Fiction writers are, first and foremost, writers. Our job is to tell you a story.
But we're also part psychologist.
In order to write a good character, an author needs to get into that character's head, find out what makes him tick, and most importantly, discover his needs and fears. Testing a character's mettle against his darkest fears is one of the best ways to get a great story out of him. This works for any piece of storytelling. It's also a great way to bond your audience with the character. If your audience cares about the character, they're more likely to struggle and cheer right alongside him as he battles to win his quest. For the purposes of this article, let's look at a few films. If you don’t want the movies spoiled for you, it’s highly recommended that you have watched them.
Bonding with the Audience
Example #1) Avatar (2009)
James Cameron's epic science fiction film takes place on a planet so far into space that its visitors need to be put into a cryogenic sleep to reach it. Like any science fiction film, it's full of creatures and technologies far removed from our own. Even the main character is intended to “suit up” into an alien body. Cameron realized that in order to make his audience care about this character, it had to be about who he was, not what he looked like. We are told that Jake Sully is not only a war veteran, but a paraplegic whose twin brother was killed in a mugging. All of this is explained in the first six minutes of the film, long before he is given his avatar body. That’s some fast bonding, and it’s important to the character’s emotional journey throughout the film.
Example #2) How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Everyone loves an underdog. When you give that underdog a sense of humor and curiosity that far exceeds anything his fellow Vikings have achieved, it’s hard not to root for him. Hiccup meets challenges and ridicule not with angst or backlash, but a refreshing wit that tells us the village’s mockery won’t best him. It’s a vicarious look into who we all want to be—the guy who meets opposition and has the moxie to rise above it. We know this smart, funny character is going to have an adventure his village never dreamed of having.
Getting into a Character's Head
Example #1) Die Hard (1988)
The first thing we learn about John McClane, a tough New York City cop, is that he’s afraid of flying. This is a guy who likes a sense of control, and he’s about to lose control in a big way. McClane is trapped in a building whose occupants are held hostage over millions in bearer bonds. He’s unarmed, unprepared, and without even his shoes. Over the course of the film, his options dwindle away, bit by bit. He has to fight for every little win he gets. He’s forced to walk over broken glass. He’s pushed to confront his fear of heights and lack of control. He is reduced to a more and more savage version of himself in order to face the escalating circumstances around him. It’s a character degradation in the most amazing sense, and one of the reasons this film is a perennial action favorite. By the end of the film, his iconic scream, “Haaaans!” is proof that this man has had enough, and he’ll do anything to finish this fight.
Example #2) Pretty Woman (1990)
What a character needs is just as powerful as what he (or she) fears, and it’s often the subject of romantic stories. In this film, viewers generally mistake Edward as the only one who’s missing something (compassion). But Vivian is also in dire need of someone to value her. She is just as afraid of love as she is in need of it (remember that she makes it a point not to kiss on the lips, because that’s too serious). She has a history of being treated poorly, and indeed, is mistreated by one of Edward’s colleagues and by the snippy workers at a high-end fashion store. You can see her posture change during these scenes, where otherwise, in moment of confidence, she walks tall. One of my favorite scenes (and one for many, many other viewers) is her moment of vindication where she walks back into that boutique, tall, proud, and confident in how she puts those prejudiced workers in their places. This is a wonderful example of being in a character’s head through not what she says, but what she does.
The psychology of your character and his (or her) bond with your audience are the keys to great storytelling. Fears and desires, loss and love are what make us all part of the human condition. (If you’re looking for a great shorthand list of what makes human beings tick, check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)
If you’d like to see an example of character psychology in Nicki’s own work, check out FINDING HOME, available now for free at your favorite ebook retailer. Happy reading!
Women’s Fiction Short Story, rated G
Women’s Fiction Short Story, rated G
Sometimes life's most tragic events help you find your way. When Cecilia Marsh returns to Langley Mills, Wisconsin after the death of her father, she rediscovers a town that hasn't forgotten her. Through a tapestry of memories, she begins to understand that roots, while invisible, run very deep indeed. An original short story and 2008 winner of the Rebecca Eddy Memorial Award.
Nicki Greenwood graduated SUNY Morrisville with a degree in Natural Resources, which of course has nothing to do with writing novels. She has also worked in a bakery, an insurance agency, a flower shop, and a doctor's office, which have nothing to do with writing, either. She did spend an awesome two years as an assistant editor for a publisher, and now does freelance editing on the side. Nicki still holds down a day job, which manages to get her out of the house once in a while. Since 2010, she has written eight novels, including the award-winning Gifted Series.
Nicki lives in upstate New York with her husband, son, and assorted pets. If you can't find her at her computer, you can always try the local Renaissance Faire.
Contact Nicki using an of the links below. She’s on Facebook most often, but she really digs Pinterest.