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Piecing Together a Person

book inc writer and retired psychotherapist Dr. Lou Storey discusses the challenge of crafting authentic characters and shares his insights into the psychology of character transformation.

By Lou Storey

November 16, 2023

Mary Shelley put together a person piece by piece, parts of different men stitched from graveyard refuse, in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. How do we, as writers, find the parts needed to put together our characters?

An avid reader, I have often found myself surprised by the actions of a character when they do something out of sync with who they are, an act that confuses me rather than deepens my understanding of that person. Other times, I am apt to lose interest in a story because the characters are just not relatable. I can’t say exactly why this happens. Does the writer too quickly tie up loose ends? Is it wishful thinking, a projection of what we would like to see happen but rarely does? Hoping the indifferent parent will suddenly reveal a hidden cache of caring?  Feel relief when the lonely introvert finds the wherewithal to launch into a loving relationship? These things do happen, but it takes very certain catalysts to unfold in very specific ways to bring about these transformations. 

As a psychotherapist, my writing was mostly academic, outlining programs of treatment for my clients. However, in retirement, I began to write fiction and creative nonfiction. I faced the How-To challenge of putting together the right parts that would ensure my characters read as believable and not the cardboard cutouts in so many of the books that turned me off.  Initially, my characters felt stale. I knew my protagonists needed to travel emotionally from one spot to another while retaining distinct characteristics, the same way a sailboat cutting through water moves differently than car tires on asphalt or an airplane shooting through clouds.

Although I had seen my training in psychology as something separate, I realized that I had an incredible resource right in front of me on my bookshelf. I could use the various tools of psychology that outline human behavior to better understand and represent the characters I was creating. For instance, attempting my first memoir, the narrative felt unformed, one thing leading to another. Using Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Life, I retooled the writing, letting specific motivations unique to each life stage act as a skeletal structure that connected these memories into a coherent shape. In my fiction, I also leaned heavily on my knowledge as a therapist to figure out important subtle details unique to each of my characters. One of the tools I found useful was the nine Enneagram personality types, which gave me helpful clues to differences in their social, physical, and spiritual interactions.

As a visual learner (who often fell asleep during spoken classroom lectures), I found that illustrated theories mapping configurations of relationships were both easy to remember and remarkable in predicting behavioral outcomes. These theories were easily applied in defining difficult relationships. The Karpman Drama Triangle, one of my favorites, describes an unhealthy and quite common relational trap. Imagine a triangle, with each point housing a specific role: Victim (I am helpless), Rescuer (I need to feel worthy), and Persecutor (I am right). Taking a position anywhere on this triangle automatically places others in some aspect to it. If I am Victim, I expect you to be Rescuer, and if not, I see you as Persecutor, which in turn flips you into Victim role. A head-spinning abusive cycle from which the Empowerment Dynamic, another triangle, offers an escape route. The Victim can be the Creator, finding a solution; the Rescuer can be the Coach, offering observation and allowing the Victim to rescue themselves; the Persecutor can be the Challenger, able to hold a different view that does not punish or judge. So much of what I learned in psychology for treatment is also a perfect primer for creating believable worlds as a writer.

Applying these models has strengthened my writing. Sharing them with other writers has enlarged their scope of application in unusual and fun ways. Several of the writers found new insights into their characters, recognizing that prior they had been limited by basing most of their characters on their own traits and values. One writer asked, “Does this model of behavior apply if my character is dead and haunting someone?”—a question psychology has yet to explore, and, to steal from Star Trek, allows us as writers to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” What could be more fun than that?

For our Winter session, Dr. Lou Storey is teaching the book inc elective THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION. In this six-week class, writers explore psychological models behind human behaviors, personalities, life stages, and relationship dynamics. This class is open to both fiction and nonfiction writers. Join to learn the psychology behind a believable character arc. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION runs on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. ET, beginning on January 17, 2024. 

Lou Storey

Lou Storey is an artist and retired psychotherapist who recently moved to Savannah, Georgia. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories, Beyond Words Anthology, and various mental health journals.

Lou Storey is an artist and retired psychotherapist who recently moved to Savannah, Georgia. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories, Beyond Words Anthology, and various mental health journals.