Monday, May 22, 2023

Creating Believable Characters is a Challenging & Rewarding Part of Being a Writer

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

I've heard it said, "Psychologists are analysts; writers are psychological engineers. They use psychology to engineer story characters."

Characterization is complex. Among other things, writers need to know how to engineer characters, design character arcs, weave sympathy and empathy, set up character conflict, show and reveal character, and reveal backstory. It's enough to cross your eyes and cause the most intrepid author to shudder. 

In other words, we must make our main characters three-dimensional. A side note: Minor characters may be two-dimensional (and stereotype), thus making the main character stand out. Much like an artist does in a painting. The background is flat, and the foreground had more dimension and shadow, so it "pops."

An easy way to give your character a one-dimensional profile in the first draft, is assigning one of the Big Five character traits to them.

The Big Five theory is a well-researched psychological theory. According to Wikipedia, the Big Five is a suggested taxonomy, or grouping, for personality traits, developed from the 1980s onward in psychological trait theory. 

The theory identified five factors by labels for the US English speaking population, typically referred to as:
  • 1. Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • 2. Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • 3. Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • 4. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
  • 5. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

BUT … there's that big but again … as I was saying that way involves a lot of rewriting to weave in the other characteristics that make a character complex. 

I've taken the DISC personality test (probably one of the most popular), read the Truity Enneagram (9 personality types), studied the 16 Personality Factors, the HEXACO model, … and more. These come from the 23 most popular personality tests list, and if you are interested, you can access the website here for the list. When I've taken those tests, I never land where people think I will, plus I cross list - we won't go into that. 

The point is, for some, this way works to engineer their characters. But for me, not so much. I can't build a character according to a personality test that tells me how she will respond to things. Mine come out like a Barbie doll with no individuality.

That's why I like to interview my character. While I can assign some traits to her or him up front, it's when I get to their backstory, they give up their secrets. I call it writing a stream of consciousness backstory. I simply sit down at my computer and begin with I (the character) was born … and my God-given imagination takes over. 

Two or three pages later, I've got secrets, dark wounds, and those things that affect her worldview. Add that information to the LIE she believes (which gives me her motivation), and I end up with my three dimensional character, one who grows throughout the story. And yes sometimes, a new facet emerges that I have to add or go back and edit in, but for me, this generally works best.

In my first published book, Chapel Springs Revival, it was in the back story the character of Claire's great-aunt Lola was born. While she died when Claire was a child, she and her life influenced Claire throughout the book. 

"…The first morning Great-aunt Lola's husband didn't kiss her goodbye, she left him. Went off to Hollywood and became a big star in silent movies. … Lola Mitchell never took second place to anyone or anything. She lived the high life, all right. Presidents and princes wined and dined her, while all Claire got was a TV tray in front of a ball game."

And that set up the situation for the story. 

For In High Cotton, I had to go back four generations to discover why Duchess was the way she was, when her sister, Maggie, was so different. What I learned added so much to the story—no backstory revealed in the book, except for a sentence or two more than halfway through.

"My big sister by twenty-two months is now my dependent. I swanney, if Mama were still alive I’d wring her neck for not teaching Duchess anything but manners."

I learned much more in their backstory, but that was the extent of what went into the book as far as direct mention. The rest played out visibly in the characters. 

What I do know and love is how each writer has a different method of engineering their characters. If we're lucky—blessed—the story will touch hearts, giving some reader a glimpse into a better way.

Since we never stop learning, join the conversation and share what works for you to engineer your characters.


Ane Mulligan lives life from a director’s chair, both in theatre and at her desk creating novels. Entranced with story by age three, at five, she saw PETER PAN onstage and was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. One day, her passions collided, and an award-winning, bestselling novelist immerged. She believes chocolate and coffee are two of the four major food groups and lives in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Instagram,Pinterest, The Write Conversation, and Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference Blog.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing! I also do character interviews, but I think I need to add some more to those.