Monday, June 13, 2011

Psychology Plus Chemistry = Ice Cream and a Colour Wheel?

I had just graduated from the University of Toronto with an expensive piece of paper - my receipt for four years of lectures, readings, essays and exams. That summer, during Boot Camp (a season of mud, mosquitoes and obstacle courses), I'd mentioned my Bachelor of Science in Psychology to a friend of mine. He took a long step back, gave me the hairy eyeball and asked if I was already psychoanalyzing him. I said I hadn't studied nearly enough to do something as complex as that.

"So what good is all your education then?" he asked. (I ask myself the same thing almost every day.) "You went to school for four years. What can you do with it?"

"Well, it gives me a better insight into peoples' personality," I said, "so I know better how to work with them." I could make keener observations about personality, I could even guess at motivations, or psychological disorders, and I could use this information to my advantage. I wanted to know how to control my enemy, I explained (because that's a cool thing for the modern soldier to say).

What I wanted to say was that I wanted to know better how to write a convincing character in my stories.

"But I don't know how to psychoanalyze anybody. You need at least a master's degree for that, or a ph.d., and I don't want to go back to school for it."

"So what can you do with a bachelor of science?" he asked again.

Not knowing what else to say (aside from "You want fries with that?"), I replied: "Have you ever had chocolate ice cream?" He had.

"Can you recognize it from vanilla ice cream?" He could.

"Can you remember what it tastes like?" I was driving everybody in the tent a little crazy, because we were all exhausted, hot and hungry; but yes, he and everybody else within earshot could remember what chocolate ice cream tasted like.

"Okay," I said. "So describe the flavour of chocolate ice cream."

His mouth hung open and his glasses steamed up.

"I can sort of recognize trends and predict behaviour," I explained, "the same way you can remember what chocolate ice cream tastes like. But I can't analyze personality any better than you can tell me what chocolate ice cream tastes like."

Characterization in writing, I've learned, is as difficult as describing the flavour of chocolate ice cream. So how do we convey to a reader the shape and flavour of a personality? Three ways: individuality, dialogue and action, and a colour wheel.

1) Outstanding and unique traits give a character its individuality.

Take for example, a friend of mine in university. He'd been born blind, but he was fully independent, relying only on a white cane to navigate. He didn't trust seeing eye dogs, because (he said) he never knew when they might be lying. He had a sharp wit (Me: "You see what I mean?" Him: "No, I'm blind, stupid"). He dreamed visually ("And do you have any idea how hard it is for a guy like me to describe what he sees in his dreams?"). He used to fall asleep at the computer while the speech-to-text program was still recording ("Right there, in the middle of page five. Apparently I was dreaming about electric penguins attacking my professor and I had to fly down from the balcony with a fire extinguisher..."). And, I'm convinced, he was a synesthete ("I've always wanted to see purple. What's it like? It always sounded like such a round, grape-flavoured colour to me").

Such a unique guy, and so easy to characterize. Every trait was a story unto itself.

But I find that writers try too hard to make a character unique, and in the end, they create an inventory of unrelated quirks.

Maybe you have a hero is an obsessive-compulsive pool shark of Japanese-African descent; maybe he has a twitch in his right shoulder, a mole on his left ear, and he owns the country's biggest collection of porcelain elephants. Does he collect elephants because of his ethnic descent, or because of his compulsive nature, or because the author thought it would be an interesting thing for a pool shark to collect? It's an interesting list, I guess, but what has it got to do with the story?

What matters is how his OCD impacts the plot, or how his ethnicity affects the choices he makes, or how his devotion to porcelain drives him to bankruptcy and a gambling habit. Unique personality traits must must must have a direct impact on the character's decisions and they need to drive the plot forward (or into an interesting twist); this is the difference between a catalogue and a character.

2) Dialogue and action.

Personality is the sum product of what you've done, what you're doing, and why. Characterization is the means by which we describe that personality. It's as simple as that.

Personality is revealed in action (and dialogue is action). Even someone standing in the garden refusing to move is still doing something: they're listening intently, they're sulking, they're trying not to cry, they're experiencing shock, they're suffering from catatonia...And even if the character says one thing and does another, they're still doing something: they're making false promises, or lying, or changing their minds.

But action must fall within a range or repertoire of "likely things this person would do."

Character is a chronic gambler? They will likely try to wiggle out of trouble through excuses, conniving and pleas, and less likely to act violently. They're probably not going to collect porcelain elephants after all, because all their resources would be diverted to feed their addictions. Your gambler could, however, lie about his whereabouts on the night of the murder in order to avoid admitting his gambling habit, and get himself only deeper into trouble. He could even use the actual murderer as the supposed corroborator of his false alibi - wouldn't that make for an interesting twist?

In real life, behaviours that seem utterly out of character make us wonder about the person's mental health and possible intoxication. In a story, wildly uncharacteristic behaviour comes across as if the author is throwing in a desperate and unrealistic plot twist. It usually ends up wrenching the reader out of the story. In fact, the best stories I ever read feature a character who acts exactly according to his or her nature and still manages to surprise me.

Keep it simple. Pick two or three defining attributes (i.e. smart, funny, blind) and let everything else hang off those key characteristics. For example, what kind of observations would a blind psychologist make, if he can't see body language? What kind of wisecracks would he come up with, if his patient turned suddenly violent?

And here, dear writer, I strongly advise research. Avoid cliches like "Because he's blind, nature has compensated by giving him an unusually strong sense of hearing." If you do this, I will find you, I will strap you to a chair in a dark room, and I will play "This is the song that never ends" until you crack. I swear, I will find you.

You want to write about a blind/deaf/disabled/OCD/schizophrenic/porcelain elephant collecting person? Go find one and talk to them.

During the process of writing, let the personality develop and change over the course of the story. Revisions will allow you to iron out any blips encountered during the development phase. Revisions are crucial, so DO IT, DARN YOU, before you give me your story to read.

3) Use a colour wheel of character.

One of the strangest things my Uncle David said was "there is no such thing as colour." The man is a professional painter. One would think, in his world, there was nothing but colour.

He explained that all things reflect back specific wave lengths of light, which our brain interprets as colour. Any given hue is best perceived in comparison to another colour.

Take a particular shade of blue-green. Is it more green than blue, or is it more blue? The only way to know is to match it against a different shade of blue or green.

Artists know best how to put certain colours together in a composition. They use colours to amplify highlights, to create a sense of harmony or discord, and to evoke an emotional response. The response you have to yellow and purple for example may be different to your response to orange, yellow and red. Blues and greens seem to go together, while pink and orange-red only go well together given the right context (a sunset, for example; wearing them together may get you laughed out of the party).

Similarly, use one personality against another to augment contrasts (Al's a big softy, but Suzette's a total witch), to create a sense of community (Al's a girl-magnet teddy-bear, BJ is a slick party animal but loyal, Cal is a brooding hottie but he has his one-liners), and to create a sense of partnership (Al's partner on the force is straight-laced and hates Al's laid-back nature, but his heart is in the right place; set them against our compulsive gambler, and the gambler's going to seek help and mend his ways).

Personality is revealed by its difference.

Your characters are still shallow and stilted? Maybe you've created a list of rules for yourself (Character A never uses contractions like "It's" and "You're", Character B uses a lot of bad language, Character C has a stutter), but you haven't actually stopped to consider why characters are saying what to whom.

A story is less a string of yarn and more like a braid. In life, everybody has an origin and a destination; the same is true with your characters. When characters cross paths, there is an interaction, a binding of two or more people in a moment of time. Their paths will separate again momentarily, and a new interaction will begin between a new combination of factors.

The important thing (and most difficult thing) to remember is that no matter what, characters have different aims to achieve, once this interaction is complete. They may want the same end (the death of an obsessive compulsive pool shark), but they have different objectives (one wants to collect the insurance money, the other wants the someone set up for murder).

Most often, characters will react differently to the same stimuli. In a dark room, when a balloon pops, three characters may be startled, but one will scream, one will laugh, and the other will draw a gun. The differences in their emotional and physical reactions reveal personality, as well as plot. Maybe it's our two cops and an informant, and the informant is the one who popped the balloon. What do these reactions say about the personality of our cops? What does it say about the informant?

Here's another brain twist for you. What endears characters to one another is how they are similar to one another (not identical, but similar). What makes them most uncomfortable with each how they are similar to each other!

Al and his partner both gush with compassion for their fellow man, though Al is more expressive and his partner is retentive. Tension is created when one character (as a foil) reflects back the characteristic that the main character despises in himself - his partner hates Al's naivete, for example. What we hate most in others is what we hate most in ourselves; conversely, what we love most in other people is what we aspire to in ourselves.

This is the key to successful chemistry between characters.

Even diametrically opposed characters (hero and enemy) must have something in common in order for there to be some dynamism. The hero needs to recognize and understand something about his enemy in order for me to catch my interest. My favourite hero/enemy combination is not "two sides of the same coin." They're "branches from the same twisted tree." Take Darth and Obi-Wan, for example; both are goal-oriented, both are spiritual, both have patience and skill, yet only one chose the Dark Side, and the other lives with regret.

My final bit of advice: People are individuals because they are not like you. Characters who are not all like you, therefore, are more individual.

Be inspired by the real thing. Be inspired by the guy at work you respect but who totally makes you shudder, then change the details to protect the innocent. Take an uncle and a colleague and mash them together - BOOM, character. Look at the woman on the bus with the pink dress and orange hat and absorb some of her personality; speculate about her past and her destination. Go take the blind psychologist out for a cup of coffee.

In short: completely unhook characters from yourself and attach them to somebody (or some bodies) in the real world. Not only will you end up with characters who are dissimilar to each other, but you may even learn something about your own personality, in the meantime.


For more information about colour schemes, here's a great breakdown.

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