Using Psychological Principles to Plot Your Characters

by Brooke McIntyre

Author Jessica Bayliss worked as a psychologist for years before beginning to write in her spare time. As her writing projects grew into novels, she discovered that the same principles she used as a therapist helped her more deeply understand her characters. At the May Professional Series, Bayliss explained the core model she uses as a psychologist, and how writers can use that model to write more believable characters.

Our stories include both an action plot–what is happening in the character’s external world– and an emotional plot–what is happening to the character internally. The Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) model relates the two. In the CBT model, a character has thoughts about their particular situation. Their thoughts generate emotions. Their emotions, in turn, drive behavior.

Situation → Thought → Emotion → Behavior

Plot-driven writers can start with key plot points–the behavior– that will be seen in the action plot. Perhaps the villain tries to kidnap the main character. Or, maybe the main character cheats to win a contest, or puts their life at risk to help a friend. The writer can work backwards to the thoughts and emotions that would drive this behavior. Writers can ask themselves questions like:

  1. What would it take for the character to take this action?
  2. What thoughts would the character have to have?
  3. What situation would be significant enough to make the character change?

Character-driven writers can start with a character’s situation and thoughts, and consider the emotions they would feel and the resulting choices they might make.

Adding nuance to the model, characters have multiple domains: work or school, social, hobbies, family, and self-care. Characters may function well in one domain, but poorly in another. Bayliss gave the example of Sherlock Holmes, who excels at his work, but struggles socially. Some characters have a good understanding of their functioning. When characters do not have good insight into how they are functioning, they may have thoughts and beliefs that are not true. The variation in how characters function across the pieces of their lives adds richness, complexity, and potential conflict to the character and their story.

These techniques can be used at a high level in outlining, for getting to know characters at the outset of a writing project, or for getting unstuck in the midst of a scene. “Look at your story through rose-colored glasses,” said Bayliss–-the glasses of your character. And watch your characters come alive!

———-

Brooke McIntyre is the founder of the online writing groups platform Inked Voices, which helps people find writing partners, and runs online agent events and small workshops. She’s passionate about using technology to facilitate peer learning and about connecting with people on a human level online. Find her at www.inkedvoices.com and on Twitter @InkedVoices.

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