- Becca, I have often wondered if you or Angela are psychologists! You get us as writers to get to the core of our character so often. Kudos!
BECCA PUGLISI says
I think that if Angela and I were psychologists, we’d have a lot less problems, lol.
Maria Grace says
Thanks, Carol! Psychological development influences so much in our characters, it definitely is a ‘chew on it’ sort of topic.