“Was Freud Right?”: Psychoanalyzing Your Novel’s Characters to Create Inner Conflict

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My novella-in-progress is currently sitting at around 14,000 words. I’m shocked by that word count only because eighty percent of what I’ve written has come from online writing prompts. I’m the kind of author who has to know their characters completely before the initial story idea will start to coalesce into something that makes sense to my inner editor. I can’t determine how to show those characters in their full authenticity if I don’t have a clear enough image of what that authenticity looks, feels, and sounds like.

One of my favorite parts of the drafting stage is indeed character creation because there is so much room to grow and aspects to explore. For example, with the aid of a few writing reference books, at least five online personality tests, and some pretty brutal therapy sessions, I know nearly everything about my first male protagonist. (Just how much of my own trauma I dumped on him is between me and him.) I finished his character profile sometime near the end of February, including how his character arc will appear in the first draft.

My second male protagonist, though, is a Gordian Knot I’m becoming desperate to unravel. I don’t relate to him nearly as much, so it’s hard to know which approach to take. Much to my surprise, entering from Stage Left? Sigmund Freud dragging along his brainchild, psychoanalysis. Controversial though it may still be, psychoanalysis is a specific form of talk therapy grounded in theories around human development and psychological function.

The explanations and criticisms of Freud’s work fill multiple libraries’ worth of bookshelves. Yet the principles are useful when you get stuck trying to find your character’s core inner conflict. Remember, all stories center around flawed characters and the internal conflicts they face while pursuing their external goals. Even if the external plot is the focus, the character’s internal motivation will directly relate to that internal struggle.

From light-hearted rom-coms to action-packed thrillers and even literary fiction, characters won’t realize until right before the climax that they have to reconcile their inner struggle if they want to have even a glimmer of hope in achieving their external goal.

How can you as the writer determine what those inner struggles will be and how to present them to readers in a plausible way? Frued breaks down the human mind into three components: id, ego, and superego. Those components are starting points to shaping your character from the inside out.

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Id and the Starting Core Flaw

Originally called the Unconscious, Freud’s more structured id represents the deepest level of the mind. A breakdown by Mark Solms in his scholarly article “What is the ‘unconscious,’ and where is it located in the brain?” reads as follows:

Id functions (the hardwired drives and instincts and reflexes of the upper brain stem and limbic system) are innate. They regulate the multiple biological needs of the human body. [. . .] Each need coincides with a different feeling.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Unlocking the Unconscious: Exploring the Undiscovered Self, 1406 (2017), pp. 90–97

For the laypeople among you, the id controls our two main instinctual drives. Survival instincts push us to engage in life-sustaining activities (i.e., eating, drinking, sleeping). Death instincts, though, drives a person’s destructive, aggressive, and violent behavior. Because they are instinctual, in reality, it often takes years of professional help to uncover a person’s driving forces. In fiction, not so much.

My first male character has turned his house into a fort, even though it looks from the outside like every other house on the block. His safety and security needs mean he sees his home as his sanctuary that must be protected at all costs. This is even to the detriment of creating the social bonds he longs for from the people who share his street. Yet despite being the literal new face on the block, the second character understands and cherishes the potential connections he can make with those around him.

Ego and Relationship History

The ego is understood to be a go-between for the superego and the id. It ensures our physical and social needs are met in such a way that allows us to navigate our reality. It’s important to point out that though the ego begins to develop in infancy, it continues to mature and evolve throughout a person’s lifetime. Depending on the environment your character grew up in, the people they worked with, or their dating or marriage history, certain defense mechanisms may show themselves in your early scenes, even if you don’t recognize them as such.

My first male character leans toward displacement and avoidance thanks to the trauma he’s experienced. He starts off the draft taking his problems out on those around him. He’s a loner by choice, despite his longing to connect with and be accepted by those same people. That’s an internal conflict rife with potential juicy scenes. The second character, while not totally emotionally stable, leans toward sublimation and behavioral confrontation. He has a healthier approach to working out his inner turmoil and acknowledging his physiological responses to what’s happening around him thanks to his healthy relationship with his family, friends, and coworkers.

Some writing coaches or instructors swear by creating a complete social history of your character prior to writing. I’m not a prescriptivist, and I always let writers know there’s no right way to create their characters or their stories. However, I also don’t discount the principle behind the advice. Defense mechanisms, coping skills, the ability to establish and maintain bonds with others are all things we start learning before we can rationally process what we see around us. When you understand the role of your character’s backstory in shaping who they are at the start of the novel, the inner conflict they’ll need to address over the course of the novel becomes easier to establish.

Superego and Your Character’s Core Beliefs

Consciousness is where our current thoughts, feelings, and perceptual focus reside. Known better as the superego, this is where humans find their morality and higher principles, both of which work together to encourage people to act in socially and morally acceptable ways. Your character’s core beliefs and worldviews emerge from their superego.

Ask yourself what principles your character holds highest in themselves—and by extension, other people. These can be considered their positive traits. Positive traits are the aspects of their personality that produce or encourage steady and healthy growth. These traits also enhance their relationships and benefit those around your character. Moreso, these principles and traits reflect your character’s desire to uphold what’s right and the worth they attribute to people, objects, and ideas.

A character whose worldview centers around loyalty will struggle when their trust in a person or system is betrayed. They initially may balk at trusting anyone for anything. After all, if the only loyalty they can rely on is their own, placing them in a situation where they have to interact with a team or group of people they don’t know will certainly be mentally stressful.

Photo by Phil on Unsplash

I wish I could explain in full the rabbit hole I burrowed my way through in researching this week’s blog. Though one of my college majors was actually sociology, I’ve come to appreciate and love the insights I gain from nonfiction books on psychology, psychiatry, and mental health. Learning the general concepts and theories on how the brain works differently in people from different backgrounds, the Nature v. Nurture argument, and how humanity’s social evolutions have directly influenced our biological evolutions? My little nerd heart shoots off sparks of joy every time. I get that joy because I know one day soon, a little nugget I picked up will show its face in a character when I need it most.

Hands down, one of the best craft books I read last quarter was Kira-Anne Pelican’s The Science of Writing Characters: Using Psychology to Create Compelling Characters. Without spoiling all of the excellent and practical information the book provides, Pelican takes authors up to four levels down into putting together well-formed characters. Indeed, the characters of the novels we cherish—and re-read—did not emerge from thin air.

Cheryl St. John specifically says, “You can manipulate [your character’s] lives to tell the story you want to tell. Manipulate their histories to shape them into the people you want them to be so they react the way you need them to react.” In other words, authors should take time to explore what makes up the human experience and how we in the real world show those experiences to others. In doing so, you learn how to put those same kinds of experiences into your fictional characters.

With practice and a genuine desire to create realistic inner conflict, you ensure your readers won’t fight their instinctual drive to reflect on your story one word at a time.

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