Developing Characters: A Psychological Perspective

Hey guys,

So today I have decided that I want to incorporate a little more psychology into how I develop my characters and I think you may be a little interested in how I do it. Now there are many psychological methods of explaining personality; depending if you have set your story in a real time era (such as medieval) you may have to refer to alternative psychological perspectives (for medieval; consider the humours). However, the perspective that I will be considering is a widely accepted theory, one that has been applied to other theories and is the basis of many psychological ‘testing’; Cattell’s 16 Personality Factors.

As you can tell by the name, there are 16 factors that I am going briefly discuss, and apply each to building a character. Just a note about personality factors, they are not yes/no but rather a scale; for example, high in warmth or low in warmth. So for me, I like to plot each character on a 10-point scale for each scale and consider how these impact the character’s behaviour. Now there will be a lot of factors being discussed, so it will be brief but there is a host of online resources that go into further detail.

Factor 1: Warmth

So, a lot of female characters are generally described as warm but don’t let this prevent you from making a warm male protagonist. Warmth considers how approachable a person is, how welcoming and friendly, but also compassionate and understanding. This is a great characteristic that can help diffuse situations or even cause conflict with an antagonist that doesn’t want to be welcomed but fought.

However there are times when a lack of warmth may be better suited for a character; where they don’t value close friends, don’t welcome strangers or find it hard to communicate emotions or accept others emotions. This is stereotypical of male protagonists in epic adventure or fantasy plot-lines. Remember though, that your character does not have to be an extreme; you can have a protagonist that is generally lacking warmth but when it comes to children or close friends they are really warming and welcoming.

Factor 2: Reasoning

A characters ability to reason may not sound like a personality trait however if you consider the charisma, persuasion and logical understanding, you can understand that reasoning also links to elements most people consider personality. Another element of reasoning, is being able to understand behaviours and actions of others by identifying their reasons for the behaviours.

As you can probably imagine, this could be extremely beneficial or a hinderence; if you have an assassin that reasons for their target’s actions it may prevent them from completing their task. But then again, if you have a teacher who cannot reason with her students or understand why they are struggling this can be a problem all the same.

Factor 3: Emotional Stability

This is a characteristic that is often associated with personality, emotional stability refers to the ability to not let emotions rule behaviour in emotionally charged situations. From the books I have read, majority of protagonists are extremely emotionally stable, however this is something that can bring something realistic to the characters; if you have a character that can’t not cry at funerals and is then sent to assassinate someone at a funeral; there is internal and external conflict.

On the other end of the scale, you may have a character who is extremely emotionally unstable and finds handling any emotions to overbearing; this influences their behaviour greatly because avoidance would be their constant aim. If you have a protagonist like this, a fitting climax could involve a highly emotionally charged situation.

Factor 4: Dominance

So this is a characteristic that we are all generally familiar with; how dominating a person is. A character who is extremely dominating would find it hard to communicate with others past giving orders, cannot take orders and don’t like having people of higher authority around them. I have noticed that there are a lot of highly dominant lame protagonists with only a few female protagonists that have truly dominant personalities.

But being able to be less dominant can be beneficial for a character, especially if you want a large amount of character growth; starting with a timid character who develops their dominance and handle of situations through being placed in situations again and again.

Factor 5: Liveliness

As you can imagine, if you have a lively character going on an adventure, they are more likely to be able to push through some of the obstacle you know you are going to throw at them. However, if you have a sluggish character who finds it hard to get motivated, it could create a little bit of internal conflict (Can you imagine the main character knowing they have to get up and make progress that day but all they want to do is sleep in…).

Factor 6: Rule-consciousness

Rule consciousness is basically what it says, they worry that they will be breaking either laws of the land or their own internal rules. A rule conscious protagonist may highlight several elements of internal conflict; such as an assassin who knows that killing is against the law so they make each death look and feel accidental. However, you also have the opposite, where they don’t believe the rules apply to them; such a head of the city watch believing that the laws no longer apply to them because they enforce the law… could be the back story to the antagonist, or a flaw to the protagonist.

Factor 7: Social boldness

This simply refers to how the person is in social situations, if the person thrives in social situations but really hates being alone can really struggle if they have to go on adventure and spend a lot of time travelling alone. If a person really doesn’t like to be around social situation, conflict is bound when there are social gatherings; can you imagine a Prince who really hates social settings but is forced through balls and festivals, who only wants to be left alone, but when is sent on their journey he is sent with a huge band of brothers and is forced to become more bold and daring when it comes to what he does with them (going from hiding to change, to running around half naked while his newest friends have stolen most of his clothes).

Factor 8: Sensitivity

Sensitivity does not only relate to handling emotional or stressful situations, but also how aware they are of others; someone who is highly sensitive may avoid social situations because they become overwhelmed by the emotions involved. However someone who is considered insensitive may find it hard to understand why people have acted in certain ways but also may struggle to understand their own emotions. Can you imagine an assassin (I have been writing a few little assassin flash fiction pieces… can you tell) who is overly sensitive and has a huge understanding of the fear of their targets?

Factor 9: Vigilance

This is another social factor that can easily influence behaviour; a character who is extremely vigilant may find trusting hard as they are always watching for signs of deceit or misplaced trust. They are harder to manipulate as they can detect when people are trying to. However, someone considered unvigilant may struggle with adventures or quests, as they would be easily manipulated or can easily be deceive; this can be a really interesting character flaw especially if the person comes from a background where they have no need to be vigilant.

Factor 10: abstractedness

So this one is a little abstract… see what I did there? Okay, but seriously, this refers to the characters ability to consider complex situations or theories and understand the workings in the backgrounds; especially when the background isn’t obvious. This is something you see a lot in court-based fiction where the character understands the working behind all of the comings and goings without having to see everything happen.

Factor 11: Privateness

This is a characteristic that is often associated with upper-class characters, that those in the lower castes tend to be more open and have little to hide, other than illegal activity of course. But this is something that can greatly influence behaviour as outcomes would be considered in how likely they are to be kept private. For example, if you have a upper-class lady in a compromising situation then how she handles the situation will determine whether she believes she can keep it private. However, it might be a nice twist (and if you can think of any books like this let me know in the comments) to see someone of lower classes, like an orphan or slave, that is extremely private and is ostracised for it because everyone else around them is open.

Factor 12: Apprehension

Apprehension can be described as caution; in a way, a character who is extremely apprehensive may find it difficult to perform basic, everyday tasks because of fear of outcomes; where someone who is extremely non-apprehensive may struggle to see the danger in situations. Imagine a King who doesn’t understand the death a war could cost, or even more conflicting, a King who only sees the danger in everything the Kingdom does and therefore does nothing. Fear of outcomes can influence behaviour in a major way, so the outcome of this can influence the foundation of your character.

Factor 13: Openness to Change

This is another factor that can really impact a character’s reactions; if you are sending a character on a journey that will change everything about their world but they are really anxious of change, you have a tonne of conflict at every step of the way because they know that the closer they get to their outcome, the more their world will change. However those who are extremely open to change may never be able to settle in one situation because there is always ‘something better’; this could be really prevalent in a romance where the protagonist is always looking for change because stability is not something they desire.

Factor 14: Self-reliance

Guys, this is a clear one; can your character rely on themselves at all time, some of the time, never? If you are sending a character on an adventure across the map, at some point they will need to rely on themselves for something and if they have no confidence in themselves then this is something that will cause a lot of conflict. It may also cause conflict if the group of travellers rely on them too (for example a Prince) but they have no confidence in themselves to do the tasks required. The same can be said for those who are overly self-reliant; where they find no need for travelling companions and external conflict arrises when they are constantly going off on their own and not understanding the need of a team.

Factor 15: Perfectionism

Okay, we all know at least one person who isn’t happy unless something is done perfectly, whether it is a mother who wants the room perfectly clean or a teacher who wants their students to get 100% on every test. Perfectionism is both a strength and weakness for your characters; if they are spending three times as long on a task because they want it to be perfect they may become a hindrance (can you imagine them working as part of a travelling group and spending half an hour building the perfect fire…) or a character who doesn’t care for perfect outcomes working as an assassin?

Factor 16: Tension

Tension is something we as writers are familiar with, we like to build the tension into scenes to work with the conflict and keep the reader engaged. Tension within the character can be a great tool, if they are keeping themselves hidden (emotionally) and have a build up, you can use the internal and external tension to make the conflict explosive. This tends to be a situational factor, where many of the others are stable over time; situational factors really depend on what is at stake.

Okay, so those are the 16 factors as outlined by Cattell and applied to building strong, deep characters for your writing. I would love to know if you can identify these characteristics in your own characters, pop a character into the comments with a few of the factors.

I hope this helps you develop the characters.

Helen x


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