Psychology and Character Development

Getting ready to head out to a high school football game. The games are always a good time but I have to be honest: I go for the band! My daughter plays the clarinet during the pre-game show and half time!

I have been reading a lot about ways to create characters for your stories and books. Everyone has an idea how to make your characters more believable and how to make them resonate with your readers. Its true I have learned a lot from many different people.

The best advice I have heard about making better characters is to lead a better life! The more experience in life you have, the better you characters can become when you draw from the well of experience!

However, I have another idea to throw in the mix of suggestions…psychology!

I teach developmental psychology at community college and my students always enjoy my class. Why? Well its not because I am great teacher, its because developmental psychology is all about them. So it occurred to me that as a writer, I could learn a lot about my characters through a developmental lenses.

Erik Erikson states of development and designing your characters!

Erik Erikson came up with eight stages of man that encompassed a person’s entire life. He had two basic tenets to his stages: failure is cumulative and the world gets bigger as we get bigger.

Each stage represents an internal struggle the each person must resolve in order to move on. There are two choices to each stage: one builds and strengthens the person in a positive way, one weakens and erodes at a person’s resilience and character. Each stage builds on the one from before and over a lifetime these struggles form personality, behavior and so much more. Good things to know about the characters in your story!!

I will just focus on the first stage of childhood and last stage of adulthood…maybe I will blog about the others later.

Stage 1: basic task is trust versus mistrust. This conflict is finished and set in stone by around age 18 months.
The parent (usually the mother) largely gets to decide this for her children by the way she responds to her child’s need. Did neglectful parents raise your character? Did they not give him the affection he or she needed? Did mother ignore your characters basic needs? If so you character would have a basic sense of mistrust of the world and himself- low confidence and high frustration factors. If your character had good parents, the child would learn the learn was basically ok and have confidence.

Stage 8: Integrity versus despair…this conflict usually begins when your character is older, around 60.
If your character has integrity, he or she would have looked back on their life and found meaning with how they spent their years. This happiness and contentment paves the way toward accepting their own death. If when your character looks back on his or her and thinks it bumpy ride and nothing made sense or was worthwhile, your character will fall into despair and a feeling of meaningless and fear death because they aren’t ready or satisfied with how their life turned out.

If you think this a cool idea, I can elaborate on other theories and concepts in later blogs to show how knowing the nuts and bolts of how personality and other bits of people develop you can have stronger more believable characters!


2 thoughts on “Psychology and Character Development

  1. Great post! I think that indirectly or directly, psychology has played a significant role in my writing style and approach to developing my characters and understanding their motives. Often, aspects of people I’ve encountered in my previous work in the field (clinical), as well as my own quirks, neuroses, and proclivities, find their way into my fiction – manifesting in some poor character. I love your discussion of how Erikson’s stages can help define characters. Sometimes I have found Maslow’s hierarchy of needs equally useful. If I catch a character in the middle of a soliloquy during rewrite or edit, and he’s busy staving off a horde of zombies with a shovel and a flyswatter, I gotta wonder if that wasn’t my own purple prose rather than a realistic understanding of the character’s thoughts and actions in the moment. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks for stopping by and your comments!! I agree Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a very handy tool every writer should keep close to their laptop- needs motivate and guide our characters!!

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