Finding that perfect balance for characterization can be difficult. Many err on the side of simplicity, and this turns their characters into mere caricatures. These flat characters are boring and predictable.
Others try to develop so much back story and depth that their characters become too unpredictable. If every character acted like a real human, there would be too many contradictory elements to make sense.
The great characters of literature are consistent, yet unpredictable. They have depth and backstory that informs reactions and decisions. The purpose of this article is to give you an underutilized tool for striking this balance: psychology podcasts.
The traditional method
A lot of the classic books on writing and characterization recommend surface-level techniques for traits and actions. They usually tell the writer to come up with a key distinguishing personality trait like bravery, jovial, or neurotic.
This serves two purposes. It gives the reader something to latch onto besides a name. For example, if the reader sees a character make a crude joke out of a serious situation, they might identify which character it is from that information. This distinguishing feature method is important whenever you have a large, ensemble cast.
The other purpose is to have some consistency. Humans aren’t consistent in their actions or beliefs in real life, but we often hold fictional characters to a higher standard than ourselves. Consistency creates the illusion of believability. But it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes too consistent of a character will make them flat, boring, and unrealistic.
Another traditional method of characterization is to have one key traumatic moment in their past that leads to a flaw. Again, this lets the character behave in unique ways that contrast with their main trait but in an understandable and consistent way.
For example, Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is unusually intelligent and terrified for a superhero. These are his defining characteristics, and it comes from his backstory of being a nerdy, introvert thrust into the role.
He also had the traumatic moment of seeing his Uncle Ben killed. This moment led to him ultimately overcoming his shy and fearful nature to use his newfound power to do good in the world. These main traits conflict with each other and allow the character a lot of room for doing contradictory actions in a believable and consistent manner.
Psychology podcasts for more depth
I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts these days, and I discovered a huge genre of podcasting I never knew existed. Psychology podcasts come in all sorts of forms. Some take listener questions and provide unofficial diagnoses or advice. Others do entire episodes on one topic, sort of like a class you might take at a university.
I’ve become partial to Psychology in Seattle and Popcorn Psychology (no affiliation with either). Find something you click with because it will take quite a bit of mining to find those perfect gems to incorporate into your characters.
This technique is best shown with an example. Here is the type of situation it can help improve. Suppose Jill and Bob are dating. To be as cliche and stereotypical as possible, let’s say Bob comes home from work and sees dirty dishes in the sink. He gets mad at Jill for not cleaning up.
You might think you don’t write scenes like this because this shallow reasoning for character actions is often less obvious. The point is that these are “first-order” reactions. Bob is mad because Jill didn’t do what he wanted and he expresses this. Jill gets mad back because that’s a typical reaction we’ve all seen in the real world.
Humans are rarely so simple. Suppose now that we have a deeper backstory for Bob based on a situation we hear on a psychology podcast. He’s been rejected after a few months of every relationship he’s had. A “second-order” way that anger can arise is for Bob to sense this rejection coming (even if it’s not) and lash out to sabotage the relationship before it happens.
One episode of Psychology in Seattle was all about this concept. In order to protect our egos, we can do strange things like this to feel like we have some control over our lives. So, Bob might have two competing forces in his psychology. He doesn’t want the relationship to end, but he also “knows” Jill is about to break it off based on his history of dating.
As you see, the angry response to the dishes might have nothing to do with the dishes. Once you have a better idea of these “second-order” issues causing the surface argument, you can shift the details of the scene to better draw this out. This scene that could have been a cliche is suddenly converted to something much deeper.
Of course, you can take this approach too far and end up with your characters doing all sorts of weird things for hidden reasons. The best way I’ve found to incorporate this into my characterization is to hunt for one underlying flaw or trauma from the character’s past based on something described on one of these podcasts.
The next step is to list all the ways this can manifest and keep notes. This list will serve you during the writing process by providing common ways your character might react. You’ll be surprised at how your characters stop acting in obvious, predictable ways. They’ll catch your readers by surprise, but since these are all stemming from the same cause, there will be an underlying believability and consistency to it.
As someone who has been trying to refine this technique, I’ll warn you about some dangers. Many of the most interesting topics to podcast about are pathologies, and it can be tempting to give your characters undiagnosed personality disorders.
I started developing a premise for a new story, and I had the main character with paranoid personality disorder, the father with narcissistic personality disorder, and the best friend with post-traumatic stress disorder. That was a bit much.
Unless you have a strong reason to include it, using abnormal psychology is risky because it will draw much of the attention of the story to it. The above technique with Bob and Jill might seem atypical to a non-psychologist, but it’s actually a very common part of human interaction. It should ring true if the scene is written well.
It is also important to include details in the scene that draw out the underlying causes of these reactions. With Bob and Jill, the reader could come away thinking Bob is acting like a jerk for no reason. Of course, the psychological reason doesn’t excuse being a jerk, but the reader should feel some sort of understanding of why he reacted in that way.
These details should be fairly subtle or it will come across as heavy-handed armchair psychologizing. It can even be something as simple as Jill responding with, “No wonder Julia left you.” This will prompt the reader to realize it might not be about the dishes even if the rest of the argument never references Bob’s ex-girlfriends again. Depending on the scene, it could be softer and subtler.
Listening to psychology podcasts has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience for me. They serve as great lessons into the workings of the human mind, and this can be turned directly into material for your writing.
They can help writers who resort to obvious reactions or lean too heavily on caricatures. Surprisingly, they can even help writers who develop too much by refining a character down to a few key psychological traits.
Psychology podcasts can be a great resource for creating deeper characters that act in interesting and believable ways.