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The Psychology of Creating Plausible Characters

29th April 2018 | Posted in Writing

So just how do we go about creating compelling characters with all the nuances, quirks and endearing habits (?) that real people have?

Base it on a real person? Dangerous. They may find out. And sometimes real people and the things that happen to them are much, much stranger than fiction.

There’s plenty of advice on creating well rounded characters.  Any internet search will provide checklists to download and to complete. Although I must admit I’ve never found it very interesting to write about the minutiae of my character’s interests. Perhaps that’s because I tend towards the big picture rather than focus on details. And there is a big clue to my character and the way I live my life.

Before I began full time writing, I was involved in leadership training. One aspect of the training was to understand self and others and to do this the company I worked for introduced the trainees to a variety of psychometric tools. They ranged from cognitive development through a whole range of skills assessment. The category I find most interesting for clues to personality and character studies are those described as personality tests, particularly those which describe personality traits. How often do we consider the personality traits of our characters? As I wrote above, I have a preference towards the big picture rather than details. In fact I have to make a point of being detail conscious, especially double checking times and dates of appointments, reading fine print….need I go on?

There are five traits most commonly associated with personality; openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. (Search the big five traits and you’ll find plenty of good information.) Which of these might suit the character you’re working on?

I like to play around with words a lot. This is one game I use to help develop a character or as a stimulus.

Collect as many descriptors as you can.

Divide them into positive and negative (remembering that tidiness can be positive, however, if it becomes obsessive or a compulsion, it will not be considered in the same way)

Select three positive and one negative

Do they seem reasonable? Would you be convinced by this person? It might be unreasonable to think someone who is generous, exuberant and trusting could also be mean. Unless, they are generous with others and NOT with their family. Or what about a character who is tidy, precise and home loving and annoying? I can imagine a very house-proud person who plumps up the cushions as soon as someone leaves their seat or who hovers with a cloth to wipe up any spills on the marble counter tops. Unchecked, positive traits may become something else.

At this point if you don’t feel inspired, repeat the exercise. Sometimes deliberately forcing yourself to use something that does not inspire you immediately can have fascinating results and may take your writing in a very different direction. In a recent writer’s group meeting, we were asked to write short descriptive phrases and give one to another person. There was no choice. After the initial shock, it provided me with an interesting staring point that might or might not go somewhere.

Who knows?



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