by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
When we create characters, we make choices about who those characters are. Though we may never use the exact term, what we are really doing is creating the psychology of those characters. In other words, we are painting a picture of how their mind works and how that affects their behavior. It’s easy to mistakenly make choices about a protagonist’s behavior that don’t quite fit with the psychology that’s been established throughout the story. This can cause a character to feel inauthentic. However, when we take the time to deliberately craft out a character’s psychology, the chances that we will write behaviors for them that feel false decrease dramatically.
Here are five writing exercises for developing the psychology of your character that will not only help you get to know them better but also help create authenticity in their impulses and behavior.
1. Create a Timeline of Their Life’s Big Moments
Identifying the defining moments in our own life helps us understand who we are. These moments are what shape us and offer insight into the motivations we have in matters of love, occupation, and hobbies. You can choose which, if any, of these moments are actually revealed over the course of the story you are telling about the character. However, simply knowing the character’s biography and timeline helps us understand who they are internally – their psychology. In Eighth Grade, we never find out who or where Kayla’s mother is. But we can bet that writer Bo Burnham knows the answer and used it to make her character more authentic and compelling, while simultaneously allowing the audience to feel the absence.
2. Create a Family Tree
Knowing what tribe we descend from can be key to understanding our place in the world. Having some sense of our ancestry tells us about the people and circumstances that brought us into this world. This holds true for a character as well. As with the timeline of their life’s big moments, you may choose to reveal little of your protagonist’s actual family tree. The entire benefit of creating one will likely be for you as the crafter of the character’s psychology. What we can be sure of is that every person and their thinking is somehow shaped by the people in their family – even if the response to one’s relatives is rebelling against them. The degree to which a character’s family influences their current life will be different with every story, but can be a useful tool in helping us understand why a character makes the choices they do. Stories ranging from Knocked Up to Wonder Woman have used family trees to develop the psychology at the center of their narrative.
3. Make Lists About the Character
Some readers may remember a favorite tome available at their local library called The Book of Lists. More than one writer had the flames of their curiosity stoked by this simple idea that supplied seemingly infinite matters of jest and otherwise useless facts. There can be something powerful about creating lists, however. Certain lists can offer us a great deal of understanding into who a person is. In a memorable episode of The Office, Michael Scott asks Pam Beasley to make sure his magazine subscriptions are forwarded to his new address. The moment offers a ripe opportunity to list the magazines the character subscribes to. Scott’s list not only includes GQ and Maxim, but also Cracked Magazine. The list reveals a great deal about who this character is psychologically. Creating a list of what magazines your character subscribes to, what websites they have bookmarked, or what podcasts they regularly listen to may help you develop their state of mind in moving through the world and may also offer an opportunity to bring this useful information into the story you are writing.
4. Create a Pinterest board as that Character
Making a character’s psychology visual is a helpful way to truly see who they are. Determining the images that they identify with tells us a great deal about how they think and what they find interesting. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Creating a Pinterest board as though you are your protagonist can get you into their psyche. It’s simply one way of seeing the world through their eyes. For example, we might imagine Aquaman’s Pinterest to look something like this.
5. Write a Letter as that Character
We’ve all heard the bit of advice offered by armchair therapists – write the person that has hurt you a letter, but don’t send it. Writing a letter to someone in the voice of your character provides a unique opportunity that we usually don’t have when writing a script. We can hear what is going on inside the character in a manner that just doesn’t usually happen in screenwriting. You may decide to have your character write a letter to someone who has hurt them or who they are angry with, but don’t feel limited to these emotions. Writing a letter to an unrequited love, the teacher that influenced them to choose their career, or an aunt who was always there for them can be equally powerful.
Imagine Ethan Hunt, from Mission Impossible, writing a fan letter to a hero he admires. Like many of the exercises above, this letter will likely not have any place in the actual story you are writing. Remember, the point is getting inside the character’s head and better understanding what makes them tick – their psychology.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.