Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Psychology in Worldbuilding: a Google+ hangout report

We had an interesting discussion of psychology in worldbuilding, focusing mainly on the question of how psychology relates characters to their surrounding circumstances. I was joined by Jaleh Dragich, Kyle Aisteach, Brian Dolton, and Glenda Pfeiffer. There were some technical difficulties which meant that Erin Peterson only joined us for a few seconds, and Deirdre Murphy couldn't get in. I wish I could explain these! Technology can be fickle at times, so sorry about that.

The idea for the discussion came from my recent blog post about character intelligence. My guests called it the "idiot plot," where otherwise intelligent people suddenly make really bad decisions, or act in a way inconsistent with their general level of intelligence. Jaleh mentioned an example from Body of Proof where a doctor sees her love interest go down with a knife to the gut and just sits there trembling and saying "hang on." She's a doctor. She's trained for this kind of thing, you know?

Over the course of the discussion, we discussed three major layers of character psychology, all of which are very valuable to consider as you're teasing out character motivations for a story. For the purposes of this report, I'll list them up front and then elaborate on the discussion below. They are:
  1. Fundamental personality
  2. Backstory/personal history
  3. Recent current circumstances
Fundamental personality is both the easiest to see and the hardest to understand fully. Elements of fundamental personality include things like introversion or extroversion, optimism, earnestness, straightforwardness, perfectionism, and the tendency to joke. In children they tend to become evident as patterns very early. When your character is scared or angry, does she get ready to fight? Or does she laugh inappropriately? This kind of reaction often comes out of the fundamental personality. I myself have a tendency to laugh aloud when I am delighted by something, which causes people to tell me they aren't joking (hint: I know they're not joking!).

Of course, there are plenty of reactions that are learned, or are responses to experience. This is the backstory layer, and in this the group decided to include cultural knowledge as well as personal life experience. A character's cultural background sets up expectations that let them define what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior, what kind of people are worthy or rude, etc. This kind of thing makes an enormous difference in how they will react to events. I also include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in this layer, because it sets up a set of fundamental fears and intense reactions as a result of specific traumatic experiences.

I have a character, Tamelera, who suffers a great deal of stress and fear because of her husband's abuse. She is disinclined to trust men - and as a result, in the course of the story she has difficulty trusting her male servant, especially since he was chosen for her by her husband. Interestingly, however, once she comes to trust him on the basis of his servant status, this allows her to get past her fear of men in his particular case.

Kyle mentioned a character he's worked with who is a Chinese man set in a world where the US has lost a war with China (and atrocities have been committed on both sides). The main character is angry with Americans for killing his parents, which sets him up for a struggle when he must work with an American character who was involved in the attack that killed him, in order to save Americans... Kyle is making the character's job a bit easier by giving the two a common enemy (a good strategy when trying to reconcile enemies). In this vein I mentioned Ken Liu's Hugo and Nebula-nominated story, "The Man who Ended History." If you're looking for an example of a story with complex character psychology, this is an excellent example.

Family issues can also be central to a character's psychology. Kyle gave us an interesting personal example involving Murder in the Cathedral. Apparently he had a low opinion of the three knights involved in the assassination when he was involved in the play, but his opinion changed when he learned he was actually distantly descended from them. Jaleh talked about working with a character whose father had been publicly declared a traitor and executed, which gave her a far better reason for a second character to get involved and care for her - Jaleh simply had the second character be a person formerly acquainted with the character's father. This transformed the narrative because it gave the characters proper motivation to care about one another.

This brings us to the layer of current circumstances, which includes any kind of events that have occurred within the course of the story, but particularly those which have just occurred and which influence a character's mental state and agitation level. Kyle related to the problem of how mental states can influence behavior, noting that severe stress can cause people to make idiotic decisions. He said he wouldn't recommend that someone climb out after swimming the English channel and then try to perform brain surgery.

Mental states can also influence moment-by-moment plausibility of characters' reactions. My character Tagret gets caught in a mass panic trying to get out of the ballroom, and when he gets home, the First Houseman tells him something has happened with their caretaker (a servant). At that point, due to previous events, Tagret is very agitated and worrying about people in the panic, and he immediately makes an incorrect guess that the caretaker was somehow caught in the panic. When the First Houseman tells him that the caretaker has resigned his position, it takes a second for Tagret even to realize what he's talking about. Characters need to change gears sometimes without being rushed. In fact, the importance of ongoing mental states is one of the things that motivates me to write in strict chronological order, rather than hopping around through the story. Jaleh notes that it's still important even if you work like she does, filling in the early parts of the story to get to a fully envisioned and written ending. (Kyle notes that he does this too).

If you're looking to have mental illness come into the picture, I recommend you do some specific research on different kinds of conditions and their symptoms. A great example of a book that features a lot of carefully integrated mental illnesses is C.S. Friedman's This Alien Shore, which even includes a planet where everyone has some kind of mental problem - and those are perceived as sources of unique talent. My own experience was that my antagonist, Nekantor, began just as a sort of vaguely mean and evil guy, but became a far more interesting character when I figured out that he was mentally ill with paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you want your characters to be "insane," do your research - you'll be able to take their behaviors a lot further without losing plausibility, because they will have a grounding in actual psychology.

This brought us to the question of antagonist psychology. Kyle said, "Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to be evil today.'" Brian says the antagonist always should see himself as the hero of his own stories, and observes that people generally have reasons for what they are doing - even terrorists. I urge all of you reading this not ever to allow yourself a blind spot for the psychology and motivations of your antagonist. One of my guests (Jaleh?) recommended the following book: Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to write the bad guys of fiction. Kyle mentioned the bad guys of Greek tragedy, who had to be heroes, because they would change from good guy to bad guy between one play and another. Antigone features a conflict between someone doing the right thing for the country and someone doing the right thing for her family.

Do look beyond protagonists and antagonists, too. Not every character needs to have a complex psychology, but knowing the thoughts and motives of secondary characters can really lift the interactions you portray from simplistic to complex and real-seeming.

Thanks again to all my guests - and to my readers, I hope to see you at a future hangout!


  1. Yep, that was me. :D The B, B, & B book not only helps with the antagonists but the less heroic protagonists as well (think Han Solo). It talks about a variety of character types such as the Tarnished Knight which is spot on what I was aiming for with one of my characters. It's one of my favorite writing books.

    Fortunately, only one of my stories involves working toward the figured out climax. It's a pain to make sure the personal and plot arcs are plausible and still end up where I want them. But keeping motivations in mind really helps with that.

    That Body of Proof episode was a classic idiot act for the very end. It's not even a secondary character; it's the main protag, Dr. Megan Hunt, one of the medical examiners. And the guy who was stabbed was her main detective partner. Not love interest though there'd been times during the series where it looked like it could have gone there and didn't. I could see why she was freaking out and acting atypically (almost getting killed certainly qualifies) but at the same time I was still yelling at her to remember she's a doctor and at least get a compress on the wound and juggle the phone while telling her best friend to "hang on."

  2. Thanks for the clarifications, Jaleh! You are so right...and thanks again for the book recommendation.