Psychology of Creating Characters: Part 1

Posted May 10 2015, 4:17 pm in , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Miss Scarlett is always digging for articles to help her writing friends, and she came across this one by Laurie Schnebly written for RWA on Jun 02, 2001. The original article is quite long, so she picked out excerpts and divided it into parts.

Professional counselors and psychiatrists have devised categories into which the different types of people in our culture can be classified. Learning more about these categories can help you write realistic characters engineered to make sparks fly. We all dream of creating the perfect hero. And giving him the perfect heroine. In fact, our hero and heroine are going to be the best, most wonderful, most courageous, most gorgeous, most—

No, wait a minute. They can’t be.

Because if both your main characters are 100% fearless and beautiful and honest and kind and everything else, not only will they seem unbelievable, but there won’t be any conflict in their relationship.

And we’ve got to have conflict. Not just conflict that arises from the situation (he wants to take over the land her father left her, or she didn’t tell him she was pregnant before he went off to war), but conflict that arises from the characters themselves. The most intriguing problems are conflicts that come from within people’s own personalities . . . from the kind of people they are.

Counselors use a variety of techniques to find out what kind of person someone is, and those same techniques can also work for writers. We want to create the type of person who, while inherently lovable, will automatically come into conflict with another inherently lovable person. And it’s easy to tell who’ll come into conflict once you know what determines their characters.

What are those things that determine character? Among them are (1)Adlerian birth order, (2)the four priorities, (3)Enneagrams with their mind-body-heart divisions, and (4)the Jungian personality scales. Each has the potential for conflict, which is what we need for a great romance novel. For the best emotional drama, there must be conflicts in the way the protagonists approach life.

Part 1: Birth Order

One element in determining your approach to life, according to Alfred Adler — a disciple of Freud’s who founded his own theory of counseling — is that by age five, we’ve all made up our minds about what kind of person we’re going to be and how we can fit into the world. Without even being aware of the process, everyone completes this sentence differently:  Life is a place where _____ and the way I can best fit into it is _____.

An important factor in the decision of “how can I best fit into the world” is birth order — the way a person fits into the family. Every child, even within a single family, is born into a different family.

The oldest, the First Born, is usually a prize that the parents have waited for eagerly. They imagine that this will be “the perfect child” who will embody every value they’ve got, who’ll be the brightest/smartest/most popular/most athletic person ever. Everything that the parents hold dear, they’ll expect to see recreated in this kid. As a rule, the oldest is the “good” child who does his best to live up to the family standards. They’re usually more responsible, more serious about doing a good job. They tend to be doctors, lawyers, CEOs — something like 92% of the U.S. astronauts and 94% of our presidents have been first-born children. They tend to rise in areas where hard work will get you ahead. Now, here’s the first-born child being just perfect when along comes the second child, and the oldest is dethroned. He’s no longer Mom’s and Dad’s whole world, he’s only half their world; and the new baby is the star. At this point the oldest will do whatever he has to do stay on top. The First Born’s motto — each birth position has a motto — is “I was here first, and first I’ll stay.”

Meanwhile, the Second-Born child is faced with a Perfect Kid who has a few years’ head start. No matter what the second child does, the First Born has already set the path. The second children’s motto is “We try harder,” and they’ll find some area to excel in where the first born hasn’t already shone. If the first born is a great student, the second will be a great athlete, or a great socialite with lots of friends. The two children may be equally intelligent — in fact, being from the same family they probably are — but the first born is likely to get better grades, while the second is likely to be more popular and have more friends. They’ll each seek out areas where they can get the most attention and recognition and feel the best about themselves.

When the Third-Born child comes along, the second is squeezed between the “perfect” oldest and the “starring” new baby. Middle children’s motto is “Life is unfair,” and it’s understandable why they feel that way. The Middle Child tends to become a peacemaker, very good at arbitrating and negotiating. In fact, it’s been observed that with so many families now having only one or two children, we’re losing out on “Middles” — and our society will have fewer and fewer people who are good at arranging compromises and keeping peace. The Youngest Child never has to grow up and take responsibility the way the other kids do.  If it’s Saturday morning with everyone running around getting dressed for the game and they’re all ready except for Junior’s shoes, everybody will jump in — Mom and Dad and brother and sister will all be looking for Junior’s shoes. Junior doesn’t have to, because one of the big people will find them first, so it’s no wonder the youngest’s motto is “I’m entitled.” They feel that people will always look out for them . . . and people do, because they’re terribly charming!

When you’re trying to figure out where someone belongs in the birth order, keep in mind that every five years the slate is wiped clean. So if you have a hero who is born first, then five years go by, and then he has a younger sister — he’s not going to be a first born, he’s going to be an Only Child. And if no other kids follow this sister, she won’t be a second or a youngest, she’ll be an only as well. Only children are “adults” by the time they’re eight years old, and their motto is “To know me is to love me,” which makes for a pretty powerful character, a mixture of oldest and youngest.

Now you can imagine the potential for conflict if you have a hero who’s a youngest and assumes that people will cater to his every whim — which doesn’t necessarily make him selfish, it just means that everybody’s gonna love him — and a heroine who’s an oldest, very responsible, used to taking care of things, used to doing her part. They can get along fine if she looks out for him, and as they reach their happy ending, that may be the way the relationship is going to work. But along the way, there’s going to be some conflict, because the heroine is saying to the hero, “Why don’t you take some responsibility?” while the hero is saying to the heroine, “Why don’t you loosen up and have some fun?” And, naturally, they’re both right!

Of course there are exceptions to these standards of responsible oldests, competitive seconds, discouraged middles, and pampered youngests. Sometimes, a child may decide to be best at being the Worst Child. If another sibling is already getting all the attention for being good, this kid will be as bad as it takes to get attention. You may get an oldest who’s a bum, or a youngest who shoulders all the burdens of the family — those situations happen. But they’re more unusual than the archetypes described here, and you can bet there’s something in these people’s background which has caused them to decide that this behavior is their best chance at fitting into the world.

By and large, though, if you stick to oldests who want to stay first, seconds who try harder, middles who know life is unfair, and youngests who feel entitled, you’re going to be right on target. You’re going to have plausible, believable characters whose conflict is built right into their personalities! And what’s especially convenient for us romance writers is that none of the conflict is caused by our hero or heroine being a jerk. They’re being their natural, lovable selves . . . and yet even so, they’re going to come into conflict with one another.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Priorities.

Now, sit your butt in the chair and write!

Thanks for reading,

Miss Scarlett

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