The psychology of a character is the inner workings of their mind which define them and the way the think and act. Once you understand the psychology of your characters you should know exactly what they’d do in any situation you choose to put them in. Your job as a scriptwriter becomes so much easier because the character begins to write itself. To get to this stage though you need to put a lot of work into finding out what makes the character tick.
The Past Dictates The Future
Your character had a life before your story began. They had parental figures, they went to school and they interacted with the world around them. Along the way they will have gone through a series of events that shaped their character and attitudes. This is the backstory of the character.
If a character felt unloved as a child they may be driven by a desire to prove their worth and also find it hard to trust or love others. Sometimes an event in the past can lead to a serious phobia. In The Truman Show the creators of the show manufactured a phobia of water in Truman by having his father die at sea, this kept Truman in the pre-planned environment.
A lot of films have an underlying story of a character having to put their past demons to rest to overcome an external conflict.
You do not need to shoehorn in a great deal of information about your character’s past within your screenplay but it may be helpful to write a character biography to reference as you write.
The Unconscious (The Dark Side)
The vast majority of what drives and motivates us is not in the conscious, but the unconscious. We tend to repress a lot of our past events, experiences, thoughts and feelings that we consider unpleasant. This ball of negativity is carried around by our unconscious which drives us a lot more than our conscious.
It is no coincidence that the word conscious and conscience are so similar, they are both connected to one another. They are the moral side to our personality (the light) to the more cruel unconscious (the dark).
Applied to a character the unconscious manifests itself through their reactions, mannerisms and dialogue. There is a constant fight within a character between the conscious and unconscious. Upon hearing some bad news a character might react by wrecking an object, that is an impulsive unconscious reaction.
The unconscious has a long-term effect too, it may push a character into the same professional as their father in the hope of receiving more affection or to prove to themselves that they are better than their father.
There are basically two different kinds of personality when you cut it down to it’s bare bones - introverts and extroverts. Introverts prefer to be alone, spending their time focusing on self-improvement and finding their calling. They look within for the center of their life. Extroverts are the opposite, loving the company of others they are often very relationship driven.
The majority of movies focus on extroverts as they move the story along and tend to be more dynamic. However an intriguing play on this concept is to have a character outwardly appear to be either an extrovert or introvert but actually be the other. This can lead to complex characters, such as one who outwardly shuns companionship but internally craves it, possibly due to trust issue.
To expand on the introvert/extrovert personality types there are also four types - sensation, thinking, feeling and intuitive.
Sensation: Sensation types live through their senses and they live in the now. They are tuned into the colors, smells, shapes, and tastes around them. Occupation wise they tend to be good at any job that is physical or sensory. This could be gardening, cooking, painting, etc. They are driven most of all by visual appeal.
Intuitive: The intuitive type is a dreamer, and very creative. They have a strong idea of what the future holds for them. Intuitive characters will act with future consequences in mind. They are well suited for jobs as artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Intuitive types are never found without a plan.
Thinking: As the name suggests thinking types like to use logic and deduction to solve problems. They base their thoughts on facts rather than faith or instincts. Thinking types make good businessmen/women, mechanics, detectives, etc. Inquisitiveness is a common trait amongst thinking types.
Feeling: Feeling types are emotional, empathetic and get on well with others. They don’t hide their emotions and are very upfront with others. Suited occupations include teachers, social workers, carers, etc. Feeling types often have many strong relationships.
Characters tend to have two of the above types which dominate their personality while the other two may still be apparent but take a backseat. Characters gain information through their sensations or intuition and then it is processed by their thoughts or feelings.
Strange Behaviour Makes For Interesting Characters
The line between sanity and insanity is not as clear cut as most people would like. While society would prefer that it was black and white, with the insane clearly marked by a rubber stamp, that isn’t the case. Like most things there are subtle shades of grey. While a phobia of snakes in an Englishman who’s never been in contact with them is nonsensical it is also quite common. The key difference between this and a man who believes that God is talking to them is that the second case can be a danger to others.
There are six basic types of abnormal behavioural patterns. Each pattern has a partner. There are manics, depressives, paranoids, schizophrenics, psycho/sociopaths and neurotics. To illustrate the relationships please see the diagram below.
Just like the personality types (sensation, intuitive, thinking and feeling) a character won’t fall completely into one abnormal type. Manic-depressives vary between the two, as do paranoid-schizophrenics and psycho/socio-neurotics.
Manics: Manics have total self-belief, they believe they can achieve absolutely anything they set their mind to. The majority of comic book style villains are manics. Manics are very excitable and sociable, and like to be active. They aren’t happy with sitting back and letting things happen.
Depressives: Depressives are the opposite, they feel like their life is worthless and they can’t achieve anything. They withdraw themselves from social situations and appear emotionally flat.
Schizophrenics: Schizophrenics are very self aware. They are highly sensitive, easily embarrassed and shy around others. Because of this they try and avoid conflict, instead they retreat to a safe place and brood. In extreme cases schizophrenics can hear voices instructing them on what they should do or develop multiple personalities to defend the character’s ego.
Paranoids: Paranoids are very self-centred, thinking that everyone is out to destroy them. Because of this paranoids types tend to be aggressive and defensive. Their beliefs drive them to become leaders and gain power, thus putting themselves in a safer position. They are bull-headed individuals who don’t take well to criticism and hold long-standing grudges for the smallest of reasons.
Anxiety neurotics: See Allen, Woody. Anxiety neurotics fear everything and put a great deal of thought and grief into the smallest of things. They spend their lives trying to avoid anxiety yet actually cause the majority of anxiety for themselves. Anxiety neurotics can also harbor obsessive/compulsive characteristics. This leads to ridiculous seeming habits like only getting out of bed at an exact time or brushing their hair an exact amount of strokes.
Psycho/Sociopaths: While I have grouped this pair together there is a difference between the two. Sociopaths are antisocial characters, often holding a disdain for humanity. Psychopaths are similar but with a mental unbalance, this leads them to become cold blooded killers. Each have little to no empathy for people or creatures. They make excellent villains. Psychopaths and sociopaths are particularly interesting because they do no transform. They will never become well-rounded, normal characters.
Hopefully this article has given you a deeper understanding of character psychology. It is important to realise that the above points should not be the focus of your character, treat them as the underlying features of a character.
Thinking of characters in this way is particularly useful when creating character relationships. You can pick and choose traits in a character which will make them contrast from others, creating more complex relationships. The characters themselves will also be richer for taking their psychology into account while creating them.