A parental approach to character psychology

Posted: June 3, 2014 in writing
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I’ve been thinking recently about how to create characters who are contradictory but convincing. After all, that’s what real human beings are like. We aren’t always consistent. We are filled with a range of impulses pulling us in different directions. Our best and worst moments come when those impulses collide.

Then it occurred to me – one way to achieve this is the same way real psychologies develop – through the parents. So much of our thinking as human beings is founded on the influences our parents bring to bear, yet we seldom use that for characters.

But what makes it work this way?

But what makes it work this way?


I haven’t had a chance to really play with this yet, but next time I try to develop a character I’m going to think about what that character’s parents would have been like. What did each of them contribute to their child’s psychology? Which characteristics did they share, creating consistencies in their kids? In what ways did they contradict each other, and so set up contradictory or problematic influences in the character?

It’s not a flawless approach. Who knows if it’ll create the mix of characteristics that I’m after. But if nothing else I’ll end up with a character with a slightly better thought-out background.

Have you tried anything like this? What do you do to create well-rounded characters? And what characters are you aware of that have visible parental influences? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.


Picture by J E Theriot via Flickr creative commons

  1. everwalker says:

    Certainly with Thea in Spiritus I paid a good deal of attention to the impact of her parents on her psyche, mainly because it explained why she was such a damaged person and thus gave a reason for most of her motivations. But then, Thea’s story was so intimately tied up with family that it wasn’t something I could really avoid.

  2. Even though my protagonist is a Standard Orphan, his whole world-view has been formed in reaction to his parents, and they still play a huge part in his life despite/by being gone. Likewise for many of my characters, whose emotional conflicts and driving forces were largely in reaction to their parents — or reactions to becoming parents themselves. It’s not the whole of their development, but it is definitely good to know what kind of environment your character was born into, so you can tell how they’d react to changes in it.

    • Interesting that even the orphan is affected by his parents – is this from the effect they had before they died, from what he’s heard about them since, or from something else?

  3. G.B. Koening says:

    Just imagine:
    ‘Ishmeal! You put down that harpoon! I know, I know, Queequeg’s mum lets him play with it; but what if Queequeg harpoons his eye out? What would his mum say then? You just run down to your cabin and wash your hands for tea…there’s a good lad!’

    But seriously, I’ve not tried the parental approach. It might be a little too deep for me. Generally, I tend to pull the characters I write about/create from people I’ve met or worked with in the past. In some instances it’s very cathartic!
    Although, in the story I’m currently working on, the parents do play a significant role in the protagonists outlook on life, but it came about rather organically with little to no forethought, so I may have to get back to you on that…

  4. malwen says:

    I know I have drawn attention to Ars Magica rules before, but reading this blog post made me think immediately of some of the Character Flaws and the character generation rules in the Apprentices book. Might be worth a peek.

  5. PeteK says:

    Siblings and birth order can have quite an impact on character too. Worth bearing in mind along with the parental influence. Jason and Shawn Ogg from Pratchett spring to mind.

    • Good point, and one where my bias shows again – as oldest sibling I’m probably less tuned into these things. Will make an effort to bear it in mind on the characters I’m creating at the moment.

  6. Sue Archer says:

    This sounds like a good approach. I also like H.’s idea about how becoming a parent can change you. What’s interesting about becoming a parent is how you relive the influences your parents had on you, and gain a different perspective. It’s like a second stage in the process.

    One thing that kind of bugs me is how parental influences are generally portrayed as negative in fiction. I guess there’s more drama there, but it would be nice to see more balanced views. Sometimes I think it would be cool to write about a mother and son team taking on the big bad, like in Terminator 2 (but with less psychological damage).

    • That reliving of parental influences is how I came to think about this. Without getting into details, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in counselling and self-reflection over the past three years, and parental influences came up a lot. It quickly became an area where real life insights informed my writing, and where my writing also gave me insights into what was going on in my subconscious.

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