Guest Post: Using Defense Mechanisms for Characters by Laura Diamond


Today I'd like to welcome Laura Diamond to the blog. Psychiatrist by day, writer by night, Laura is going offer her expertise in how you can use some principals from psychology to help in building your characters and determining their behavior.


So, Laura, take it away!

Using Defense Mechanisms to Determine Our Characters’ Behaviors

Defense mechanisms (developed by Sigmund and Anna Freud) are “unconscious” (meaning the person is not directly or consciously aware of it happening) emotional and behavioral strategies that allow every human being on the planet cope with reality. Some defense mechanisms are productive…others, not so much.

So how does this tie into writing?

Writers must create tension—if not, their story/novel/novella falls faster than a two ton anvil dropped off a cliff.

One of the ways to keep tension high is to create conflict between characters. Below are a list of defense mechanisms and common associated behaviors you can use in your writing to torque up the conflict.



  • Denial—the person is unable to accept the reality of a situation because it is too frightening to perceive. Ex. Frank refuses to have life-saving surgery to cure his cancer because he doesn’t believe he is sick.
  • Splitting—the person sees people as either all good or all bad. They cannot “see” that people are made up of a mixture of good and bad. Ex. Denise is best friends with Sherri. Sherri doesn’t call Denise to go out shopping. Denise feels hurt and now refuses to speak to Sherri for all the terrible things Sherri has done to her.
  • Acting out—the person acts out an impulse without really thinking it through. Ex. Max doesn’t like the fact that his ex-girlfriend, Nancy, chose another guy over him, so he punches the guy in the face when they run into each other in the mall.
  • Idealization—the person holds another individual to such high esteem, that they feel the person can do no wrong. Ex. Amber believes her husband is the perfect man, even when he confesses that he’s been cheating. Amber decides to forgive him because of all the good things he’s done, like buying the kids awesome presents or taking her to Hawaii last year for vacation.
  • Projection—the person projects onto another person character defects that they cannot tolerate within themselves. This often takes the form of extreme jealousy and prejudice. Ex. Mary thinks Harry is having an affair because he talked to another woman at a party. She picks a fight with him after they get home.
  • Projective Identification—the person behaves in such a way as to make the other person feel what they are feeling. Ex. Joan is angry about being dumped and is quite mistrustful of men. She makes her best friend, Sally, wonder if her husband is going to leave her.
  • Rationalization—the person separates their emotional side from their “smarts,” such that any interaction becomes watered down and “non-emotional.” Ex. Sam is disappointed that Lucy doesn’t want to date him, but he tells himself they weren’t a match anyway, because she likes science and he likes history
  • Isolation (of affect/emotional display)—the person has a separation of feelings from ideas and events. Ex. Inez witnesses a murder, but is able to describe the graphic details without showing an emotional response.
  • Reaction formation—the person converts unconscious wishes or impulses to their opposites. Ex. Larry fantasizes about having sex all the time, but he becomes a celibate.  
  • Repression—the person “forgets” a certain terrible thing in order to do what they need to do. Ex. Phoebe witnesses her brother getting shot, but is able to call 911 and perform CPR rather than disintegrate into tears because she is putting action ahead of emotions.
  • Altruism—the person puts others’ needs ahead of themselves. Ex. Becky is a match for Cindy and donates her kidney.
  • Humor—the person uses “wit” and jokes to give pleasure to themselves or others. Ex. Lucas finds out his girlfriend, Talia, is pregnant and says, “Well, honey, you always wanted a shotgun wedding.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it gets your creative juices flowing and helps prompt ideas for tension-filled scenes. Please note that this post is for writing purposes ONLY and is NOT intended for medical advice or treatment. If you have a mental health related question, be sure to visit my blog and ask away! I’d love to feature your question on Mental Health Monday.

Laura Diamond is a board certified psychiatrist with aspirations of becoming a published author. She writes urban fantasy, young adult urban fantasy, young adult dystopian, and middle grade adventure. Come visit her blog, Diamond, Yup Like the Stone, where Mental Health Mondays, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog, and Flake-our Fridays are regular features.

Thanks so much to Laura for stopping by. So what do you think? Do any of your characters use these things? What's your favorite defense mechanism to use?

**There will be no posts until next Monday. I hope everyone enjoys their holiday! Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!**