Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Memorable Characters: A Psychological Approach (Part 6)

My late mother liked to tell a story about how her three sons had completely different personalities. She was a control freak and in our home it was her way or the highway, a motto that really didn’t work all that well for her. If you remember Part 1 of this series, she was a Red (Assertive-Directing). It wouldn’t be inappropriate to think of her as Conan the Barbarian with an sense of humor. She could have played Tom Cruise’s role in A Few Good Men.

Jill was a fantastic cook who fed us all like kings. Apparently we boys weren’t sufficiently appreciative of her efforts in the kitchen. As part of a scathing lecture on our deficiencies she demanded that when we come to breakfast the following morning we comment on her culinary gifts. The way she tells it is that I comically bounded into the kitchen and sarcastically commented on how wonderful every little thing she said or did was. My brother, Tom, whined and complained about everything she cooked. My brother, Bob, walked straight through the kitchen, out the door, and didn’t bother to even say good morning. My brothers and I are to this day, at least to some extent, those same boys.

I had three children and allegedly fathered all three. They, too, were as different as night and day. They came out of the womb with their own distinctive and unique personalities and gifts that they then modified and refined as they grew.

As human beings we all have a different way of seeing and interacting with the world. According to motivational models in psychology, in order to understand individual human behavior we must understand what motivates any given individual. In the first five blogs in this series we have been employing the model of psychologist  Elias H. Porter, Ph.D. to describe seven different motivational styles.

The basic premises of this approach professes that (1) motivation shapes behavior, (2) behavior is generically predictable both in normal circumstances and when the individual is faced with opposition or conflict when we understand one’s valued relating style, (3) misapplying or overusing a personal strength results in a character flaw, and (4) interpersonal conflict arises from the tendency to perceive and judge others through one’s own valued motivational style.

I have proposed that an essential component of writing memorable characters involves allowing the reader to experience what is going on inside the minds of the characters we create. To do so requires going beyond projecting our own motivations or imposing our values on our creations. Painting a realistic portrait of each character involves slipping into their skin in order to understand the subtleties of their motivational style.

In today's blog, let’s look at the defining features of the Assertive-Nurturing or Red/Blue motivational value system, a blend of Red and Blue styles.

One of my all time favorite literary characters is Cyrano de Bergerac, the creation of Edmond Rostand. Cyrano is witty, passionate and full of vitality. He is known for a big nose that preceded him by fifteen minutes and he falls in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxanne. However, a large olfactory organ or unreciprocated love isn’t a prerequisite for an Assertive-Nurturing motivational style. Cyrano, however, did allege that a great nose is the banner of a great man, a generous heart, a towering spirit, and an expansive soul.

Red/Blues are driven to actively seek opportunities to help others and understand the compassionate use of power. They utilize their verbal gifts to support the underdog and persuade others in ways that ensure maximum growth and development. Red/Blues tend to be strong and decisive, enthusiastic, friendly, trusting, compassionate, positive and through leadership tend to pursue progressive initiatives and act promptly in matters concerning other people’s welfare.

J.R.R. Tolkien provides us with two contrasting Red/Blue characters in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Frodo was more dominantly Blue and Aragorn, who favors his Red tendencies. Both feel deeply, are prudent and tenacious in pursuing goals, strive not to be superficial in their relationships or inconsiderate of others, and lead for the betterment of others rather than their personal glory. As Cyrano noted, his life's work has been to “prompt others and be forgotten.”

Another Assertive-Nurturing example in literature is Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s uproarious series character. Stephanie is outgoing, strong and friendly, a confident risk taker, witty, always looking for a challenge and enthusiastically tackles obstacles to success. She doesn’t like people who refuse to get involved, are self-centered, and who are or indifferent to inconsiderate of the needs of others. Red/Blues don’t exploit people. She is also rebellious and not good at taking advice, can be argumentative, likes to haggle prices and at times has a biting sense of humor. Remember from earlier discussions that when we overuse or misuse our strengths we can turn them into weaknesses.

If you want to see an excellent example of an Assertive-Nurturing type on film, check out Legally Blonde. The protagonist, Elle Woods, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon is a trusted and devoted friend, perpetually enthusiastic, never mean even to those who are mean to her, and achieves every goal she sets for herself with a smile on her face and without doing harm to others. I have found that Assertive-Nurturing types make great managers and leaders and I usually enjoy their joyous humor. They get things done without exploiting others or breaking the necks of their subordinates.

As you sit down to create your next protagonist, remember if you want to create a memorable character go beyond plot driven, external events. Show both in behavior and thought what intrinsically motivates our hero to action.

Next time, we’ll examine another of the seven motivational styles: Flexible-Cohering. 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.

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