In the last several days, we’ve talked about two important aspects of your characters, “physiology” and “sociology.” I like to think of these as “nature” and “nurture” — the internal and external forces that make your characters who they are.
The final aspect to think about is “psychology” — the result of putting “physiology” and “sociology” together.
Neither “physiology” nor “sociology” is enough to explain why people are the way they are.
The fact is that identical twins can be radically different people. They have the same physiology, but may have different sociology. They’re going to meet different people, do different things, and react to them in different ways.
Likewise, two kids can grow up in the same house, but be vastly different because they inherited different genes. Every parent who ever had a genius child or a musical prodigy knows about this.
“Psychology” is the fusion of “physiology” and “sociology.” How does a given person choose to use their natural talents and compensate for their natural deficiencies? That’s part of their psychology. How does that same person react to their family, tribe, culture, nation, education? That’s part of their psychology too.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry and his cousin Duddley are raised in the same house, but they have different genes and they’re treated vastly different by Duddley’s parents (Harry’s aunt and uncle). Duddley grows up to be a selfish, arrogant, sadistic brat. Harry grows up to be a forgiving, courageous, resourceful boy.
When creating your characters, it’s not enough to know what color eyes your character has and where his moles are and what his IQ is. It’s not enough to know about his parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, religion, and all that.
You also need to know his responses to all those. Does he care what color his eyes are? Is he embarrassed about that mole the size of a rat on his chin? Is he obnoxious about being smart (or ashamed of being stupid?) Does he get along with his parents (or with one but not the other) and why? What about his siblings? Did he have a favorite teacher, and if so, which one and why? Does he follow in the religion he grew up with, or does he choose something radically different?
The answers to all those questions (and many more) are the basis of your character’s “psychology.” The better you understand your character, the more able you are to answer all such questions.
Please note that you don’t HAVE to figure all this out by writing it down, as if creating characters were some giant paint-by-numbers game. Creating characters is about getting to know these people who inhabit your skull. It’s about learning more about them than you know about yourself or anyone else in the “real world.” It’s about hearing their voices.
If you can do that by writing it down, then fine. If you prefer to take long walks on the beach with your imaginary friends, then that’s fine too. If you start talking to your characters in public, then you have gone around the bend and need to be institutionalized, but you can avoid that by holding a cell phone up to your ear so nobody will know you’re a perfect loon.
Do whatever it takes to learn your characters inside out. That’s what writers do.