As a psychologist, I might be biased, but I think psychology is indispensable in creating compelling, complicated characters. This quick look into Freud’s teachings will give you tools to do just that.
What makes a character compelling? On one hand, they must be nuanced and complicated and new to us on some level. On the other hand, we must find ourselves understanding the character even though we may have no common ground.
Today I’m going to focus on the last part, the part we all connect with in every character, whether it’s a hero, a villain, or those wonderful secondary characters that add richness to our narratives. And believe it or not, Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychologists to propose a theory that allows us to delve into the universality of human experience.
Sure, a lot of what Freud proposed has been debunked by the objectivity of science (and the critical voice of feminism), but one theory in particular has held strong, so much so that it is now part of our vernacular.
Freud gave voice to what we intuitively understand about ourselves: we all have internal struggles, and we all have moments where it’s difficult to cope with our competing wants and needs. It’s the internal battle that we all experience, and if you weave that into your characters, that’s what your reader will connect with, often on quite a primal level.
The Rule of Three
Freud proposed that the human psyche could be divided into three parts: the id, ego, and super-ego.
The id is the completely unconscious, impulsive portion of the psyche that is the source of basic impulses and drives. Think of it as the demanding child that is driven by the ‘pleasure principle’, seeking immediate pleasure and gratification. Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in humans, such as aggression and sexuality.
- The Super Ego
The super-ego is the moral component of the psyche. The superego contains internalized societal and parental standards of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behavior. I think of the super-ego as an authoritarian teacher who reminds us of rules and expectations, expecting them to be applied irrespective of the situation.
- The Ego
The rational ego has the role of maintaining balance between the impractical hedonism of the id and the equally impractical moralism of the super-ego. The ego seeks to pacify both and is the part of our personality that is usually reflected most directly in our actions.
The imagery of a horse and chariot has been used to explain the three components. The id is the horse, impulsively charging after the pleasures in life. The ego is the driver of the chariot, guiding the id, but never fully in control (I imagine a lot of straining and pulling of the reins). The super-ego is the chariot driver's father sitting behind him, criticizing and moralizing.
Not surprisingly, this tug-of-war between the id and the ego, compounded by the critical super-ego isn’t fun. Freud predicted this internal war will result in unpleasant feelings of anxiety. As the mediator, the ego’s job is to reduce these unpleasant feelings. How? By using defense mechanisms.
Guilt, embarrassment, and shame often accompany anxiety, and when these feelings become overwhelming, it’s the ego's place to protect by employing defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms work by either distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms--or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses. Defense mechanisms, in a nutshell, are ways we think or behave to protect ourselves from feeling bad, sad or mad. Here are a few of the most common:
Here, your character will simply refuse to accept the truth (we all know reality can sometimes be much too confronting and painful). As a psychologist, I wish I could earn a dollar for every time I’ve heard ‘I’m not addicted, I can quit any time I want…’ because if that was the case I’d be sitting in a much larger room, one with a spiral staircase… leading to the top of a turret. On the other hand, if you’ve just been through a traumatic event like an earthquake, a bit of denial is probably quite protective.
In this case, your character will just plain old forget. They may no longer remember a car accident, a trip to the dentist or being mauled by werewolves. The downside is that unless you bury that sucker real deep, it’s probably going to skip straight back into your consciousness at some stage.
Projection involves taking those nasty thoughts, feelings or impulses and conveniently transferring them onto someone who doesn’t have those nasty thoughts, feelings or impulses. In other words, other people become the carriers of your own flaws (it’s much easier to sleep at night when other people are the ones responsible for our misery, not us). This could include a character going all mean-girl about someone’s physical appearance when in fact this anger and distaste veils their own deeper body-image issues, or a husband with a hostile nature might attribute this hostility to his wife and say she has an anger management problem.
Sublimation involves channeling unacceptable impulses, thoughts, and emotions into more acceptable ones. This one brings up images of Christian Grey pounding the pavement to channel all that sexual frustration (oh dear, I may have just let it slip that I’m a 50 Shades fan). Refocusing our unacceptable or harmful impulses into something more productive can help channel energy that might otherwise cause some angst.
For the last but not least, I challenge any reader to put their hand up if they HAVEN’T engaged in the odd bit of Rationalisation. When we do something we’re not too proud of or we discover something we find a little hard to swallow, we basically explain it away. Some examples would include Trudy evading paying taxes then rationalizes it by talking about how the government wastes money and our tax system is unfair. Or James failing to get into a chosen university then saying he didn’t want to go there anyway. Shy and introverted Ben saying he’s not dating anyone at the moment because he’s focusing on his career. Tania arguing smoking is the only way she can cope because her husband just ran off with her personal trainer. My guess is we’ve all done it and so have some of our characters.
Using Freud’s Concepts in Your Writing
- At a basic level, Freud’s theory gives us a simple model for character drive, emotion, and internal conflict. Decide which element has the largest say in your characters’ choices and you’ve got a nuanced understanding of why they do what they do.
- On a larger scale, the id, ego, and super-ego, can function as characters themselves. Watching the conflict inherent in the three components; the impulsive, pleasure-seeking id, the moralistic super-ego, and the divided and conciliatory ego can create a fascinating dynamic.
- Freud was also one of the first to label cognitive processes as unconscious. The understanding that some of our thinking is outside of our awareness is a firm foundation for a character arc. Freud’s therapy often focused on helping patients bring what had been unconscious (and possibly unhelpful) into their awareness so they could make a different choice. Now that would be inspiring to experience as a reader, wouldn’t it?
- As a reader, I would say every one of us would understand seeing a protagonist engage in a defense mechanism (probably because we’ve all dabbled in a few of them ourselves.) It’s a very primal way we can connect our readers with our characters. The double bonus is that what you have here fellow writers, is ‘show, don’t tell’. If Mandy witnessed the murder of her little brother but can’t remember it, we know she’s hurting. If Bernadette is proclaiming and protesting how much she totally hates the new guy, then readers are going to suspect something is up. Seeing Don madly researching the latest treatments for leukemia as his wife fades into the sheets is going to tug on our heartstrings. They may not have a label for it, but they’ll get it.
So Freud, despite his out-dated theory of penis envy, allows us to explore the part of your character that every reader will connect with, no matter their demographics. The inner battle, that struggle that is sometimes unconscious, the one that often impacts our choices, is something we can all relate to.
What do you think? Do you see any of Freud’s components in your characters? In a book you’ve read? What about defense mechanisms—does a character of yours employ one to avoid negative feelings?