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Advice on Writing Characters From a Psychologist

Go deeper into the minds of your characters where motivation lives with this advice on writing characters from psychologist and author Rebecca Alexander.

We’re all psychologists. We’ve been observing human behavior since we’re born, and writers especially collect human interactions like magpies collect shiny things. But knowing a little about the science of psychology has been helpful to me as a writer. Trying to understand people helps me create more realistic characters. It also helps me write for the reader, giving them information to help them know the character too.

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When I approach creating a character, I treat them a bit like a new patient. I try to understand them so that their actions and words are consistent with their personality and history. Who we are is at least partly hardwired, inherited from parents and grandparents. A lot of those characteristics like how extraverted or introverted someone is, how open or private they are, how conscientious or empathetic or neurotic they are is there in a child’s brain. Knowing those basic characteristics helps me understand where a person has come from.

But those traits are plastic; they are moulded by experience and especially childhood. Writing a backstory for a character helps the writer make certain that even confident social behavior (from an introverted character) is different from the social behavior of an extravert. No personality trait is better than another, extraverts don’t have easier lives than introverts, conscientious people don’t do better than slapdash people. Everyone struggles with their own nature in the wrong settings.

Of course, writers delight in putting them in the wrong settings. In Jaws, Chief Brody has a terror of water, can’t swim, and is frightened of a giant shark. Peter Benchley promptly puts him on a boat.

Understanding motivation is crucial to developing a character, most writers do this automatically. They may have a plot-driven goal (solve the crime, deliver the ring, marry the hero), but they also have personal motivations (revenge against a killer, loyalty to comrades, love or loneliness). I don’t want a shy, lonely character to suddenly propose a karaoke night, because the reader won’t find it believable. Maybe she has to be talked into it, dragged even!

The main character in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is so reluctant to engage with other people, she is torn when she sees someone fall over. But Honeyman makes her help an old man, Sammy, and engage with a new colleague, and the story is set.

Advice on Writing Characters From a Psychologist

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When creating main characteristics, it’s worth jotting down a personality sketch and basic history. Smaller characters are just as important. I don’t delve into their history much, but I don’t want them to be stereotypical characters, just ciphers for the plot. These smaller characters are great opportunities to reveal something about the main character, as they are seen through their point of view. A confident person meeting a surly waiter might challenge them, or ignore it. An anxious person might blame themselves.

One of my favorite characters in Pride and Prejudice is Lydia, the teenager who runs off with the delinquent Mr Wickham. Her sister Elizabeth’s shame and distress shows the reader more about Lizzie’s virtue than Lydia’s lack of it. I ended up with a better understanding of Lizzie’s character as she first rejects Mr. Darcy, then changes her mind. Without that complex appreciation of her personality she could seem contrary.

We are interested in people and how different they are from us. Stories of extraordinary life experiences draw us in. We want to learn about personality traits that we don’t understand, like psychopathy or obsession, which explains the popularity of true crime books and fiction about murder. Human beings are so varied and interesting, we like to understand what they do.

Eleanor Oliphant’s behavior might be seen as neurodivergent; maybe she has autistic traits. On the other hand, her childhood experiences might have shaped her internal world too. Readers have debated this since the book came out and won the 2017 Costa Debut Award. It was fascinating to me as a psychologist, and many other readers too.

Advice on Writing Characters From a Psychologist

Many books in my current genre (women’s fiction) are struggling with change or loss. It’s the starting point for so many stories. A death, a divorce, a lost job, a miscarriage, all lead to a fresh start—it’s a brilliant trope, because we all experience them in our own lives. Characters are revealed to us as they struggle and adapt, make new choices, build new relationships.

People don’t move on cleanly; they trail the past around with them for years. Allowing a character to experience doubts and fears going forward makes them more relatable, more realistic. My main character in Secrets of the Cottage By the Sea lost her mother at age nine. Her father couldn’t cope with his child’s grief so minimised it, and pushed Ellie into her new life. But that leaves her confused, triggered by fragments of memory that evoke recollections that she can’t understand. Working with children losing a parent has taught me that memory can be insubstantial, insufficient. Children cling to the scraps of memory they have, and I wanted to represent that in my character.

Our senses produce a lot of memories. The most evocative are smells. We can activate memories from our childhood, even babyhood from a scent. Smoke from pipe tobacco used to evoke my grandfather, who I hardly knew because he died when I was just a toddler. But the smell could bring back the sound of his voice and his bristly beard, huge leathery hands.

Drawing on my psychological training and work has given me hundreds of stories to work from (fictionalizing, of course). I recommend reading psychology articles and real-life stories, just to enrich your fiction. Writers collect stories, because, as I said, we are all psychologists.

Grammar and Mechanics

Do you remember the difference between the 8 parts of speech and how to use them? Are you comfortable with punctuation and mechanics? No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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