Deepening Character Complexity with the Help of Psychology

Psychologists will often conduct a case formulation when a client presents in our office. If we want to be part of the change the client is seeking, then we have to have a good understanding of the client and all the factors that influence them. Now, are you seeing any parallels with a writer and their character? As writers, we want to understand our characters in a nuanced level that will allow us to create an authentic connection with our readers. We want a character who others can relate, empathise, or connect with, even if they don’t need to like them.

When psychologists aim for this level of comprehensive understanding, one framework we’ll use is the Four Ps. We apply this model to gain information about how to instigate change and move forward. Interestingly, stories are also about instigating change and moving forward, so it’s not surprising that writers can gain from this framework. Using the information you create from the Four P framework allows psychologists to understand their clients and their environment in a comprehensive manner. I believe writers can do the same for their characters and the story world they’re building.

Predisposing Factors

Although psychologists call this part of our world ‘predisposing factors’, in the world of writing, this is your character’s backstory. Psychology allows us to delve into this backstory with a deeper level of nuanced understanding. This is because psychology knows there are biological, psychological and social factors that impact on our personality and behaviours.

For a writer, this means considering both the internal and external factors that have shaped your character. Although not every point will be relevant to every story, reflecting on the following areas is going to give you a deeper understanding of your character when they enter the story.

  • What traits does your character already present with? Are they extroverted, introverted, highly intelligent, impulsive, have a family history of cancer or mental illness?
  • How has your character managed stressful situations in the past? Are they avoidant, do they rationalise, do they go on the attack? Are they quick thinkers, or do they need time to process the events that unfold around them? These personality and psychological structures are going to predict how your character responds to the challenges your plot is about to throw their way.
  • How has their social world influenced them? Cultural and sociodemographic influences are what every writer needs to consider when crafting an authentic character. If your character is a Caucasian, middle-aged man who grew up in middle-class suburbia, their childhood environment is going to be quite different to a Hindu girl who grew up in the slums of India.

Precipitating Factors

Precipitating factors are actually described as inciting incidents in the psychological literature, which serendipitously aligns with story structure terminology. When we consider precipitating factors in our story, think of the inciting incident that may launch your hero into act two or three, but also all the little instances where their wound or misbeliefs are triggered which will allow you to show what really pushes their buttons.

  • What situation/s would directly challenge your character’s understanding of the world?
  • Two people may experience the same precipitating event, but react differently depending on their backgrounds, life experience, social support, coping strategies and current circumstances. Which of these influencing factors are relevant to your character and story?
  • How can you use this knowledge to challenge, trip up, or even confirm, your character’s perception of the world in small ways throughout your story?

Perpetuating Factors

Perpetuating factors are very much the nuts and bolts of your story world. These are the factors that maintain your character’s thoughts and response style, and will either reinforce them, or challenge them. Perpetuating factors are likely to be a carefully considered mix of the following:

  • We all see the world through our own perceptions and beliefs. Consider what this lens looks like for your character; are they an optimist or pessimist, do they struggle to understand social cues, are they depressed, do they believe no one can be trusted?
  • What social relationships are currently impacting on your character? Do they have a supportive teacher, avoidant parents, a broad peer network or only one trusted friend? What does this mean for your character’s choices?
  • Consider your broader story world—a dystopian society is always going to impact on its story world inhabitants (particularly depending on which side of the social ladder you got allocated to), but how does it impact on your character personally? How does this information relate to everything you’ve already learned?

Protective Factors

Deep character brainstorming with the four P's - unearth the deeper aspects of your character to plan backstory

Protective factors are one reason I love the Four Ps model—protective factors delve into your character’s strengths, resilience and support. It allows us to explore our character’s assets, but in detail from their internal traits, to the world you’ve created around them.

  • What traits does your character have that will aid them as you drag them through hell—I mean, the story? Are they street smart, are they great at problem solving? Are they empathic, optimistic, funny, determined, disciplined or dedicated? Take a little time to consider the strengths your character already had when they first walked onto the page.
  • Who are the people around them that support and help them? Some of these already existed in the details of your backstory, like the grandmother who taught your character to stand up for the underdog, through to a new mentor that teaches them the rules of the fantastical world they’ve just discovered themselves in.
  • What strengths does your character have that they aren’t aware of? The external perspective of a psychologist, or in our case, the writer, holds an objectivity and understanding a person may be too close to see. Consider how your character may discover these strengths, and what that could mean for them.

What do you think? Can you see the wonderful link between case formulation and character building? By reviewing and applying the four Ps, what have you learned about your character? Your story world?

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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[…] in short fiction, Melissa Bowersock reminds us to be true to our characters, Tamar Sloan recommends deepening character complexity with the help of psychology, and Jane Friedman says your characters don’t have to change to be […]

Leah McClellan
2 years ago

Great article, Tamar. I like the organization with the 4Ps. Now, instead of considering as I write or revise (and revise revise revise) whether some behavior/attitude/mannerisms etc fits the character and his or her backstory, I’ll use this right from the start, as the characters develop in my mind. Of course, Meyers & Briggs helps too, and so does astrology 😀 Combined, I’ll have a bestseller! Woo! 🙂

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago
Reply to  Leah McClellan

Great idea, Leah! Keeping all this in mind from the beginning would definitely help with fine tuning our characters. Can’t wait to read the bestseller! 🙂

2 years ago

I love this “Four Ps” thing, Tamar! Thanks! 😀

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago
Reply to  :Donna

My pleasure, Donna! Have a fab weekend 🙂

Jay Hicks
2 years ago

I’ll second Angela and Becca’s replies. Once we’ve sorted out the GMC of each player, we can find their heart. The big why.
There’s a gift in all this – our reading informs us, our social interactions inform us and our writing informs us (through learning).
Empathy. Looking closer at people who would ordinarily be overlooked. That’s what I’m doing. Great post Tamar. Lovely to see you here.

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jay Hicks

Thanks, Jay! Love your points – empathy is a wonderful tool in connecting with your characters! And I love your statement about ‘finding their heart’, so true!
Happy writing,

Jarm Del Boccio
2 years ago

Good advice here, Tamar! Thanks for your insights.

Tamar Sloan
2 years ago

Hi Jarm,
It’s great to hear it was helpful!
Happy writing,

2 years ago

I love how the more we study stories, the more psychology we see. Millennia of storytellers writing from their experience, and all the human psychology just slides out, pretty much subconsciously. So awesome.

2 years ago

I am right here with you, Becca. It is so interesting to me to see the things I have figured out as a writer to create deeper characters have a mirror in the psychology circles–this is what tells me I am on the right track. Thank you for this post, Tamar!