Monday, January 3, 2011

Writing Memorable Characters: A Psychological Approach (Part 3)

Welcome to a new year!

Last year at this time Carole and I were on Maui. This year we spent at home. Winter in Colorado is not nearly as exotic but we had fun nonetheless. To battle the potential stuck-in-the-house blues provided by the cold, snowy weather we spent New Years Eve and Day reading to each other from our current Kindle selections.

Carole read to me from Sara Gruen’s engaging Water For Elephants. I pleasured her with Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (this is how some chronologically challenged persons orally stimulate their partners) while she dismantled our three Christmas trees (half the number she had up last year) and puts up two new trees in honor of Todd the god of interior design and patron saint of decorative birds crafted from paper and cloth remnants. My wife has made for us a home that is both warm and inviting - if only I were ever to shovel snow from the house’s entrance.

You’re probably thinking I’m off target with this discussion; what’s with all the personal crap? Be patient. This is my sequeway to a discussion of the Altruistic-Nurturing (Blue) valued motivational style – the third motivational system in our series.

My wife is the personification of Blue – an enthusiastic, compassionate, socially sensitive humanitarian, ever seeking ways to be responsive to the needs of others. We spent the entirety of our Christmas Day at the Chop House in Denver helping to feed the needy - an annual occurrence. While I bussed trays of food back and forth between the kitchen and buffet tables, she found time to also talk to patrons and one old man that she kissed on the head asked for her phone number. If there weren’t a policy against doing so, she probably would have invited a hundred people back to our house. Blue. Very, very Blue. Carole loves people and it shows.

To ensure that the less fortunate feel valued and are well clothed, she undertakes an annual spring and fall spelunking through her wardrobe and donates last year’s fashions to charities. Admittedly, this practice isn’t totally selfless since her wardrobe does have to be replaced after all.

The books that Carole reads are of the bestseller variety that one often also finds on Oprah’s booklist. Since that isn’t my typical fare, what I glean from our conversations is that these books are filled with heart-wrenching stories, acts of kindness, and about empathic and nurturing relationships less common in the action based or intellectually challenging novels that are my cup of tea. She reads tales about women who make a difference, who start cancer foundations, who find or share their hearts. Lots of Blues – warm, considerate, supportive persons whose enormous hearts and souls survive even life’s harshest tests – persons who are sensitive, sincere, loyal, and who authentically care about the feelings and the needs and welfare of other persons.

Oh, why beat around the bush? She likes chick books – and chick flicks. There I said it! Touchy-feely stuff that often only skirts my reality and library.

Even though I’ve worked most of my life as a helping professional, I can honestly say that compared to my Blue spouse, my feelings are superficial and transitory. I feel few things as deeply as she does. When a Nurturing-Altruistic type says they love you, they are talking about a feeling that permeates to the cellular level – something that the rest of us (or maybe just lowly emotionally evolved males like me) may never understand. In contrast, when an Assertive-Directing Red says, “I love you,” it often means, “I want you.” For the Analytical-Autonomizing Green, the experience is a more intellectual experience – “Our time together is far more pleasant and preferable to that time I spend with others and almost as intrinsically satisfying as a good pizza or a great loaf of bread.”

Now we all have some Red, Green and Blue within us, and so too should our fictional creations – but for some, the motivation that spurs action is primarily altruistic. Einstein, the genetically enhanced golden retriever from Watcher’s, one of my favorite Dean Koontz novels, is the paragon of altruism, willing to risk his own safety and jeopardize his newfound freedom to protect a total stranger.

Unlike his arrogant and abusive father, Ben Meechum, Pat Conroy’s character in The Great Santini, is a kind-hearted boy who is more concerned with doing the right thing than the popular thing. He befriends a social outcast and provides to his younger siblings the guidance and care an absentee father cannot.

Conroy also gives us Tom Wingo in The Prince of Tides, an affable and sensitive character who above all wishes not to be a burden to others. He is modest, devoted to his sister, loyal to the memory of his brother and willingly sacrifices his needs to protect others.

Johnny Smith, the protagonist in The Dead Zone by Stephen King is a Blue – a tortured but other-oriented schoolteacher.

If you saw the movie, Dave, starring Kevin Kline, you’ll remember that Dave is the doppelganger of a sleazy American President.  Enlisted to stand in for the President who lays in a coma, Dave uses the opportunity to do good things that benefit the American people. This enrages the corrupt power monger behind the throne, who leaks evidence indicting the real President. That forces Dave to resign a presidency that doesn’t even belong to him. Not before, however, Dave makes a public apology to the American electorate on behalf of his corrupt counterpart. Our Altruistic-Nurturing protagonist explains that the real purpose of serving as President is not to make one’s place in history; the American Presidency is only a temp job that should concentrate all of its power on doing what is right and best for the American people. Now that’s Blue.

When a Blue says they are sorry, that’s exactly what they mean. It probably physically pains them that they did a disservice to another human being. Does an episode of Star Trek go by without Dr. Bones McCoy commenting on how barbaric and inhumane the intrusive medical practices are on whatever planet the crew of the Enterprise is currently visiting?

When Reds are required to utter, “I’m sorry,” they might really prefer to say that, “You’ve got me confused with someone who gives a crap but I better save face and pretend I’m concerned about your feelings.” The justice conscious Greens might adequately weight and apportion blame but rather than create conflict assume the burden of responsibility, believing that they are infinitely more psychologically prepared to do so then others.

Let’s pull out the balance scale again from Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog. On the left side of the scale are people, defending the rights and dignity of people, developing relationships, building teams. On the other side of the scale is achieving goals, winning, getting ahead, data and things. Down goes the left side. It’s not that Blues aren’t intelligent, successful, confident achievers. They are. It’s just that from their perspective what good is it to win the world if you leave everyone else behind. People come first.

Remember also that any strength over or misused becomes dysfunctional. Overly trusting Blues can be gullible, allow loyalty to blind them to truth, and be so devoted that they become subservient to others. Being too supportive or helpful can be smothering and promote co-dependencies, and caring too much may make one submissive, self-sacrificing and overly sensitive.

When we create Altruistic-Nurturing characters for our novels we must make sure that they are on guard against wanting so much to maintain harmony that they don’t push hard enough for what they need, allow others to take advantage of them, or compromise when they shouldn’t. Great sources of conflict for our Blues is to allow them to trust their thoughts and feelings to the wrong people or force their help on people to such a degree that they become a nuisance. They can blame themselves for anything that goes wrong, act solely to please others, sacrifice their dreams so others might achieve theirs, or refuse to face the fact that our antagonist is just a bad person.

In writing memorable characters, writers strive to help the reader understand what is going on inside the mind of our creations. Dr. Elias Porter’s relationship awareness theory and the Strength Deployment Inventory are perfectly suited to helping get under the skin of the characters we create to show the core motivation that drives their behavior.

Talk with you again next time when we’ll examine another of the seven motivational styles. I hope that you will tell your friends about this blog. I’ll look forward with enthusiasm to hearing your thoughts regarding this blog content. It also wouldn’t hurt my feeling if you picked up one of my novels to read and if you liked it told your friends.


  1. Thanks for reading my blog and commenting, Boyd. What are you writing about?