Psychology in Fiction

Why do characters do what they do?  Why do people do what they do?  For me, writing fiction is a way to learn, explore and understand human behavior.  Characters drive my fiction, not the plot.  Motivations behind a character’s behavior fascinate me, just as I wonder why on earth did Michael Jackson screw around so much with his face?  A character’s motivation also determines narrative structure, as I discussed in my “Narrative Structure” post on May 9, 2009.

Evan Quinn’s psychological state influences his story, in terms of his behavior, his thoughts, his feelings.  Evan is the main character of Perceval and subsequent novels in the series, so his psychological state dominates while those of other characters provide conflicts and obstacles for him.  What does Evan want?  The answer to this question propels Evan through the story.  What do his antagonists want?  The answers will provide the action and suspense throughout the story.  Evan decides what choices he makes based on what he wants, and his psychological background influences those choices.  The novel is set in Vienna, Austria for most of the story, but Evan’s psychological setting is America, 2048.  He feels that he’s lost all his experience, a “stranger in a strange land,” in Vienna, a child exploring a new world and how people think there. 

Is there psychobabble in PercevalNO.  Evan’s, and every other character’s, actions and speech reveal their psychology.  For example, Evan wants to be free.  This is his goal, his desire, and it determines everything he does, the choices he makes.  Why does he want to be free?  The answer is in his psychological state, his past, and at some point, I hope readers question just how healthy he is psychologically, based on the choices he has made in the past.  When I first began the first draft, though, all Evan had given me was his desire to be free and lots of questions.  I wrote to discover the answers.

Evan’s desire helped me decide on the point of view for Perceval.  I knew first person would be too close, too claustrophobic, and I wanted the ability to write another character’s perspective as needed.  Straight omniscient POV is too distant although it allows for a broader view of external events and characters’ reactions.  Second person would have been too snarky, considering how Evan and some of the characters are.  So, I settled on omniscient third, i.e. omniscient but focused on one character, Evan.  This gave me freedom to switch focus, also, to other characters, but I decided to switch as little as possible in order to heighten suspense. 

A character’s psychology is as important a factor in his development as the action and other characters.  Human behavior and the motivations behind it, the reasons for the motivations, provide endless possibilities for stories….


2 responses to “Psychology in Fiction

  1. While writing something, I changed from 3rd person and started writing the next major section in the 1st person. In part it was just to see if I could. I realized I didn’t want to do the whole thing that way. I enjoy it, when it is well-done, which is very difficult.

    I left the beginning section that way, and turned it into the introduction/prelude/transition from one section of the story to another. Admittedly, I’m not a professional writer, and was doing the writing simply for self-entertainment purposes.

    Have you noticed anyone else trying this? Basically a periodic insertion of first person, presumably from the major character.

    I think Arturo-Perez in Captain Alatriste does this.

  2. Actually, consistent POV is something writers strive for, not changing it back and forth or in the middle of a scene. So, it’s rare. You can have different chapters in different points of view, or different sections of a chapter (I do this as well as the different chapters). It can heighten suspense.

    First person POV is the most limiting because everything is what that character knows, sees, thinks, and feels. It can also be tiresome if the pronoun “I” is used too much. There is a school of mystery writers who use this POV to great effect, but they keep the story in first person, I think. For example, the POV from the detective.

    It’s important to be clear and not confuse readers or they won’t finish the book or return to your work. Writers, however, play around with POV exercises all the time, and will try stories in different POVs to determine which works the best for the material.

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