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Can studying psychology work in creating realistic and likeable characters?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by js1161997, Jul 17, 2020.

  1. js1161997

    js1161997 New Member

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    So, I came across this book called: Writer's Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Phd. I read the book and found it to be really interesting, as she uses her psychology expertise to help create the how-to guide on creating realistic believable characters that people can relate to.

    But, do you guys believe that studying psychology can work in creating relatable likeable characters?
     
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  2. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I mean, regardless of if it helps or not, it sounds fun.
     
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  3. js1161997

    js1161997 New Member

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    It does, but I also believe it can be a lot more helpful. Getting into a character's mind, or figuring out causes and influences for each traits can be very helpful. And I think Linda herself did it brilliantly. She is a psychologist after all.
     
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  4. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    As long as it doesn't come down to just creating types: 'Oh, I think I need a psychopath here' and 'this person should be bi-polar, or have these issues or those issues.' I really prefer to create characters first and let them (and me, obviously) discover who they are as i go along. The way to do that is observe real people in real life.
     
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  5. S J Lee

    S J Lee Troubadour

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    I'm sure this would work well if done well with a lot of research... but I wonder if the average fantasy reader is interested? Maybe literary fiction would be a closer match? Perfectly willing to be corrected on this...? A lot of psychologists / psychiatrists will pooh-pooh you anyway, if you are not one of them, and relied on a few books, instead of years of study and clinical practice? Writers have to pretend to be experts in many things they know little about...

    Put it this way - would a novel by a psychiatrist necessarily be a better novel than one by an experienced fiction writer?

    Maybe just "make your hero take a personality test" is a simpler way, maybe just as effective?
    I think that a lot of writers make characters do something exciting regardless of whether "believable / real" people would act like that... the hero is supposed to be "exceptional" somehow, usually...

    EG, traumatized / PTSD heroes don't make for very "sell-able" protagonists...?
    EG, Bond is tortured / Batman is beaten badly / heroine is violated - escape the cell and it's immediately back to the action... using gadgets / Rape-and-revenge cliche / whatever... how many times is Conan hit on the head and knocked out... but no worsening concussion for him!
    We don't usually see staring at the wall and unable to sleep in most fantasy, except for Frodo at the END of LoTR
     
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  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Well it's not so much the study that is helpful, but what you get out of it.

    IMO, there are two sides involved.

    First, what do you know? What do you see? What do you understand? What is there to be understood?

    Concerning the book and study in general, this is the area that can be helped.

    But the second side is application. How to apply what you've learned?

    I don't know anything about the book, so I don't know how well it aids in application—that is, in actually writing the paragraphs and chapters that will utilize your newfound knowledge. But I suspect that practice, practice, practice will still be a huge chunk of what you need, even if that book or any book on writing can help you out along the way.
     
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  7. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    I mean, it really depends on the sort of stories you're writing when it comes to traumatized / heroes with PTSD. PTSD itself might not work in a traditional medieval fantasy, but Man vs Self is one of the basic forms of conflict for a reason.

    Recently the show Steven Universe: Future went that route to great effect in my opinion. As an epilogue series the main character needs to wrestle with his role in the world now that the day is saved and he doesn't need to be a hero. Along with that everyone is moving on and growing so the status quo he built his sense of stability on is shifting. It's a cartoon that doesn't actually use the term PTSD, but has a doctor describing it as PTSD so kudos for that.

    Mmm.... there was also a fanfic I read that had the protagonist dealing with the fact that they were abused by their evil sorceress aunt for her schemes and wound up stranded in a shadow dimension for months as a main focus. It did it pretty well.
     
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  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Could it work? Yes. Could it not work? Yes.

    Psychology is a very squishy field.
     
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  9. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    I suspect not. In fact, if you tried too hard to take that route you may find yourself creating colour-by-numbers characters with an over emphasis on traits rather than story.

    As I say all the time, character traits need to be created in accordance with plot needs.

    To give a further illustration - one of my closest friends was always unbelievable at understanding people and their motives. He just had this natural way of seeing straight through anything anyone said or did - he would nail it every time. Then he went to uni and studied psychology...and completely lost his innate talent. Instead of perceiving the evidence and making accurate inferences, he went looking for the complexes, syndromes and conditions he'd been learning about. He did eventually get his natural talent back but it took him 20 years.

    So...I'd be wary of trying to apply psychology to inventing characters.
     
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  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    In college I audited several of the courses my then-girlfriend, now wife was taking, and I didn't find them helpful. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on developmental process and identifying the issues that get in the way of those processes. It's dry, and the terms are so technical and abstract that they're not helpful (i.e., increased neuroticism... could mean any number of things).

    Also, in the real world damaged people are.... well, damaged. Psychology looks at the things holding the egomaniac back from enjoying a fulfilling life. It doesn't explain how a Hitler rises to power. History, or sociology, are the places to look for that.

    I audited the courses because I thought they'd be relevant to a marketing degree. I still find Consumer Behavior, Advertising, International Marketing, even the Data Research side of it, extremely useful .... of course they revamped it for social media the year after I graduated. Pfft.

    All that said, I haven't looked at the book, so a book on psychology for writers might be really good, I've no idea. And real psychologists, telling stories about real people, can be absolutely fascinating.... and inspiring. That kind of nonfiction is great for writers.
     
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  11. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    It could be helpful for mining ideas, but I'm not necessarily convinced it'll help you create realistic characters or likeable ones. I'd be worried about boiling down things to averages and typical behaviours rather than individuals and personal choice.

    And it's not necessarily about realistic characters. It's more about creating interesting and consistent ones with clearly understandable motivations. Because a lot of what happens in a story, especially the way people talk and the way things unfold, isn't all that realistic. When we talk we go off in tangents. We have awkward pauses and fill the air with ummms. And our lives don't typically unfold in three-act segments.

    From my perspective, I wonder if it's not like trying to pick something out of your teeth with a jackhammer instead of a simple toothpick.
     
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  12. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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    Ouch!
     
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  13. ShadeZ

    ShadeZ Sage

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    Yes. I am a student of Psychology and I use what I learn not just to make "likeable characters" but also to make relatable villains and in many case very estranged heroes. It is more interesting to readers in my experience if they can PARTLY relate to the main character and partly not. We can all relate to Dexter for example seeking justice but we cannot relate to his methods as such this one abnormal unrelatable component binds the reader to the story. Our drive to understand and puzzle out other people is quite impressive and shouldn't be as underestimated as it is. It allows us to try to make monsters out to be relatable because we want to assume rational reasoning for their actions or to demonize heroes because we believe no one can be that good.
     
  14. js1161997

    js1161997 New Member

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    That's a very good reply to my thread. And I agree! I think psychology wasn't talk about much in terms of novel or writing in general, so I thought about making a discussion about it.
     
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  15. ShadeZ

    ShadeZ Sage

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    Yes, in our current world it seems the best way to make a good story is to have it bare a psychological thriller aspect as well. My current WIP is about a species that lack most empathy and emotion but apart from that have many of the same mental components as neurotypical humans. Generally I find that characters an people with "mental illnesses" are very fascinating because their brain is different and as a result I want to know and understand their unique view of the world. This species additionally is based off the component of the ID, Ego, and Superego and an idea of what if like in animals the human ID ran the show rather than Ego?

    I pulled the way they think from my own ADHD which generally lacks most empathy and is over all less emotionally complex as a neurotypical as my emotions have no regulator so my angry looks like your absolutely furious for example.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2020
  16. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Troubadour

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    It could. But what psychology? If you study personalty traits, perhaps not so much. But some clinical psychology research might give good ideas. Reading Jung has given me ideas.

    Psychology's a big field.

    Ultimately, it's up to you to put the characters together, and that will always depend on life experience more than any system. It's about how people react to problems. But choosing a system of some sort could help. Some people use astrology, but I think that's pretty much like using personality traits, and probably won't help beyond a basic level.
     
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  17. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Scribe

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    It can help with developing your character. Especially keeping your character consistent, so they don’t switch traits at random, especially when a villain goes from a selfish narcissist to one of the good guys and no longer has any selfish narcissistic traits. Now, obviously your characters are more than just psychological traits, everyone has their own nuances.

    As for PTSD it can work, PTSD is a wide array of issues and levels. A hero can have it without being a broken person. I’m pretty functional and I have PTSD, although I did go through a period for a few years where it was a lot worse and I had a lot of coping issues.
     
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  18. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Scribe

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    Psychology is very much not precise - we don't have a 'universal theory of psychology' (or we may have several which all disagree with each other depending on your point of view) so we use models to describe, predict, and influence behaviour in specific circumstances. These models are normally outcome orientated and are more pragmatic than strictly true. Anyway, the problem with this is that people have worked on producing models which help us do specific things such as to treat illness, improve education, influence purchases (yes it's cynical). Once you step outside of the strict purpose of the model, it kinda stops applying - even to the limited degree it would apply under perfect circumstances. I think if you were to try and stitch a character together from psychological models you'd end up with a patchwork creation largely composed of whatever people have researched in the last couple of decades which I doubt would lead to a very realistic or 'whole' character.
     
  19. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I find that the only way to really improve writing characters is by studying people. Psychology is all theories and that will only get you so far.

    I mean, it helps to know the basics but it’s not a sure fire thing that understanding psychology would help you make characters that feel like people. Understanding people will help you make characters that feel like people.
     
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  20. J.W. Golan

    J.W. Golan Dreamer

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    My middle daughter likes to classify characters (mine and others) into MBTI personality types. I believe if you’ve done your job as a writer, your characters will be consistent and will fit into one real-world personality class or another. But that’s probably because there are real people whom I’ve met who are the indirect inspiration for the different people who populate my stories.
     
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