The Source of Character

The Source of Character

A Lesson by Gabriel Strange

Adding more depth to your characters actions to make them more believable.


There are many things that drive us the sub-conscious a place where all the dark thoughts and desires are held, instinct which is moulded by out upbringing and our outward personality shaped by the society around us. When developing characters it’s important to know what makes them tick. Essentially we are all selfish no matter how much we proclaim our selflessness, as the human need to do good deeds is because we subconsciously know we cannot survive well with negative emotional baggage. As we are all essentially animals and our core drive is to survive and continue unhindered by negative feelings and emotions. Internal conflicts need to be resolved with the best solution to maximise long term happiness and a better chance of survival. However survival may not mean physical survival it might mean the immortality and perpetual existence of the person’s actions or how they are remembered.

If a person helps an old lady across the road are they doing it to help the old lady or is there some level of guilt from their past and shame from society. What if she was hit by a car or someone mugged her while she waited on this side of the street, what emotions would this bring up and are the indicative to a comfortable and continued survival. These are just a few scenarios that could happen to the old lady out of millions, but thinking about them may bring forth a feelings we don’t like and makes us uncomfortable what has influenced those feelings and how far would you go to stop them so your continued survival is unhindered by bad feelings.

Every act no matter how good it seems is just as way to avoid undesirable feelings as such negative feelings are not indicative to continued survival. This doesn’t make you a bad person it just makes you human.

What makes us good or bad is purely a construct of society so be definition is of no use when understanding how a character would act or react at a core level. Society puts pressures on us to conform for the perceived survival and betterment of itself, in its own way society is selfish. This will be wildly different dependant on the setting, era and beliefs that surround the character. But what lies beneath is what interesting; what would stop a person pushing that old lady under a passing bus? Where is the conflict that sways the action to the happiest?

We are all controlled by three sets of rules that follow a chain of hierarchy, the strongest being the sub-conscious then instinct then our outward personality; this is the chain of psychology. Conflict is usually always present between two or more of these and it can lead to long term negative emotions that are not indicative to survival, in some cases the conflict may only be negligible. When all three are in perfect sync we get the optimum conditions for survival however is boring if everything is in balance internal conflict is always good in your characters.

Outward Personality
Society dictates our behaviour no matter how much we say it doesn’t, rules are applied no matter who you are and the form part of your outward personality. Most of us are brought up with these rules so we use to so we can fit in and not be singled out as bad. If you remove society and it’s controls of our outward personality from interfering with a character, your left with your upbringing and what has happened to you to influence your instincts.

Background is another influence that is stronger than that of the outward personality, which is why we are all different and what makes us unique, it creates our instincts. Your background impose a set of rules on our actions based on however we survived events in the past, if we put our hand in a flame it burns an hurts, that tells us it’s not good to our survival. If you were responsible for the death of a friend what would that teach about survival in the future and how far would a person go to never go through that again.

What you have left is the ID. To get to that we have to go down into the thought processes of a character and see what feelings or emotions are undesirable. What the Darkest thoughts are that we cannot let out elements of our personality that are hard wired the blueprint for who we are. This has the strongest of all influences over our actions, this is the gold at the end of the rainbow. Everyone is capable of murder given the right scenario, how we deal with that is the responsibility of the ID. For most people this action should illicit guilt no matter how noble the cause, but what if it didn’t? Would that make someone a more open to be a killer? Would that offer up more scenarios which are acceptable to killing another?

This is linked with all three of the above; everything needs to be in balance or reasonable compromise to ensure the maximum possibility of survival. Push to far towards one or the other you will get characters who seem flat and one dimensional, if two parts of the chain are in agreement and the third isn’t you will get conflict. A character has to have all part of the chain to be fully rounded be playing with how each part interacts with the other can have interesting effects. The venn diagram shows how all three of them overlap and work together to create the best conditions for survival.

The Thought Experiment

You are sat in a room with no cameras and no way out no one can see you or hear you, there is one other person in the room, for all you know this other person and you are the only people alive in the universe. The other person is bound to a chair gagged and blind folded. Between your chair and theirs is a table with one extremely sharp knife. With the knife is a note on an old yellowed piece of paper which reads ‘There is no escape while both are alive and one of you is hungry.’ You stand up and take the knife in your hand you examine it and test to see if it is sharp, which it is. You read the note and spend a minute or two to contemplate your situation and formulate a scenario.

Most experiments would ask you what would you do now and why to judge your mental status. This is really most about how you fit into society and to deem if you’re normal and in many ways society will have dictated your actions to this experiment long ago.

The question to ask here is what other thoughts ran through your mind before you decided what to do. How many different scenarios did you think about before you chose the one you did? Was there any conflict between the chain of psychology and how did you work that out? There is no right or wrong answer here and if there was only one thought then you are a truly rare individual. Every action we take has a number of scenarios many of which are discarded by the sub-conscious and we never think of them, a few will come through to the conscious mind where our instinct will discard them and only one will come through on top, which has the least negative impact on our continued survival.

The fun part now is looking at every action you initially thought of and every possibility that never crossed your mind while reading  the text, then examining why each scenario was rejected. The one that never crossed your mind are influenced by the sub-conscious the ones you thought of and rejected are more than likely influenced by your background and the then filtered by the rules of society that shapes your outward personality. Again there is no right answer to this, what you uncover is something about how you work and how at every level of consciousness there are rules that limit your actions. The key here is to see why all other responses were rejected and where in the chain of sub-conscious, instinct and outward personality they lie. You will more than like choose the action that is indicative to your continued happy survival. It’s where in the chain each scenario is rejected that helps you understand how your personality is formed.

There is no simple answer here, if you say I will sacrifice myself to save the other person thus killing two birds with one stone. What emotions and feelings would the other action bring out in you to make the most acceptable and thus the most selfish option? Are you taking the route of least resistance you cannot live knowing you killed a person and ate them so the only option is to be remember and your survival ensured by the immortality of passed on knowledge that illicits a positive emotional response? (We prefer to remember good things). Is there any conflict between the sub-conscious, instinct and outward personality? We don’t want negative emotions but when the only option is bad we come down to the core that every action is ultimately selfish because we will pick the action that will have the least negative emotional impact and not hinder our survival in an form.

Now the real fun begins you need to examine the influence of outward personality on a character. Just by adding a few cultural values that differ from your own how different scenarios would you the character come up with? How does there background influence their instinct to survive? The background and cultural pressure on each character would influence each scenario and different option would be discarded at different places in the chain from sub-conscious to outward personality, just as yours influences you. This affects every character differently and what makes them unique, when looking at your characters run through this thought experiment and see what scenarios they might go through and what is rejected at which point in the chain.

Let’s push against the sub-conscious and examine the negative emotions and feelings that would haunt us and make our survival unhappy, let us flip one and say one of the more negative responses is now positive, a scenario that was rejected at the sub-conscious level is allowed to come through to the conscious mind. What does that do to a character? Does their instinct reject it or their outward personality? Is there any conflict or can it find a way be justified past both instinct and the outward personality? Remember instinct usually overrules outward personality. How does this change the list of scenarios and the places and reasons they may be rejected.

What this experiment shows is that you are psychologically very complex and because of this your characters should at least be given some of your depth. I think that ultimately every sane person will pick variations on the same actions, because they offer up the most acceptable negative emotions and feeling you can live with for the rest of their life.

The Multi-Faceted Character

We automatically go through this psychological chain with every action and decision we make, however in most cases we can do this in an instant, in other cases the conflict between two or more aspects of this psychological chain are more prevalent. This conflict is very interesting out instinct is formed by the resolution of these conflicts, if we have faced a scenario once it become easier the next time until it become mundane and instinct. New scenarios bring new conflicts and a happy emotional resolution needs to be found.

The psychological chain is the fountain of where character comes from the deep and hidden selfishness of survival to only commit to actions that have the least long term negative impact on happiness. All characters want is to survive in one way or another they all strive for some level of immortality. The characters instinct shaped them on many levels to accept certain scenarios as good or bad. The sub-conscious us ever unchanging it is the unconscious gatekeeper that holds back many thoughts. Instinct which our history tells us is the best way to survive. Outward personality is the last influence to interact, the pressure of those around us and how they may judge each scenario if it were carried out. All of this ultimately leads to one action that is the sum of sub-conscious, instinct and societies pressures, the one with the least long term emotional baggage.


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Added on September 1, 2012
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Gabriel Strange
Gabriel Strange

Cardiff, South Glamorgan, United Kingdom

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away I found myself huddled up in a Grebo community in the Midlands, here I started working in Publishing, well not really working more running around panicking as ..