I'm Not Defensive! Psyc 101 for Character Development


Freud exhibition

Freud Exhibition Photo by Regine Debatty (click pic for link)

As many of you know, my background is in psychology and social work. Although I'm sure my writing could have benefited from an English degree, I'm happy that I chose the path I did because all those psyc classes provided loads of information on why people act the way they do. And this of course is invaluable when creating characters stories.

I love developing a character's backstory (even if most of it never makes it into the book). This makes the character "real" to me. It gives me a base so that I can answer those questions that come up later in the book: How would MC react to this situation? What emotions would she have?

One of the most basic things that you should know about your characters is what is their go to reaction to stress? In other words, what's their favorite defense mechanism?

Freud came up with many different defense mechanisms so I won't list them all, but I'll hit some of the highlights that could help you in character development.

Level 1 Defenses
These are normal in young childhood, but in adults indicate psychosis.
  • Denial--Refusing to accept reality. This is a common joke-"you're in denial". But true denial means the person honestly doesn't believe the reality.
  • Distortion--Recreating a new version of reality to meet their needs.
Level 2
These are normal in adolescence. In adults, this can indicate severe depression and personality disorders.
  • Fantasy--Retreating into fantasy world to deal with conflicts.
  • Projection--Taking your unacceptable feelings and impulses and assigning them to someone else. It's a version of paranoia. Think of the guy who is always accusing his wife of cheating, but in fact he's the one who's cheating.
  • Somatization--Emotional hurt manifesting as physical symptoms. Common in depression--person complains of body aches and feeling tired. I saw this a lot when I worked with teens. If they had a bad night at home, the next day they were feeling sick at school.
  • This also can be a cultural thing. Some cultures are not as accepting of people (particularly men) expressing depression/anxiety/etc. so often physical symptoms will pop up instead. Remember this is not a conscious decision on the person's part, this happens subconsciously.
  • Passive Aggression--Expressing aggression through indirect means. You're mad at your boss, but instead of confronting her, you "forget" to give her a really important phone message.
  • Acting Out--Expressing unconscious desire through action. Teen isn't getting attention at home, so acts out at school to get adults to care.
Level 3
These are commonly found in adults, although they are technically considered "neurotic" in Freud-land.
  • Displacement--Taking your emotions about something or someone and directing it at a "safer" target. A mom has a bad day at work, but comes home and yells at the kids.
  • Dissociation--Completely separating from yourself and the uncomfortable emotions. This is extreme. Can happen when someone is being abused, tortured, raped, etc.
  • Intellectualization--Separating the idea/event from the emotions. A cop finds the body of someone he knows, but has to do his job, so he focuses on the forensics of the scene instead of letting himself feel the emotions.
  • Reaction Formation--Flipping your feeling to the opposite. You hate your mother in law, but are overly nice when she's around.
  • Repression--Pushing thoughts/events that you can't handle into your subconscious. This is what "repressed memories" mean.
  • Regression--Reverting to an earlier stage of behavior or development rather than handling the emotions in an adult way. This can be seen in children as well.
  • Rationalization--Convincing yourself that your initial impression of a situation was wrong. Someone who loves their job is fired and he starts thinking--I hated that job anyway, the hours sucked, etc.
Level 4
Defenses of the "healthy" adult
  • Altruism--Finds comfort in helping others. People who were traumatized by Katrina, but went to the Red Cross and volunteered.
  • Humor--Ah, my personal favorite. Taking a negative situation and disarming it by seeing the humor in the moment.
  • Sublimation--Taking unacceptable impulses and channeling them into something positive. The idea of cutting someone open is fascinating? What do you do? Become a serial killer or a surgeon. Sublimation would be picking surgeon. (Not that all surgeons are sublimated serial killers, lol.)
  • Compensation--Counterbalancing your weak points by emphasizing your strong points. This is my first thought when I see the five foot tall guy climbing into one of those monster trucks.
  • Suppression--Tucking away unwanted emotions or impulses to deal with later. A woman is attracted to her married neighbor, but chooses to push down those thoughts since they are not productive.
Alright, hope that wasn't too dry and boring. I really do find knowing which of these my characters possess helps me a lot with story decisions. My romance MC is big on humor and suppression with a touch of repression, so I have a lot to use with her.

So do any of your characters have any of these in their baggage? Do you have a personal favorite among these that you use in your stories? And, do the psyc posts make you want to poke your eyes out or do you find them helpful? Let me know so that I don't continue to go down a road if no one is interested. :)
**Today's Theme Song**
"I Don't Believe You" - Pink
(player in sidebar, go ahead and take a listen)