A Psychological Approach To Character Development


Dr. Patrick Horton, story coach shared some of his wisdom on creating richer, more textured and multi-layered characters.

Characters are lively, malleable and constantly evolving beasts. They are a congregation of values, beliefs and actions to investigate their integrity.

They suffer from positive schizophrenia as they suppress  parts of themselves in order to survive. Does the character live in the present (wish fulfillment) or do they want to alter history or the future?

Characters have inherently been programmed to fail, so they must transform Are they going through motions or are they living their authentic selves? They must experience the pain to force them into action and subsequent transformation.

Don’t rush their journey. They occasionally need to stop to catch their breaths or gather their thoughts. They are fearful of stepping into the black whole that is their journey. Each time they question their journey and why it matters, they will gain clarity.

Male characters often dive in to fix something because they are task-oriented and avoid dealing with the real issues. Females are more relationship driven and are better able to form intuitive bonds and solutions to problems.

Your main character is driven by both angels (action) and demons (resistance) and by courage and fear. Such paradoxical behavior is an essential stage of human development. We need courage to drive us to act and survive and fear to protect us from danger.

This duality is not such a paradox after all. You can laugh and cry at the same time as you respond to different emotional stimuli from the same problem.

Humans have an uncanny ability to want everything/ something to change without changing action. Taosists call it action through inaction. However, a passive protagonist makes for dull storytelling. Despite being repeatedly disappointed through inaction or the same behavioral patters, we still keep trying the same thing until we face pain which forces our characters to act differently.

We live with inertia – a resistance to change our direction.

Our characters also resist altering our locus of control – taking responsibility for a situation as the super adult ego takes control from the inner child. We instinctively protect our children, but you must let its ego state die before it destroys you. In reality the child has completed its function and must be released to allow the adult to survive. Only then can the healing begin. In storytelling terms we are talking about active protagonists rather than reactive or passive ones.

There must always be an emotional or physical risk to force the main character to act. Their dysfunctionality leads them to pursue approach/avoidance relationships. If something, or someone gets too close they push them away and if they drift away, they grab them.

Your main character must die a metaphorical ego death to create a space which can be filled with the transformational state.

Pain is inevitable to growth. Suffering is optional. However, all good writers put their main characters through the physical and emotional wringer.

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