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Psychology and Writing

June 2, 2012

I just finished a wonderful book: The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior by Carolyn Kaufman.

It’s gotten five stars on Amazon.com and with good reason. It was extremely approachable and thorough. It was, in fact, exactly as advertised.

One of the problems highlighted in the book is that it’s common for writers to incorporate mental or personality disorders, therapy, or other topics related to psychology without doing proper research, instead relying on stereotypes and misguided information from, say, movies. The author includes examples of popular movies and books with glaring errors.

So why does it matter? Anyone who hasn’t studied psychology isn’t going to notice a difference. And maybe not. But for anyone who does know a thing or two about therapy or autism or whatever you’re writing about, you are going to break their suspension of disbelief right there, right where you got a fact wrong.

But I’m not here to preach to you about doing research (well, at least not today). That’s not what this post is about.

For grad school, I wrote a paper called “Psychology and Game AI,” where I explored and discussed why flat, 2D characters who simply fulfill roles such as “enemy: fighter” or “enemy: commander” are insufficient to inspire an emotional response in a player. I won’t go into all of my research and conclusions here, but here’s what it boils down to: how people assume humans operate and how humans actually operate are often not the same.

According to Merriam Webster, psychology is defined as “the science of mind and behavior.” As a writer, you are both A. creating characters and writing their thoughts and behaviors, and B. trying to communicate with your reader on an emotional level. Both of these can benefit from a basic understanding of psychology. If you want to reach your readers, really reach them, tug their heartstrings, make them laugh, make them cry, a strong understanding of what causes emotions, how the brain works, how people react, and generally what makes people tick, psychology can be very helpful. Necessary? No, of course not. Otherwise, every famous writer ever would be a psychologist.

But why wouldn’t you want that sort of knowledge? Honestly? It’s such a wonderful resource.

It’s really easy to throw a character together. It’s much harder to throw a believable character together. Characters are the beating heart of a story (not plot, that’s the brain). If they’re flat and not relatable, your story has no life. Plain and simple. Understanding psychology can take your writing to a whole new level.

I have on my “To Read” shelf two books, Understanding Emotions by Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner, and Jennifer M. Jenkins, and Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister. I expect these both to be invaluable resources for me. In Mettle, I am writing about a woman’s emotional and mental transformation into a murderous stalker. In The Gray Regions, my “villain” is a god-king who does not believe he is a tyrant — he honestly believes that it is his duty to save his people from themselves. Two very different stories in different genres, but the same research applies. I want these characters to be believable. I want them to resonate with my readers. The more I know, the better armed I am.

Understanding psychology as a writer is about more than knowing the facts of depression or PTSD. It’s about understanding people. It’s about understanding thought and behavior. And if you are creating characters, if you are writing TO people ABOUT people, shouldn’t you know that?

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6 Comments
  1. Good post. I’m actually going through this exact thing – the main character of my WIP suffers several mental disorders and I know I have to research them all down to the letter. You’re absolutely right in saying that we are creating 3D characters, the life of the story – therefore researching this subject is a given.

    • Thanks! Yeah, it’s a topic that’s been on my mind a lot, and I’m discovering a lot of great resources for it. In fact, all of my research is making me want to write more about characters with disorders. And it’s given me some great ideas. Good luck with your research!

  2. I’m so guilty of this! I did some research but not as much as I could have. The lead in one of my stories suffers from a few psych conditions but she’s mostly unaware so at least I don’t have to diagnose her for the reader. But now I feel like I should do the research anyway. Hmm…

    • Well, it’s up to you how much you want to research, but I’ve always found that when I can tell the author did his homework, it adds something to the store. It’s appreciated. Though I’m guilty of not doing enough research, myself, at times.

  3. This is a very interesting article. As always, you share a very deep insight in terms of how one can make their writing–in this case, characters especially–leap off the page. I know I am definitely guilty of not doing enough research and sometimes playing off of or accentuating certain stereotypical aspects of mental disorders. However, I derive most of my information from actual people that I know who have mental disabilities, rather than pop culture. Just the same, it is important to do as much medical research as possible on the topic at hand because not every case of the same disorder is going to be the same.

    • Thanks for commenting. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subject lately, as I mentioned, and it’s opened my eyes somewhat. I think I have a better understanding of how to develop and work with my characters. Any sort of research is valid, as long as it’s fairly reliable. In fact, deriving information from people you know is one of the best ways to do it. If I personally knew a psychopath murderer, I’d certainly…wait, no, I wouldn’t ask them about it.

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