Applying psychology to character creation

Posted: August 26, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

Despite spending two years studying psychology at A-level, and occasionally dipping into books and articles since, I tend to forget the theory of psychology when creating and depicting characters. I’m sometimes inspired by particularly vivid images from the subject, like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, but I haven’t applied the structures and frameworks it provides.

Fortunately, I have the smart people at Extra Credits to remind me about this stuff. They recently did an episode on using the Myers Briggs personality model for character creation. The video’s only seven minutes long, and worth a look:


Aside from providing a tool I can use in character creation, this reminded me of the other tools I already had. Knowledge about social psychology I can use when depicting crowds, cities and events. Developmental psychology that can give me insight into the background of my characters. Simplified behavioural models from management courses that can provide quick archetypes for bit-part characters.

They say write what you know, but what you know isn’t just what you’ve lived and done, it’s what you’ve read, seen, heard and learned. And if you’ve read any psychology, then that’s a way to make your characters a lot richer.

It seems obvious now I write it, but I simply hadn’t done it until now.

Have any of you lot used academic psychology in your writing? Was it useful? Are there other fields you’ve studied that you’ve found particularly useful, and think others should read up on? Let me know, leave a comment below.

  1. Bit of a cheat for me o answer but … I had to tweak a backstory to make it plausible for two adopted siblings to experience sexual attraction as the professional psychologist in me couldn’t tolerate the crime against science otherwise ;). I’ve also done it the other way round – thing X happened in person Y’s childhood so how should that affect them. Given my job it’s pretty impossible to avoid using psychology in fiction writing…

    • Hey, if you use it then you’ll have good examples. And it’s interesting those two aspects – either going back to tweak a character’s background and make their current mental state realistic, or taking something from that background and working out how it’ll change their current character. Those are things that could come in at the editing stage, as well as in the initial character creation.

  2. everwalker says:

    I use my classical history knowledge very extensively in world-building – if you’re writing early fantasy societies, there’s a huge amount you can take from the ancient world and a number of different social structures which can inform your build.

    • Doing the same with history is probably the closest that I come, though even there I tend to steal examples for inspiration, rather than applying my knowledge of how societies change over time, of historical cause and effect, etc.

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