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Literary Character Development Through Psychoanalysis

Asher Black
4 min readFeb 3, 2024

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Character Psychology for Fiction Writing — Mindset and Motivation

Summarizing a character’s personality (which is never an exact art) and getting at their motivations is essential to knowing who they are and constructing their arc. There are multiple techniques for defining these aspects of a literary character. For any given character we want to enflesh, I aver the key questions are Who am I? What is the world? What is my relationship to it? (And therefore: What must I do now?). These mirror the three lifelong quests of the human ape to which answers come incrementally over time, with multiple twists and turns, missteps and points of confusion.

I propose one potential methodology for working out these answers for a character is to consider their mental framework in the context of psychoanalytic theory. This might imply we possess some particular psychoanalytic framework (one) from which to understand any character (or real person), but I suggest we might view competing psychoanalytic theories as templates for different types of characters with differing engines for internal motivation and patterns of response to external events.

Freud / Freudian Character: Propelled either by impulse and animal instinct (id) or by convention, upbringing, and societal expectation (superego). Bill is a creature of id, driven by primal urges, basic instincts, reacting rather than responding reflectively. Cindy sticks closely to what is expected of her, as she always has, as she learned to do in her parents’ home.

Skinner / Skinnerian Character: Guided by risk or reward, punishment or gratification. Jim is a creature of expectation, motivated by what he gets out of a thing, whether calculating or blindly, consumed with consequences.

Rogers / Rogerian Character: Compelled by self-image. Cindy is constantly acting to validate her narrative about herself — who she is. In her mind, she is hero or villain, savior or star, nobody or nothing, everyman or anyone, anonymous or important.

Ellis / Ellisian Character: Prompted and actuated by her beliefs. Lawrence is a creature of how he has construed the world, perhaps a place of continual conflict, or a predatory milieu, maybe a zero-sum environment, or a dualistic world of good and evil. #albertellis

Jung / Jungian Character: Inspired and animated by collective experience. Lane’s frame of reference is what we all supposedly know, how we are as a species, our trajectory as something broader than the individual.

Aristotle / Aristotelian Character: Persuaded and led by reason and logic, insisting on the objective. Sarah’s motivators are empirical evidence, carefully examined, or theoria (reasoning in the abstract, even where data is sparse). She extrapolates with a disdain for belief and ideology, attempting to be dispassionate.

James / Jamesian Character: Fueled by habit, beliefs shaped not by evidence but by previous responses. Lionel is a creature of what he’s done in the past to go forward. Inertia shapes his responses, and the more he responds the way he does, the more deeply it shapes his outlook and next steps. #williamjames

Frankl / Franklian Character: Spurred by a search for meaning. Barbara is not content to wake, eat, sleep, and do it again tomorrow. She is after something closer to transcendent meaning, something that makes existence more than biological. #viktorfrankl

Rather than stop at what motivates a given character (e.g. search for his daughter, desire to be loved, revenge), we might more convincingly enflesh the character by getting at their ‘proto-motivations’ or ‘meta-motivations’. In other words, we might go one step deeper and consider how a character’s motivational engine is configured in the first place. The above is a rough toolset for thinking about that.

Granted, these representations of the ideas of these psychoanalytic theorists are oversimplified and construed quite loosely. There may be better analogies or more representative thinkers for these ideas. That said, I find the template useful.

The use of Aristotle might throw a reader, but remember that, before the emergence of psychoanalytic thought in the modern era, Aristotelian thought was dominant, and Aristotle did not limit his purview to one category of existence. Aristotle is perhaps as good a reference for the application of logic and reason as any alternative.

Lastly, there are other potential tools for this toolset that I’ve intentionally not explored, from Maslow (not my particular interest) to Pavlov. In the latter case, for example, one might do something with the concept of learning by association. Remember, Pavlov’s dogs associated dinner with a bell, and the dinner bell became the cause of their salivation.

This is merely a quick and dirty example framework that I’m sure could be more fully developed. One might even utilize it forensically in literary criticism, if one were inclined, to discuss the internal processes of a character in a work of fiction one did not write. That’s not my interest, but it may be yours.

Cheers,

Asher Black

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Asher Black

Asher Black is a storyteller, musician, & karateka satisfied w. the life he always wanted. Profile not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect. Etc