Monday, December 27, 2010

Writing Memorable Characters: A Psychological Approach (Part 1)

So this guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office. . . and he has a duck on his head. The psychiatrist looks the man up and down while pensively stroking his beard and asks, “Can I help you?” The duck says, “Hey, Doc. Can you get this jerk off my ass?”

The duck’s unanticipated response in this joke is what I most enjoy in the plotting of my favorite novels, movies, and television programs. I instantly want to know more about this odd duck. When I open a book, the story must instantly grab my attention but I won’t keep turning the pages unless the author hooks me on a protagonist and an interesting supporting cast. Characterization drives the plot and makes for more engaging storytelling.

Introduce me to Dean Koontz’s genetically enhanced Golden Retriever, Einstein, and the unfinished lives of Travis Cornell and Nora Devon in Watchers and I’m your friend for life. Give me a peek at weird duck Johnny Smith in Stephen King’s Dead Zone or Firestarter heroine, Charlie McGee, and I’ll pick up a half dozen more of your books without blinking an eye. Invite me into the dysfunctional lives of any of Pat Conroy’s characters and I’ll wait with baited breath for the next installment. I can still remember first discovering Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf and not wanting to put The Hobbit down for a second, and then years later reading it out loud to my children with the same enthusiasm.

As in life, not all characters are as innately intriguing as you and me. As writers it takes a lot of hard work to develop interesting personas for our creations. At first glance, the “guy” in our opening joke is predictable and potentially a boring character; but he possesses a character flaw off of which to play. He doesn’t realize that his problem isn’t the duck. The guy is the problem.

Look all around. Life is teeming with interesting people, each with flaws that add dimension and conflict to what might be an ordinary or even dull existence. Aren’t most of us in some way odd ducks, different even if we don’t recognize or acknowledge it (well maybe you’re odd but not me)? It’s that odd quality in each of us - a strange belief, unique set of habits or quirks - that can make almost anybody interesting. Isn’t that what makes reading so much fun – meeting new and interesting people that you can’t wait to know better?

While every fictional character has their own story, they must also possess a unique point of view to make them distinct and hopefully multidimensional enough to maintain the reader’s interest. Good and evil, gender perspectives (uh-huh, men and women are different – check out Brain Sex by Anne Moire , PhD for a scientific research-based explanation or come visit my wife and I), backstory and cultural differences are excellent starting points for developing our characters. However, among the reasons real life humans find themselves in conflict with one another reflects also subtle differences in motivational styles.

Even the most psychologically challenged among us believe our point of view is correct and others have it wrong. Do you know anybody who says, “I watch that news channel because I know its perspective is biased and warped, and I listen to that pontificating bag of flatulence because I’m certain he is a lying sack of dung who makes up most of the venom he vomits and I want to be just like him when I grow up?” Duh, I think not.

We are missing a great opportunity for character development if we haven’t taken the time to truly understand the characters about which we are writing. Maybe we can get away with presenting minor characters as stereotypes, but our heroes and villains cannot simply be caricatures of good and evil. By providing our readers with a glimpse of the internal workings of their pure or evil minds, the motivational styles that shape their world and their behavior, we layer additional dimension to our creations.

I’ve spent three decades as an organizational consultant in Fortune 500 and government organizations (ergo: I’m balding and have nearly lost faith in the innate goodness of humankind). During that time I have employed the Strength Deployment Inventory as a tool for helping workshop participants to learn how to manage conflict and improve interpersonal relationships. The relationship awareness theory upon which it is based is easy to comprehend and lends itself extremely well to character development for novels.

It rests upon four simple concepts. First, people behave the way they do in order to feel good about themselves; that is, motivation shapes behavior.

Secondly, while individuals may behave differently, behavior is generically predictable both in normal circumstances and when the individual is faced with opposition or conflict, if only we understand one’s valued way in dealing with the world.

Third, a personal weakness is simply misapplying or overusing a personal strength; our biggest strength is often also our biggest weakness.

Finally, people tend to perceive and judge others through their own valued motivational style. In psychology this is known as projection. We project our motivations - especially our least desirable intentions - onto others, thinking they do things for the same reason we do. Of course, others don’t measure up to our standards because they are lesser evolved then we and would be more right if only they could see the world from our higher, more universally correct POV. In case no one has told you yet – and I hope I’m not bursting your bubble here - nobody on the face of the earth wants to be you when they grow up. Especially your kids. Now your children may very well turn into mini-you, but for the most part they go kicking and screaming.

This motivation-based model identifies three pure motivational styles and four blended styles. The remainder of this article addresses the first of the pure styles, the assertive-directing or red style. Future installments on characterization will examine each of the others.

The Assertive-Directing  Motivational (Red) Style is characterized by the “git-r-done” mentality made popular by Larry the Cable Guy. Such persons are results-oriented and driven to succeed, their eye always on the prize to be won and opportunities to prove their mettle. Like Bull Meechum, in Conroy's The Great Santini, Reds want to be in control and prefer to be in the leadership role. Life’s inconveniences are challenges to be overcome, not problems (sound like anybody’s boss – “Don’t give me problems, give me solutions”). They tend to be assertive, dynamic and innovative, excel in competitive environments and are great game players and risk takers. Verbally talented, clever and persuasive, they also can be evocative and controversial. Persons who are indecisive, gullible, incompetent, or whiny, are losers who just piss them off. You’ll hear them say, “I’d rather you ask for forgiveness than permission,” and “Grow a pair.”

In William Diehl’s Primal Fear, attorney Martin Vail will do everything it takes to win his case because, after all, it’s all about winning. When he, on occasion, steps over the line, from his perspective he is not doing wrong. He’s getting around an imperfect system, an obstacle to achieving his goals.  For reds, one side of the balancing scale is winning / getting results / achieving goals and on the other side is most everything else – including you and me. The scale is weighted on the achieving goals side above all else.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek fame is the paragon of redness. Does he ever lose? The Klingons could blow up the Enterprise and leave Kirk with nothing but a single nut and bolt and still he will find a way to win. On every planet he finds a woman and regardless of her color or the number of arms or legs she may have, he scores. Do we ever see her again on another episode? Of course not, it’s just another notch on Kirk’s belt. Been there, done that, he’s off to find a new challenge. And how did Jim initially make his mark as a young cadet? The ever-clever Kirk broke in to Star Fleet Academy’s computer and reprogrammed the no-win Kobayashi Maru battle simulation to become the only cadet to ever defeat the exercise. Now from some people’s perspective he cheated. Not so if you understand motivational style. The goal was to win, to be the best, “to go where no man has ever gone before.” There is no such thing as a no-win scenario; one merely needs to think outside the box, the mantra of the assertive-directing. Inside their heads, assertive-directing characters are thinking that for every winner there are dozens of losers and odds are you are one of them because it sure as hell isn’t me.

Reds dominate action novels and movies. Pick up David Morrell’s The Protector. For Cavanaugh, protecting a brilliant scientist at all costs is just another assignment, the pursuit of another goal / challenge. Clive Cussler’s action-oriented hero, Dirk Pitt, is a red but a blended one (we’ll discuss blends on a later installment). There’s more to his world view than winning. Do you ever ask if Arnold Schwarzenegger will attempt to save his kidnapped daughter in the movie Commando? Does Arnold hesitate to act in this situation? Of course not, his character strives to take immediate action. She’s only being held captive on an island by an entire army. Git-r-done! And how about Conan the Barbarian’s answer to the question, “What is best in life?” He tells us, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women!” I win; you lose.

If you are a visual learner, watch the climactic courtroom scene in A Few Good Men to view two assertive –directing types engaged in a discussion. Tom Cruise’s character is a winner willing to risk his entire career on one roll of the dice.  He knows that Jack Nicholson’s character, the poster child for the over-the-edge assertive-directing stereotype, would love to tell the court that his success has earned him the right to takes whatever steps he deems necessary to protect freedom and democracy, regardless of the “mamsy-pamsy” rules. It’s so easy to simply view Nicholson’s character as the bad guy, but is he? He certainly doesn’t think so. Somebody has to pick up a gun and stand on those walls. Anybody not on his side, just “can’t handle the truth.” Which brings us back to one of the basic tenets of relationship awareness theory: a personal weakness is simply misapplying or overusing a personal strength; our biggest strength is often also our biggest weakness.

Within each of our strengths lays a weakness. If we were to make of list of positive traits for each character we create, we can make a corresponding list that represents how these traits manifest themselves if overdone. Ambitious becomes ruthless; self-confident overdone becomes arrogant; persuasive is now abrasive; quick to act – rash; competitive – combative; and forceful – dictatorial.

On one side of an invisible line in the sand is the appropriate application of one’s motivational style and on the other, misapplication or overuse of that same talent. Step over that line, overuse our strength, and our successful risk taker becomes a gambler, taking unmanageable risks, believing they cannot lose. Organizations rise to the top of the economic food chain because assertive-directing leaders take manageable risks. These same organizations crash because in their arrogance these same risk takers take on projects or pursue courses of action that were doomed to fail from the start.

We can use this same list-making approach in reverse to sketch out more human antagonists. The other side of the coin of being a competitive jerk is someone who is driven to succeed, generally considered a positive trait.  In my second novel, Troubadour of Peace, Lonnie Wolfe, has manipulated and taken advantage of his best friend, left him for dead, spied on him for decades, orders his assassination, and intends to murder his family all in the name of creating a new world order free from the influence of corrupt power brokers. Is he an evil man? Sure as hell is! He’s a real son of a bitch! But if the reader understands his point of view, he becomes more of a real person and less of a caricature of evil.

To amp up our assertive-directing protagonist’s inner conflict, the author must show how the character guards against wanting to win so badly that they step on others along the way, disregard how others feel, or become dictatorial. Such steps over the line we reserve for our antagonists. Perhaps we allow our assertive-directing hero a tragic flaw – in a past life experience, they acted rashly to achieve some prize, ignoring pertinent facts or other people’s feeling, or doing harm to someone dear. Our good guy learned from that experience and struggles not to fall short again in the future. Our bad guy couldn’t give a crap that somebody got hurt along the way. Past failures are the result of the incompetence of others who lacked the cajones to do what was required to win. “If you can’t stand the smoke then get out of the kitchen, loser.”

An essential component to developing good characterization comes down to helping the reader understand what is going on inside the mind of our characters. We could simply project our own motivations or impose our values on our creations, but as is true in real life, we would be doing an injustice to others. Furthermore, we’d be painting an inaccurate description of reality. To preserve the integrity of each of our characters, we must help our reader understand the subtleties of their motivational style.

Next time, we’ll examine another of the seven motivational styles. Come back to visit me again and please tell your friends about this blog. I’ll look forward with enthusiasm to hearing your thoughts regarding the blog content.

My name is Bill Hubiak and I am a novelist. You can find links on my website ( to both my novels: my latest, Troubadour of Peace, a political thriller, and my first novel, Embodiment of Evil, a psychological thriller / horror. Currently I’m working on a third thriller, Black Ice.

Here are a couple of resources on characterization you may not have yet stumbled upon:
Visit for an excellent and concise discussion on building three-dimensional characters.
One of the most heavily attended workshops at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Gold Conference was conducted by Kirt Hickman, author of Revising Fiction: Making Sense Out of Madness. If you want a step-by-step cookbook for engineering characterization and plotting, check out this resource.


  1. I really enjoyed Troubadour of Peace. How were you able to describe a couple of hiking trails in Colorado so well? Did you actually hike them? Gregg

  2. Thanks, Gregg. I'm glad you enjoyed Troubadour. Yes, Carole and I often hiked the Colorado trails (one in Boulder the other in Dillon) described in my second novel. Writing about something one knows is usually a good idea. That's why the protagonist in my current project is a borderline schizophrenic. Is not. Is too. Is not. Is too.

  3. Good stuff Bill...keep it coming :-) I wish you great success with your books!

  4. Thank you. Please tell your friends to drop by to visit.