Thursday, March 11, 2010
Building Characters Carefully
You might have many books about writing on your shelves at home. But here is one you may want to consider picking up the next time you go to your health food store . . .
[Wait. A health food store? Yep. You heard me correctly.]
I found this thick gem of a book while working on my doctorate in health. It's called, Homeopathic Psychology: Personality Profiles of the Major Constitutional Remedies. This thick textbook explores REAL major personality types.
Why would the emphasis on "real" be important for fiction authors? For this very reason: to make your book change from being a two-dimensional story with little black letters on an off white-colored page, to a three-dimensional world with characters in trouble, you must know how to construct characters that breathe, that are truthful to the human condition. To do that, you need to understand REAL human behavior.
It is one thing to study a book on writing and learn a few pieces about constructing a character. It's quite another thing to write in truthful manner about human trials and challenges, whether fictional or not. Which brings me back to this great psychology book I feel should be on the shelves of every fiction writer.
Dr. Philip M. Bailey spends 409 pages exploring the truth of human personality, giving 35 distinct characteristic types culled from years of research. When I first discovered this book, I was struck with the potency it contains for fiction writers to write truthfully about the human condition.
For example, one of those 35-personality styles that Dr. Bailey explores is medically called Natrum Muriaticum; it is a personality type that refuses to deal with emotional pain. Did you know that Natrum Muriaticums go far beyond the typical "can't cry," far beyond simple introverts, or those who avoid intimate relationships? Dr. Bailey elaborates that Natrum Muriaticum's pathology typically originates years prior to adulthood. Abandonment figures into their approach, but not just simple abandonment. No, Natrums experienced abandonment on top of deep sensitivities previously present as a child. Natrums generally had parents who provided physical means, but were not nurturers. Natrums typically have additional buried grief which leads to carved out feelings of intense loneliness. These feelings generally manifest later in adulthood as rebelliousness, recklessness, clinginess, or even a strong need to control.
Can you see how understanding the depth of human psychology, with all its various facets, can help you create a story world that is authentic and not predictable?
As we write the worlds that our characters inhabit, knowing "them" on a deeper level will help us to write true to human nature and the conditions that lead us to who and where we are. It is as we wield truthfulness that our readers subconsciously sense the poignancy of truth in our stories, no matter how far out the setting. It is then that our stories become classics, because they speak to the deepest of our human experiences.
Another personality type Dr. Baily refers to is Lycopodium. This is a personality style, according to Dr. Baily, which manifests bravado more so than any other personality. He describes, though, the source of this particular kind of bravado: anxiety. Hmmm, who would have "thunk" it?
The funnest treat this book offers for creative fiction writers is the description of physical appearance that typically attends each personality style. It's a bit astonishing at the research that has gone into this book. For example, Lycopodiums typically have "gaseous distension of the abdomen, as well as distended veins and haemorrhoids [sic]" (see page 113). Yikes. But how helpful to have these kinds of specifics as you are "peopling" your story world!
Years of study went into the writing of Homeopathic Psychology: Personality Profiles of the Major Constitutional Remedies. See if you can't find your own volume. It holds endless and fascinating possibilities for the next story you write.