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I'm Not Defensive! Psyc 101 for Character Development


Freud exhibition

Freud Exhibition Photo by Regine Debatty (click pic for link)

As many of you know, my background is in psychology and social work. Although I'm sure my writing could have benefited from an English degree, I'm happy that I chose the path I did because all those psyc classes provided loads of information on why people act the way they do. And this of course is invaluable when creating characters stories.

I love developing a character's backstory (even if most of it never makes it into the book). This makes the character "real" to me. It gives me a base so that I can answer those questions that come up later in the book: How would MC react to this situation? What emotions would she have?

One of the most basic things that you should know about your characters is what is their go to reaction to stress? In other words, what's their favorite defense mechanism?

Freud came up with many different defense mechanisms so I won't list them all, but I'll hit some of the highlights that could help you in character development.

Level 1 Defenses
These are normal in young childhood, but in adults indicate psychosis.
  • Denial--Refusing to accept reality. This is a common joke-"you're in denial". But true denial means the person honestly doesn't believe the reality.
  • Distortion--Recreating a new version of reality to meet their needs.
Level 2
These are normal in adolescence. In adults, this can indicate severe depression and personality disorders.
  • Fantasy--Retreating into fantasy world to deal with conflicts.
  • Projection--Taking your unacceptable feelings and impulses and assigning them to someone else. It's a version of paranoia. Think of the guy who is always accusing his wife of cheating, but in fact he's the one who's cheating.
  • Somatization--Emotional hurt manifesting as physical symptoms. Common in depression--person complains of body aches and feeling tired. I saw this a lot when I worked with teens. If they had a bad night at home, the next day they were feeling sick at school.
  • This also can be a cultural thing. Some cultures are not as accepting of people (particularly men) expressing depression/anxiety/etc. so often physical symptoms will pop up instead. Remember this is not a conscious decision on the person's part, this happens subconsciously.
  • Passive Aggression--Expressing aggression through indirect means. You're mad at your boss, but instead of confronting her, you "forget" to give her a really important phone message.
  • Acting Out--Expressing unconscious desire through action. Teen isn't getting attention at home, so acts out at school to get adults to care.
Level 3
These are commonly found in adults, although they are technically considered "neurotic" in Freud-land.
  • Displacement--Taking your emotions about something or someone and directing it at a "safer" target. A mom has a bad day at work, but comes home and yells at the kids.
  • Dissociation--Completely separating from yourself and the uncomfortable emotions. This is extreme. Can happen when someone is being abused, tortured, raped, etc.
  • Intellectualization--Separating the idea/event from the emotions. A cop finds the body of someone he knows, but has to do his job, so he focuses on the forensics of the scene instead of letting himself feel the emotions.
  • Reaction Formation--Flipping your feeling to the opposite. You hate your mother in law, but are overly nice when she's around.
  • Repression--Pushing thoughts/events that you can't handle into your subconscious. This is what "repressed memories" mean.
  • Regression--Reverting to an earlier stage of behavior or development rather than handling the emotions in an adult way. This can be seen in children as well.
  • Rationalization--Convincing yourself that your initial impression of a situation was wrong. Someone who loves their job is fired and he starts thinking--I hated that job anyway, the hours sucked, etc.
Level 4
Defenses of the "healthy" adult
  • Altruism--Finds comfort in helping others. People who were traumatized by Katrina, but went to the Red Cross and volunteered.
  • Humor--Ah, my personal favorite. Taking a negative situation and disarming it by seeing the humor in the moment.
  • Sublimation--Taking unacceptable impulses and channeling them into something positive. The idea of cutting someone open is fascinating? What do you do? Become a serial killer or a surgeon. Sublimation would be picking surgeon. (Not that all surgeons are sublimated serial killers, lol.)
  • Compensation--Counterbalancing your weak points by emphasizing your strong points. This is my first thought when I see the five foot tall guy climbing into one of those monster trucks.
  • Suppression--Tucking away unwanted emotions or impulses to deal with later. A woman is attracted to her married neighbor, but chooses to push down those thoughts since they are not productive.
Alright, hope that wasn't too dry and boring. I really do find knowing which of these my characters possess helps me a lot with story decisions. My romance MC is big on humor and suppression with a touch of repression, so I have a lot to use with her.

So do any of your characters have any of these in their baggage? Do you have a personal favorite among these that you use in your stories? And, do the psyc posts make you want to poke your eyes out or do you find them helpful? Let me know so that I don't continue to go down a road if no one is interested. :)
**Today's Theme Song**
"I Don't Believe You" - Pink
(player in sidebar, go ahead and take a listen)


Reader Comments (26)

Any one who wants to see all of these things come to life in one hour watch the show, United States Of Tara.

its one of my new favorites.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I loved the psych classes I took in college. It felt a little like you were being handed a cheat sheet for human behavior. Awesome post. One of my favorite characters is dealing with agoraphobia, and I liked all the work-arounds she has to adapt her life to her 'cage.'

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWendy Sparrow

Dry and boring? Are you kidding I was studying all of them to see how they relate to me...I can now see that my baby's-daddy is Level 1, psychosis, distortion and denial...LOL!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstaceyjwarner

Great list! Very comprehensive. I double majored in English and Psychology. That was twenty years ago when I had no idea I'd be writing YA, but I'm thankful for the psychology background.

And yes, my characters have lots of baggage. One of my novels is set in a school for kids who exhaust all their other public school options--very similiar to a place I taught at for fifteen years before resigning to write full-time. I wrote a hunk of backstory for each character before I started writing the book. I've just posted a little snippet regarding character traits on my blog.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Greci

Thanks for the interesting facts. This will come in handy to me.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R. Mills

This is really interesting information! Novels really are just giant character studies - delving into what drives people and what makes them tick and how they deal with conflict.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Dao

Great post, lots of useful information.
I laughed at an item under level 2: Fantasy--Retreating into fantasy world to deal with conflicts.
Isn't that what we writers do? We are in the fantasy world of our story, with lots of conflict. :) Do I need professional help?
My MC uses humor to express frustration. She makes me laugh with what she comes up with.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNeed More Words

I loved this post! I, too kept looking out for things that I identified with! I'm really afraid to let everything out, so does that mean there is something wrong with me? I know that I will be worrying about this all the time now! Maybe that reflects in my own writing. I know that I carry far too much emotional baggage around with me. Maybe it's time to let go of it all...but not just yet!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlice in Wonderland

Julie, that show looked so interesting, but I don't get showtime :( Guess I'll get it from Netflix eventually

Wendy, you're so right, it's like getting the secret code, lol

Stacey, lol, stay far away from those level ones!

Paul, welcome to the blog. I also worked in a school that was for kids who were removed from regular school (because of mental and/or behavioral problems). We could probably trade stories. :)

Susan, no problem.

Julie, you're right. It's all about the characters.

NeedMW, Welcome to the blog. I had the same thought, lol. Maybe we're sublimating our tendency to fantasize and hearing voices in our heads into an acceptable profession--writing. :)

Alice, that's the thing about psyc study, lol. It's hard to resist trying to diagnose yourself. Truth is, we all have some of these, we all need some defense against stress. I'm a master rationalizer (ask my husband) along with relying on humor in most situations.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

As per usual, Roni, your post rocked my socks! Nothing dry and boring here. I must study this thoroughly:)

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTina Lynn

Very interesting post. I can definitely use the info here. Nothng boring at all!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermelane

I enjoyed it, although I am now deeply worried about my own psychological state, lol!

All my characters have serious issues, though. The protagonist is suicidal and dealing with survivor guilt, and the secondary character has serious abandonment issues.

it would be boring if they were all happy, well adjusted individuals :-)

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGem

Great post! I'm fascinated by psychology, so I really enjoy posts like this. Thanks for sharing your expertise. :)

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAbby

I am here to admit that I immediately printed this post. Fascinating info all in one convenient package. Thanks, Roni!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMartha W

I'm sure your psychology background is really adding depth to your characters. One of my crit partners has a background in psychology and her characters feel very real. Thanks for the info!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Simon

Fantastic post Roni--keep them coming!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb@RGRamblings

Roni, that was anything but dry and boring. I find this sort of information fascinating. I am also amazed how many writers I know that are involved in some sort of social work/ counselors etc or are teachers... hmmm...

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTabitha Bird

So helpful! I have a really eccentric little girl in my new WIP and this was invaluable!

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

Not dry at all. I have a BSW and use my very old DSM-IV to help me along with my characters. Sometimes though, I think I give them too much nurosis. Good thing my crit group is more grounded.

Roni and Paul: I'm writing about what happens to your students when they graduate - or at least age out of - highschool and have to deal with the real world.


October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Hole

Awesome post...found out that I may be neurotic though some really good food for thought thanks

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBendigo

Love, Love, Love your post. What a great combo, psych and writing. Your characters must have so much depth. Look forward to coming back!

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjdcoughlin

Roni, some of this was very funny, and some of it was very scary, I love the way you can make us think and evaluate our selves.
Now, I need your help, no not that
Bob has decided to have me run the awards this week, and I have decided, to let all the past winners pick their favorite blogger for our award, if you decide to choose a blogger for the award please let me know, so that I may post your selection.

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterplainolebob

Your background certainly does add a flavor to writing. There were so many things I could incorporate for each character. I see some responding positive, some slightly negative, and others irrational at every on set.

Thanks for taking the time to give us these goodies.

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTamika:

Wow. This was really helpful. Like I kind of knew the very very basics of some what you said, but I haven't written fiction in a long time so this was a good refreshing post. Thanks for sharing. (:

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterInsanity

Wow. This was really helpful. Like I kind of knew the very very basics of some what you said, but I haven't written fiction in a long time so this was a good refreshing post. Thanks for sharing. (:

June 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterInsanity

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