Choice Theory – Applying Psychology to Writing

Posted: February 19, 2015 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

3150914914_7acc83ebf8_zMany of the best tools for writing fiction were created for other reasons. Computing pioneers had higher aims in mind than letting me write stories. The printing press was meant to spread wisdom and/or religious righteousness, depending on who you talked to. And when William Glasser developed choice theory, he was looking to improve education and mental health, not let me develop more sophisticated imaginary people. Yet here we are.

I learned about choice theory over Christmas. My sister Ruth, a far more noble person than myself, has spent years working with disadvantaged young people, trying to teach them life skills and avoid social exclusion. In her work, she’s made extensive use of choice theory, which is rooted in the idea that there are five drives behind all of our choices:

  • survival
  • love and belonging
  • power
  • freedom
  • fun and learning

Choice theory has its critics, but for Ruth’s work it’s invaluable in helping young people to pick apart their motives, to disentangle their thoughts and emotions and make their lives easier.

As a writer, I want to use it the other way around. Those are a powerful and fundamental set of drivers. They focus on different emotional needs that can become tangled and contradictory. Imagine using them to think about characters. What happens when Ju-long the magician‘s desire for power comes into conflict with his desire for learning? What if Sarah the escaped slave‘s need to survive puts her freedom at risk? If Ezhno the medicine woman‘s craving for love and belonging becomes warped by her life experiences, and she sees threats to that belonging all around her, how hard and how misguidedly might she fight to preserve it?

Any template or division of character traits can have its uses in developing characters. This one appeals to me because it gives a few fundamental themes around which to develop motives, and which can put characters in conflict with themselves and others. I’m going to try using it to create some future characters, working out how each drive affects them, which they prioritise, and how they come into conflict. Hopefully when I have time to do it it’ll add some character depth.

Do you have any other psychological models you like to use when developing characters? Leave a comment, give me some other models to work with. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try exploring the characters you’re reading or writing about using this model. Which of these drivers are they motivated by already? And how could these different drives create conflict for those characters?

Picture by Steve and Shanon Lawson via Flickr Creative Commons.

  1. Sue Archer says:

    I think this is a great idea, Andrew. It reminded me a bit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but yours is more useful for character development.

    • Interesting comparison, and not one I’d considered. Have you tried applying Maslow to character development? His hierarchy never appealed to me for writing purposes, and I think choice theory offers a richer selection of deep motivations, but I can see how Maslow’s model might have its uses.

  2. glenatron says:

    It was interesting at the last place I worked that they used “insights discovery” tests on everyone who worked there. Those classify people into four very simple subsets ( with many finer-grained subdivisions ) that more or less offer a simplified Myers-Briggs profile. By understanding what type you are and what type your colleagues are, and how those types can relate, the idea is you can smooth operations within the team and- by applying similar understanding- with clients.

    It’s a very simple system, but people do fit into it and if you know whereabouts on that kind of classification a character sits, it can make it easier to judge what would be a plausible decision for them ( particularly if they are seeming unreasonable ) and where conflict may arise between them and other characters.

    • There’s something perversely appealing about the idea of taking a system designed to smooth out real life relationships, and then using it to ensure that characters conflict with each other. I haven’t seen ‘insights discovery’ before, but quickly glancing at the link I was interested to see that they start with perceptions. The way we filter the world affects how we think and interact so much, it’s another great place to start with characters.

  3. Liza Barrett says:

    Great post. I can’t honestly say that I intentionally use any sort of model such as this in my character development, but I am a VERY critical reader (and writer) when it comes to understanding what is motivating a character. The reasons behind the choices a character makes can often do more to drive a plot than, say, having an antagonist.

    • I certainly feel like the most interesting characters are the ones whose choices drive the plot and make things hard for them. If it’s all externally driven, it’s much less about that character.

  4. I might suggest another drive for the list: Dedication.

    Some characters act and/or make decisions based on something they are dedicated to, like a cause, a person/group/family, a job or a personal code. Soldiers, public servants, family members, “heroes,” etc, might willingly forego all of the other drives listed above, even survival, to satisfy their dedication.

    • That’s an interesting one. For choice theory, I think that would usually fit in with belonging, as dedication is often linked to our sense of being part of a group. But you’re right, it’s a really useful thing to think about in itself – not just what people are dedicated to, but how dedicated they are, can create great variety.

      • Yes, it can fit into belonging… but keep in mind that the group may also be an abstract one… “patriots,” “inspirationalists,” etc… and the only way to “join” such a group may be in Heaven (or Hell). Dedication is an explanation for quite a bit of anti-social behavior… the “lone wolf,” doing what he has to, even though it means he must remain alone.

  5. […] Choice Theory – Applying Psychology to Writing at Andrew Knighton Writes […]

  6. […] for survival affecting choices – this and the following four are borrowed from choice theory – how do these psychological drivers affect the character’s behaviour? which make the […]

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