Creating Realistic Characters

Developing Your Characters’ Personalities

When I was a young counseling psychology student, I took an Abnormal Psychology course. During that time, I also worked as a teaching assistant in educational counseling and completed my internship at the university counseling center. In the process of developing characters for the novel I am drafting, I realized that the various models of personality I had studied might serve me well as a writer. While there are different models available, one I have enjoyed working with is Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (New York: Ronald Press, 1957). There are various versions of his model online. I like the original because it has four poles. It also has eight levels of intensity that radiate out from the center point to the end of each axis.

Timothy Leary’s Interpersonal Behavior Circle

Timothy Leary, well known for his experimentation with LSD, was a respected psychologist who worked for Kaiser Permanente in California in the 1950s. His research team studied how pairs of individuals interact. It is an effective way to grasp different types of personalities, using a two-axis layout. The vertical axis runs from “dominant” at the top to “submissive” at the bottom. The horizontal axis runs from “Hate” on the left to “Love” on the right. If a person scores near the center their behavior is more normal. The higher the score from 1 to 8, the more extreme the behavior is.

Individuals who fall on the vertical poles fall on a continuum from Dominant (Managerial/Autocratic) to Submissive (Self-effacing/Masochistic). On the horizontal poles, the continuum extends from Cold (Aggressive/Sadistic) to Warm (Cooperative/Over Conventional).

Concentric circles are placed over the axes to indicate the levels of intensity of each personality starting at level 1, moving outward to level 8. Thus, a “Dominant” person who is at the level one intensity would, on the cold side, be “able to give orders” or, on the warm side, “be well thought of.” A “Cold” person on the dominant side would be “able to be strict if necessary” or on the submissive side would be able to “be frank and honest.” A “Warm” person who is at the level one intensity, would, on the dominant side, be “friendly;” on the submissive side, be “cooperative;” while a “Submissive” person on the cold side would be “able to criticize self;” or on the warm side “able to be obedient.”

At the highest level of intensity (8), a “Dominant” person on the cold side would be described as “dictatorial” or on the warm side by “everyone admires him/her.” A submissive person at level 8 would on the cold side be “Always ashamed of self” or on the warm side “Spineless”.

Thus, if you wanted to create a hyper-normal character who spoils everyone with kindness, you would be describing a level 8 Dominant/Warm character. If you wanted to put an aggressive/sadistic villain into action, you would use the level 7 of “frequently angry, self-seeking and impatient with others” combined with “hard-hearted, cruel and unkind” at the level 8 on the “Cold” axis.

Creating Complementary Characters

It is a terrific guide to understanding the varying intensities of personality. The scale also provides keywords at each level within each quadrant (Dominant-Hate) (Dominant-Warm) (Submissive-Hate) (Submissive-Warm) to help a writer describe different extremes of personalities accurately.

A person’s interaction on the extreme of any pole creates a counterpoint type of response from a person on the opposite pole. Thus, if one character communicates coldly/dominantly, Leary’s research shows that the other person involved in the interaction will predictably take a submissive stance to avoid conflict. It takes self-control to pull oneself out of this habitual behavior in real life, but it is possible. For example, if someone is coming from a cold dominant position, a knowledgeable person can choose to sit down, become submissive, then wait for a chance to become warm, dominant. When the cold dominant person fizzles out, stand up, and say warmly, “Would you like to sit down to talk about it?” In my experience, it works.

Thus, in fiction, if the writer wants the characters to end up in a fight, both characters must engage as cold dominant, escalating the argument. Or if the author wants a character to simply operate at a normal level, she can keep the characters’ interactions at a level one. This interplay can create believable characters, allowing the author to follow Leary’s roadmap from normalcy to nuttiness and back again.

Looking back on my years as a counseling student, the personalities of the counselors and their clients were fascinating. Using the lens of personality theory to figure out what was happening was helpful, even though the internship convinced me that I did not want to be a working counselor. Clients’ problems made me too sad. In retrospect, now that I am writing fiction, I find that my training in psychology is a valuable aid in character development.

Update on My Goal Setting

 This month I am going to restate specifically the goals I set in January, followed by my monthly update.

  1. Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it: I have finished nine months of writing. Even though I am writing about an area in which I have lived for many years, it has taken detailed research to make sure I am not making errors. I have found that focusing on my goals helps me keep rowing upstream, rather than being swept down with the existential flood that often surrounds me.
  2. Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month: On October 7th, my page counter should stand at 274. Right now, it stands at 255. I am still short by 18 pages which means I still have 110 pages to write before the end of the year.
  3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018: Today, October 7, 2018, I am posting my 10th blog. Blogging has been an educative adventure. It has forced me to write, read, and redo. It is a conversation with myself that allows me to connect with the world. An unexpected pleasure is that old friends have contacted me because they read my blog.
  1. Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me: This year I have been a regular attendee at the Boulder Writers Alliance meetings. In September I was asked to facilitate a workshop on goal setting for writers for the group. I was able to share my writing journey. Preparing for the workshop forced me to work on my goals for next year as well. Twelve writers of various levels of experience attended. Using my handout, they worked enthusiastically on their goals during the session. Comments following the session included, “This was a very professionally done workshop.” “Your worksheets clearly reflect years of research and experience.” “Your work has had an amazing snowball effect. My kids wanted to set their goals.” Continuing to expand my writer’s network, I also attended the Zee JFL Literary Festival Boulder. Over 70 writers gathered here to talk about their past, current, and future work. I listened. I absorbed. I asked a few questions. I made a couple of comments. I connected. I was humbled but enthralled.

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