As a writer and counsellor/family therapist, I've been asked to speak several times on using psychology to create well developed characters and stories. Here's an article I wrote for RWNZ's Heart to Heart newsletter last year. For anyone interested in learning more about adapting psychology theories for writing, I'll be releasing a book about it in the next few months. Join my newsletter mailing list so you don't miss out.
Psychology and storytelling have a long and intricate history together. Human beings make sense of their world and their experiences by telling stories. Myths are stories that make sense of the unexplained. Histories are stories to make sense of the world. Stories can be propaganda. They shape and change our views, our emotions, and even the way we view ourselves.
Psychologists refer to “narrative therapy” as a way to engage with the stories their clients tell about themselves. The more frequently a person tells a particular story about themselves, the stronger its effects become. Changing the story can change a life.
As writers, we can borrow from the theories and learnings of psychology to create well rounded, fully developed characters who instinctively make sense to our readers. Writers and psychologists are both, at their heart, students of what makes people tick.
The self-stories our characters tell themselves help to shape both how they behave in the present and how they might encounter conflict and crisis as the story unfolds. For example, the alpha male character may be comfortable telling himself that he is successful, strong, and capable of handling anything – which gives rise to a crisis of identity should events prove that story wrong. Alternatively, he could be driven by a self-story of inadequacy which he is determined to overcome.
Writers should understand the often untold stories that the characters tell themselves. Where did the character get these ideas about herself or the world? What messages did she receive as a child, consciously or unconsciously, that led to that belief? How does it impact on behaviour now? And how will it create conflict with other characters?
Conflict is, of course, a big part of what makes a story interesting to read and drives the action forward. In real life, clients come to a psychologist or counsellor to help them resolve their conflicts. For writers, an understanding of how to make them arise is even more important.
John Gottman identified a set of behaviours that relationship counsellors refer to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when it comes to relationships. These behaviours herald a relationship in decline and are warning signs for a counsellor and a starting point for where to rebuild a couple’s connection. For the writer, they offer insight into opportunity for conflict and drama – the staple of any good story.
• Criticism – blaming and attacking personality or character rather than specific behaviours
• Defensiveness – defending actions without being willing to hear the other point of view
• Stonewalling – withdrawing without being willing to resolve the issue, often called “the silent treatment”
• Contempt – saying things to your partner with the intent to insult and hurt
Writers of romance can make use of these behaviours to create problems in a relationship. Beware of using contempt, however, as it is the most damaging of the horsemen and will require the most mending to create a solid and believable happy ending. There will have to be a shift in the way the characters think of each other and behave to each other and a motivation to forgive past behaviour. The good news is that, as a writer, you can be creative about how that happens. Counsellors have a much harder time being stuck with only reality to work with!
The concept of “love languages” is another useful cool for counsellors and writers alike. Gary Chapman came up with the notion that people use different methods – or languages – to express love and affection. Conflict can occur in relationships when participants differ in the primary love language.
The five love languages are:
• Acts of service
• Touch/physical affection
• Quality time
A classic example of this might be one partner’s complaint, “He never says he loves me and he’s always wanting to go out with his friends and doesn’t spend time with me so he doesn’t really love me.” While her partner replies, “I bring her cups of tea in bed every morning and we snuggle and kiss every time we meet and hold hands. How can she not know I love her?” Her love primary love languages are Words and Quality Time. His are Acts of Service and Touch. They are missing the messages they send each other and as a result, feeling unloved.
Set up your characters to have conflicting love languages and part of their journey is to the realisation of what the other has been trying to portray.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy’s way with Words leaves something to be desired and Elizabeth has always been so very good with them. But when her family is in dire need, it is Darcy’s Act of Service in coming to their aid that demonstrates to her his love. Although she does comment that her attitude to him may have begun to change when she saw his home at Pemberley, so perhaps our Lizzy speaks the language of Gifts also!
None of these love languages are right or wrong, they are simply different ways of expressing the same sentiment and when we – or rather, our characters – understand that, they can see the emotions behind the behaviour and find their way to a happy ending.
And, at the end of a story full of conflict and drama, a happy ending is what we want.
Note: You can see many of these techniques in action in my novel, Currents of Change.