Using Psychology to Develop Complex Characters

complex characters brainsIf there’s one thing we can say for certain about people, it’s that they never cease to amaze. We do things for stupid reasons, no reason, and dubious ones too. Moreover, our personal survival factors into our actions more than we realize. We lie and deceive, but not just to others. As Richard Feynman once said,

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Seeing Into the Human Mind

We navigate our world via mental shortcuts or heuristics. They don’t always make our actions logical or reasonable. They offer explanations. And as Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, reminds us,

“I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

Wiser words may never have been spoken. It is these very human characteristics that you can use in your writing to create complex characters. Sometimes people don’t make sense. But that’s okay. What a boring world it would be if all our actions followed a straight, logical path!

Biases and Fallacies, Oh, My!

Some of the best sources of human foibles come from our biases and fallacies. They direct our actions sometimes down weird and dark roads. In addition, they provide an explanation for those what-was-he-thinking moments. See if you recognize any of them in yourself.

The Ad Ignorantiam Fallacy

This fallacy often appears in political discussions. You may see it crop up in discussions about the paranormal too. In this case, someone makes the case that if you can’t disprove something, it must be true.

A classic example that you may hear in the news involves GMOs. If you can’t prove they’re 100 percent safe, they must be harmful. It’s the precautionary principle gone wild. I hope you can see the flawed logic and the erroneous displacement of the burden of proof. The latter rests with the ones making claims of harm.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Poc

The post hoc, ergo propter hoc or after this, therefore because of this error is a bit trickier. In these cases, we look for reasons after the fact. It can appear innocently enough as when a golfer wears a certain color shirt on the last day of the tournament for good luck. It always worked in the past. Of course, it will work now.

In its more serious form, it shows up in popular media. A study comes out that suggests a correlation between A and B. The unwitting—or witting—journalist confuses correlation and causation. Any beginning stats student will tell you that they are not the same thing. And a study is not the same thing as a controlled experiment.

The point of this discussion is show that the many paths that our logic takes. We sometimes use flawed reasoning. Because of this trait, our characters should do likewise. Realistic and complex characters must use the same fallacies and biases to navigate their fictional worlds. When you do, you create a character who is human-like and complex. And it’ll add a lot to your writing. Chris DR

photo credit: “Where is my Mind” les dernières folies de Goin sur la décadence de l’Occident… via photopin (license)