Part 3: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today’s post is the 3rd in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization” 

Part 3: The Psychology of Character

In my ebook, 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters, I recommend that you watch Dr. Phil.  Really.  Or Oprah.  Or read the latest pop psychology bestseller.

Or better, take one of those seminars on how to get your sh*t together.  I did that, and it was the most empowering thing I’ve ever learned about writing (still working on the sh*t-together part).  Because it showed me why people – characters – think what they think and do what they do.

Even if, on the surface, none of it seems to make much sense.

The more you understand the psychology of human beings, the better equipped you’ll be to write stories in which the behavior of your characters does make sense.  At least for them.

You don’t have to turn into a Dr. Phil to write a bestselling novel or sell a killer screenplay. You only have to know a fraction of what he knows, and you don’t need a post-grad year to get there.

No, at the level at which we writers play, we only need a grasp of the basics of human psychology.  And those basics are everywhere.

The good news is, you don’t actually have to have your own sh*t together to write solid psychology into your stories.  Good thing, too, or there’d be precious few stories out there for us to enjoy.  Writers are some of the most screwed up folks on the planet… but I digress.

Read Silence of the Lambs and take notes.  Both Lecter and Wild Bill are classic studies in human psychology of a very dark variety.  Stephen King’s stuff, too, is mastery of psychology at its best.

What you need to understand about human behavior can be reduced into several real-world buckets, into which you can dump all the details you want.

People are driven by resentment.

Someone pisses you off.  You may or may not have forgiven them for it, but unless you’ve dealt with the issue, chances are you harbor some resentment toward them.  Maybe for years.

We resist that which we resent.  You will resist being completely kind and open with that person, at least until they do something to take away your resentment, like apologize.  You will resist their ideas, their contributions, their very presence.  This can manifest in subtle and insidieous little ways, or it can come right out of your mouth, maybe worse.  Or, it can never manifest at all, but it’s there in your head.

We resent hearing that the CEO of Goodwill Industries takes home $800,000 a year.  True story.  So we resist giving our next garage full of junk to them, calling St. Vincent DePaul instead.  A classic resentment-resistance dynamic, for which we lose not a minute of sleep.

You resent getting dumped by your old boyfriend.  So you resist sending him a Christmas card every year, even though he sends one to you, which you burn without opening.

We also tend to look for ways to exact revenge against those people and things we resent.  You resent your wife for spending too much money when she goes shopping.  So as revenge, you go ahead and splurge on fishing equipment, even though you know she’s not happy about it.  Especially because she’s not happy about it.

Welcome to the common modern adult marriage.  Good or bad, it runs on psychology.

Relative to all of the above, allow me to add – or not.  You may not exhibit any signs of resistance or revenge at all, even though your resentment festers.  Your resentment may manifest in your life as a cardiac event, which in a story is a reasonable and classic application of this dynamic. 

Try this, if you dare. 

Make a list of all the things in your life, both close and at arms-length, that you resent.  Then notice how that resentment influences your attitudes, behaviors and decisions toward those people or things.  Pay attention to how each entry makes you feel.  Which in turn, how it may influence how you act.

Welcome to being human.  Resentment drives us daily.  Hopefully not exclusively.

The point is you, as a writer of characters, have choices to make in this regard , and an understanding this resentment-resistance-revenge dynamic is a valid model upon which to base your character’s decisions and actions.

People are driven by their backstory.

Our behavior is connected to our roots, our personal history.  Which in many cases is just dripping with issues of resentment.

If you don’t think this is true, then ask yourself why doctors have children who become doctors more than truck drivers have children who become doctors.   You can generalize this even further beyond doctors – professionals have children who go into professional-level work more than blue collar workers have children who become professionals.

Statistics show that children of abused parents are more likely to become abusive parents.  Same with children of alcoholics, though in a much more common and complex cycle of rationalization.

Some of us model our behavior after our parents.  Some of us do the opposite.  The consequences of both have huge implications.

Again, the point is to understand the backstory of your character to the extent that it logically and validly explains who they are as adults in your story.   More on this in a later post.

People are driven by their world view.

A world view is the collective values, politics, preferences and beliefs of an individual.  They are usually the product of backstory and culture, and these elements can shift as the character grows and evolves through different experiences and periods in their lives.  For example, a preacher’s daughter goes to school at USC, and all of a sudden she’s a beer-swilling cheerleader dating a drug dealer.

All of this, by the way, are variables you completely control as an author.  In real life, not so much, good luck with your daughter at USC.

This is as deep a well as you want it to be.  But at a minimum, take steps to connect the personalities, world view and core belief and value systems of your characters to accepted psychological principles. 

Some things in storytelling you can and should just make up.  This one you can’t.   If you aren’t sure what explains, with valid psychology underpinning your character’s actions, then hit the internet until you are.

 Photo credit: e v e n.

Next post: How to craft a backstory.


Filed under Characterization Series

5 Responses to Part 3: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. I’m loving the characterisation posts, Larry – I’m in my comfort zone. Human beings and and the working of our minds – all of it intrigues me. I love anthropomorphosis as well and have fallen in love with many a non-human major player in a film or book. Oh if only novels didn’t need architecture and conflict and all that other stuff, I’d be fine. 😉

  2. tina

    Great job Larry. I wanted to comment a long time ago to tell you how helpful your blog is to me but now I found the time to do so. Thank you.
    In general, I follow Terry Pratchett’s basic rules of writing for the kind of writing I do:
    learn your craft at the carpenter school of writers
    make gaps between centuries
    put lots of easter eggs in your story
    and make your characters really screwed up 😀

    So, instead of pshycology articles I would recommend After reading it, I wish I could use a thousant characters in every story. I was amazed of what humans are really capable of thinking or doing and I soon realised that there are no limits to my characters. Actually, the more screwed up, the better. 🙂
    [sorry for my poor english]
    Thanks again.

  3. Violet

    Hey Larry,
    I love your site. Your story structure series has revolutionized my writing. Suddenly it all makes sense. I can’t wait for the e-book.
    Would it be okay for me to teach it at my writers group? I don’t earn any money from it and I will refer them back to this website.
    Thanks, Violet

  4. Pingback: Write what you know » Jordan McCollum

  5. spinx

    Great post, great site.

    Your posts, so far, contain some of the best and helpful information on writing I have come across this month.

    What it made clear, ultimately, is that learning is all about asking the right question. And I have found this part to be extremely tricky in certain areas.
    Once you read about it, it will perfect sense, of course. But getting there, especially when you don´t know what the right questions are—that is hard.

    The other great relevation I´ve had—–certain things have to happen at a certain time, or you´ll get nothing out of them.

    Whatever, whatever….I am talking nonsense, in a language that doesn´t come as easy to me. But I really wanted to thank you for your dedication.
    Thank you for all the great work you´ve put up here—and offering it for free–so that even poor chaps as me can benefit from it.

    (By the way, do I send a certain resentement towards women and the way they affect you ;Z)