On Character Psychology

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29 January 2011

I’m thinking about this because I’ve been reading and teaching stories by Flannery O’Connor.  Her characters are so vivid and real, so particular and alive; but O’Connor does not much go in for psychologizing.  We know who these characters are, but not so much WHY they are the way they are or how they got that way.  We accept them as fact; she is that good at incarnating full human beings and staking out their territory of reality.  A student observed that O’Connor clearly knew their psychology inside and out, which is how she is able to render them so well, via their externalities. This, I think, is a kind of argument for “write what you know,” i.e. write the characters you know inside and out, intuitively, so that the external details you select to characterize them will inevitably (one hopes) evoke both the present and the past of that character.

O’Connor’s characters are also no doubt creatures of the South, of a particular era.  Those of us working in a more heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-geographical universe perhaps are required to consider more these questions of back story, of childhood experience, of what brings adult character A to situation or conflict X – that psycho-experiential map.

A colleague spoke the other day (during a thesis conference) about the coming-of-age genre, how that genre’s power is in giving the reader a compact story, the most formative experiences from ages x to xx; and then leaving us at that juncture, at the precipice, before the character transitions into adulthood.  The emotional impact is in the projection and the resonance; the reader feels how these experiences may shape the character’s adult journey, we have a sense of knowing what paths the adult life will take – tragic, hopeful, what have you.

I don’t know.  Psychology is in many ways the enemy of art and literature; it claims predictability, a+b=c.  And yet we are all so profoundly shaped by both the language and conceptions of modern psychology, developmental narratives, etc.   I myself often query students to consider what has shaped their character in his or her past, WHY is he or she like this?  I recognize the danger of it, the too-easy map from A to B; the draining of mystery, or, as O’Connor would put it, “the mystery of personality.” But on the other hand there is the question of coherence, of writing characters who behave in credible ways, who feel human by virtue of the ways in which they process and absorb experience.

But people are strange.  This perhaps is the truth underlying all truths about human behavior; experience certainly confirms it.

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