Differential Psychology of Character

One of the hardest things to do when writing fiction is to get your head into the space of someone who thinks completely differently to you. It is all too easy to characterise another person’s way of thinking with splashes of parody, misunderstanding or cartoonish mockery. To this end, I think an interesting experiment is to have a look at some of the categories that psychologists use to define people’s outlooks on life, and mix and match a few of them to try and give you a genuinely different psychological perspective from your own. This will tend to not be easily done: even writers who are able to master distinctive dialogue and voice tend to fall prey to giving all their characters the same perspective on time, or the same ideas about pleasure. Without reflecting hard on your own perspective of time, it may be difficult to realise you even have such a thing, and that it may define how you see the world.

The first of the two sets of psychological traits I want to discuss are those attached to time. There is a video, below, that describes one model for thinking about human perspectives of time. It’s well worth watching, but I’ll also summarise the categories below as well.

The model posits six types of time perspective. Two are embedded in the past, two in the present and two in the future.

  • Regret: A person obsessed with regret tends to live and relive all their past mistakes, failures and bad luck: regretting their actions, wishing they could take back this or that, and more or less blaming everything that is bad in their current life on past problems. A broken-down, burnt-out old stockbroker, or a person stuck in a slave-wage fast food job for years on end might well be ruled by regret.
  • Nostalgia: A nostalgist is also lost in the past, but for this person, time is full of happy memories of times gone by, lost golden days and times that can never been fully reattained. The relative who obsesses over old photograph albums might be a nostalgist, and so too might be a person who feels all their best days are behind them, perhaps having peaking in high school. Nostalgists tend to freeze in time in terms of their dressing too: you can often see when a person was most happy in life, because they stopped buying genuinely new clothes and started just replacing the clothing they have instead at a particular moment in time.
  • Hedonism: A hedonist lives in the present, and pursues pleasure in the moment. Everything is fleeting, planning is for suckers, and charm, wit and good luck can be used to turn around any situation.
  • Fatalistism: A fatalist also lives in the present, reflecting little on the past and making few plans for the future. Fatalists view life as a series of uncontrollable ups and downs. There will be good times, and there will be bad times, but there is little point in obsessing over trying to change things. Life is simply too complex and unpredictable.
  • Future Natural: People who are future orientated usually fall into this category. They plan and have trained themselves to (mostly) put off present pleasures for the sake of future goals, achievements and security. Usually, this applies to getting a return on investment within your own lifetime.
  • Future Supernatural: Where this can differ for some people, is that future orientation towards reward can be primarily or entirely focused on life after death. This is another form of future orientation, but everything is focused on getting into the good rather than bad afterlife.

The next thing I want to look at is something called ‘savouring’ in psychology parlance. This is the mental activity of positive thought, reflection, perhaps even indulgence. Each of the savouring activities can be positive, but have a dark side and can slip into something destructive as well. The four basic categories of savouring most commonly cited are:

  • Basking: Reflecting on your own accomplishments or skills. Promotes self-esteem.
  • Luxuriating: Enjoying physical pleasure, whether it is food, comfort or the endorphins of hard exercise. Promotes physical pleasure.
  • Marvelling: Feeling wonder and awe at external beauty, such as of a natural landscape, or a powerful piece of art, writing or performance. Promotes wonderment.
  • Thanksgiving: Gratitude for external drivers of your happiness. In a supernatural way this might be a god, gods or otherworldly force, but it could also be simply a secular idea of luck, or thanksgiving for family and friends. Promotes gratitude.

Each of these can be taken too far. Basking can lead to arrogance. Luxuriating can lead to wanton indulgence. Marvelling can lead to isolation and an inability to do anything of your own out of a feeling that you can never be good enough. Thanksgiving can attribute everything in your life to external forces and leave a person powerless and adrift.

The reason I think it is interesting to work with a couple different psychological models at once is that you can bring them together to mix and match and craft a character whose outlook is vastly different to your own. I would tend to think, using the above model, that the most interesting thing is to create some internal conflict by picking a time perspective, and one savouring trait that the character themselves views as positive in their life, and one savouring trait that the character is attracted to but views negatively at a conscious level: so that they are working against their own natural tendencies so to speak in terms of the second trait.

For example, a Nostalgist who enjoys thanksgiving and views this as positive, but also enjoys luxuriating but views this as negative, or a failing, immediately calls to mind a type of person.

A fatalist who enjoys marvelling at other people’s great works, and is attracted to basking in their own achievements but views this as bad and arrogant also summons up a type of person to mind.

In writing a short story, for example, you usually don’t want more than three key characters, and playing around with the sense of time and savourings can be a way to create tension among characters from a simple inability to see eye-to-eye: almost no external drivers of drama might be needed if you weave together internal and external psychological conflict skilfully enough.

This seems quite enough for now. I’ll leave this essay here and leave you to concoct your own weird and wonderful personae dramatis.


About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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