C. L. and I were watching the latest episode of Supernatural the other night. It was one of those that revisited characters we haven't seen in a while, Jodie Mills, Alex Jones, and Claire Novak to be precise. As the episode went on, C. L. expressed his surprise at the behavior of the two teen girls based upon where the series left them last. He expected both would behave the exact opposite of how they were, and at first glance, that'd be an easy assumption to make. Yet, if you take a deeper look, the psychology behind the way the two girls were written is sound.
When creating characters and directing them through a story, how big of a role does psychology play? Is it beneficial for authors to study psychology?
The short answer is yes. Studying psychology helps characterization and character development by giving you a deeper understanding of motivations and reactions. That said, is it a requirement? No.
How much an in depth study of psychology will benefit a writer depends on the author themselves. Some people have a more innate sense of people, their motivations, personalities, and drives than others. For those who are highly empathic, the ones for whom reading people and anticipating their actions comes naturally, a deep study in psychology can muddy the waters and make them start second guessing their instincts. Yet others find the unspecified motivations of characters harder to understand. They are the ones who can benefit the most from psychological theories and studies.
The key thing is to have a clear sense of your character's core personality and history. If you understand that, determining their motivations and drives becomes easier. Given different personality traits and personal experiences, two characters can experience the same or similar things and react in completely disparate ways.
This was illustrated in the episode mentioned above. Both girls have similar core personalities. I'm not talking about more superficial things like individual interests and tastes. I mean particular ways of thinking and reacting to things: the way their mind works that's at the center of what makes them who they are.
If they'd been raised together from birth and experienced similar lives, chances are they'd behave in similar fashions to one another after their encounter with the Winchesters. However, their upbringings were polar opposites prior to losing everything they'd ever known. Because of this, their reactions were vastly different from one another when Sheriff Mills gave them both a second chance by taking them in. For one, having had a picture perfect life before it was touched by the supernatural made her need revenge against the thing that'd robbed her of her future. The other was raised with the horror of the supernatural all around her, calling itself her family. Once the initial pain of losing all she'd known faded, she threw herself into the normalcy she'd never been allowed and discovered she craved.
Of course, none of this was spelled out in the episode. Nevertheless, the girls' motivations were made clear through dialogue, actions, and what the audience can infer between the two. This is even more effective for those who saw the earlier episodes involving the two young girls. That's the line authors must walk. They have to give the audience enough information to understand the character and their motivations without treating them like idiots.
Characters have to be treated like real people to seem like real people. I've never come across someone who goes about narrating their life and spelling out everything that's going on in their head. Even if one were so inclined, we aren't even conscious of everything our minds do from one minute to the next. Take another look at the illustration above. It's as true for any of us as it is any character ever created. Individuals are infinitely more complex than you can see at a glance or even knowing them for years.
You can see someone and talk to them every day. In living with them, you can get to know someone extremely well. Yet, there's always far more going on below the surface than you can ever know.
Writers have the unique ability to live inside the minds of their characters. They get to look below the surface and see all the vast nuances. Yet, we can still only show a teeny piece of it. How they choose to do so makes the difference between bad, okay, or terrific characterization and character development in their stories.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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