5 Things Psychology Can Teach Writers

From our books, most of you know Becca and I love psychology. This is largely because the most captivating fiction pieces are those that closely mirror the real world, especially when it comes to characters. Knowing who a character is deep down and what motivates him or her to act is rooted in knowing ourselves, and what pushes us to leap into the unknown, despite fear, pain, or both.

Today we have a treat. Tamar Sloan, Psychologist and YA author is lending her brain to us to talk about what psychology can teach us about writing, so please read on!

Brain2Being a psychologist I might be biased, but I believe psychology is the ultimate compliment to writing. Think about it, psychology is the study of human behaviour and emotions, relationships and social interactions, psychopathology and human dysfunction. What do novels explore and ultimately mirror? You got it; what characters do and feel, their relationships and interactions, the worst of humanity and our inspirational best.

So what can psychology teach writers?

  1. We are products of our past

I’ve touched on this when discussing attachment theory, but our perceptions, core beliefs and aspirations are all a powerfully influenced by everything that has been. It was the basis of Freud’s theoretical framework, and although his theories such as penis envy or the use of cocaine as an anti-depressant haven’t really stood the tests of science (or feminism), he was right about some things. Our past matters. I’m talking your childhood, your adolescence, what you learnt in your first job, but also your parents, their parents and the hundreds of generations before us. Our history makes and shapes us, and the ones struggling and succeeding in your book should too. If you want authentic, relatable characters then know your characters backstory, their triumphs and their failures, and how that shapes where they’re going next.

  1. We’re all afraid of something

fear5Fear is hardwired into our brain. Deep, deep in the primal part that we don’t have a lot of conscious control over.  I won’t go into the science of it all (I could, but it would be a whole other blog post…) but what it means for you is that every character in your book is going to be afraid of something. And I’m not just talking about heights or spiders. As social creatures (also powerfully programmed into our grey matter) the fear of rejection, being alone or the threats other humans can pose to us (as competitors or predators) are powerful influencers on our behaviour. The visceral reactions we experience facing a sabre tooth tiger or a shaft of light bouncing off a blade is just as real and physical as the response to the loss of a loved one or being dumped.

And fear is tied in with avoidance. Our brains protective instinct is to evade and escape anything that could be potentially unpleasant (incidentally, the ‘fight’ part of fight or flight is also an avoidance strategy – it’s a means to get away or make something stop). So whatever your protagonist is afraid of – brain sucking zombies, their parents disapproval…loving again – they are likely to go to some very unhelpful lengths to not experience it. In essence, it means fear is a powerful motivator, can be born of a deep wound, and is the part that our readers ‘get’ on a universal level that connects us all.

  1. We all need a purpose

When a client is sitting across from me sharing their hardships and their hopelessness I listen and validate. What I often hear is that they don’t have a direction or a purpose, and it’s going to be something we’ll explore in a therapeutic context. That’s because humans need to know where we’re going, and have an idea of how we’re going to get there. It’s how we learn, progress and move forward. Thinks about it, have you ever been stuck? How did it feel? I’m going to hazard a professional guess and say not so fabulous. But the moment you caught a glimmer of a solution, a way forward, things changed huh? Even if was the most unhelpful, counterproductive solution you could have conceived, you still had a direction. And direction feels better than stagnation.

This should reflect in the art form you’ve chosen. Readers don’t want a character wandering aimlessly thorough the pages of your book. A goal is what we connect with. Readers want to know, need to know, why your protagonist is making the choices they’re making – even if it’s the worst idea ever.

  1. We’re not one thing all the time

Now this is a tricky one, because research shows that personality is relatively stable over time. If you’re born an introvert, you’ll always have introspective, hermit tendencies. If you were a worrier as a child, you’re probably a bit of an anxious adult.

guitar-1853661_960_720But personality characteristics function on a continuum, meaning we fluctuate. I’m an introvert, I love my alone time, in fact I need it to recharge. But I can be highly social, almost extroverted in certain contexts. Put me with close friends and I talk over people. Work social function? I’ll mingle and smile like I know what I’m doing.

To write authentic, realistic characters you need to remember that depending on what’s going on around them, they may do what they’ve always done, but they may also surprise us. To write characters with depth and complexity you’ll have to capture the human capacity to be whatever we want to be if we put our minds to it.

  1. We grow and change, grow and change

As a psychologist I get to see the power of human choice unfold in my office every single day. It’s a beautiful, inspirational sight to behold. It’s also has devastating and life-long outcomes. But it’s what drives our personal evolution, it’s how we become…more. It’s the pivot point of our lives and needs to be in your book.

Think of all your favourite novels, the ones that had you losing contact with reality and precious sleep. Was the character different at the end compared to when you inhaled that first line? I would bet my registration on it. Even the ones that end up worse off than when they began, that have loved and ultimately lost, change still occurred.

That’s the part that stays with a reader. To be honest, the dammed good ones changed us as we traveled alongside that transformation. So if psychology was a mentor, an advisor, what would she say? Capture that in your book.


TamarTamar really struggled writing this bio because she hasn’t decided whether she’s primarily a psychologist who loves writing, or a writer with a lifelong fascination for psychology. Somehow she got lucky enough to do both. Tamar is the author of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.

Tamar is also a passionate writer of young adult romance, with her first book, Prophecy Awakened, set to be released in April 2017 by Clean Reads Publishing. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com

Connect with Tamar on Twitter or Facebook.

Image 1 GDJ @ Pixabay
Image 2: intrographics @pixabay
Image 3: Pexels @ Pixabay





Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Empathy, Fear, Guest Post, Motivation, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to 5 Things Psychology Can Teach Writers

  1. :Donna says:

    I REALLY love posts like this 😀 Actually, I love ALL the posts here, but there’s something about psychology, right? For YEARS I’ve longed to have access to that book (that I think is only available through the trade) of all the possible character traits. I wish I could remember its title *sigh* Anyway, I wish I had an actual psychology background because that wealth of knowledge for character development would already be there! 😀

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  5. Kristin Lenz says:

    As a social worker/writer, I totally related to this. Thank you!

  6. :Donna says:

    I could NOT agree more with this! In fact, years ago I had come across the knowledge that there’s a book (I think for psychologists) that listed all the character traits of humans. It’s something only available to actual psychologists and psychology students though :-\ One of the reasons I ADORE your thesauruses, ladies! What an excellent post, Tamar 🙂 Thank you!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hi Donna, hello kindred spirit! My guess is you’re talking about the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) which lists all the diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders. It’s a brick and dry as mud but I use it regularly when I write my Psych File posts about disorders and how they can relate to writers. I love how my two passions get to inter connect! Have a great day, Tamar

  7. Ruchama says:

    Great post!! One my most trusted in my life is and writing is that we human beings fear meaninglessness more than death. That truth explains a lot.

  8. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    Hi Angela: Did you create the image of the brain as top of the tree? Very powerful! Hi Tamar. I enjoyed reading your Post. I shared it on my FB Page. Take care.

  9. Excellent post, Tamar! I’m also a psychologist/writer (psycho writer) and I agree the fields go hand in hand, especially regarding character motivation and personality. Best of luck with your debut novel.

  10. I love this! As Angela said, I find psychology to be so fascinating, and the more I learn about it, the more I understand not only myself and the people around me, but the characters I’m writing, too. Thanks for sharing, Tamar.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hey Becca – yep, the science of our mind and personality is the perfect complement to our writing, getting to learn about ourselves is an added bonus. Thanks again for collaborating, Tamar 🙂

  11. Sheri Levy says:

    Wonderful information. I taught special needs and loved the psych part of teaching. After reading your blog, I see that I use my background in my stories. Thanks for sharing this information.

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