By now, every aspiring author has been thoroughly brainwashed that to write a good story, you need strong characters. When you browse the web for resources on writing, you will commonly come across all sorts of checklists or creation tools for developing detailed characters. (Examples are all over the place, but some good ones can be found here, here, and here.) But I’ve noticed something interesting about 99% of these checklists: they focus on a given character, in isolation.
Yet think about yourself for a second. At all times, do you behave the same way? Or do you evince different behaviors, different emotions, different patterns of interaction depending on who you are with? I know that I behave very differently when I’m around my parents than I do when I’m around my professors, or my brother, or my friends in the community. Each of those patterns of behavior comes from a part of me, to be sure, but they are so different from each other that a single global “character sheet” would be unlikely to capture all of them.
Yet very often, we find fictional characters who always behave the same, because their authors seem to think that the characters must at all times be displaying their Traits with a capital T. There’s nothing particularly bad about this, when done well; character archetypes are a staple of mythic stories from time immemorial. But as writers we can expand our toolchest if we remember that people often act out different personas in their different relationships.
Fortunately, there is a tool we can use to make such characters. It is a heterodox brand of psychology called transactional analysis, first introduced by Eric Berne in his excellent 1964 book Games People Play. This book introduced a number of terms that have diffused into common speech, such as “stroking someone’s ego,” and so is interesting if only from a sociological standpoint. But beyond that, it provides a powerful lens for understanding how people might change depending on who they are with.
Briefly, Berne argued that people’s childhood experiences leave them with certain psychic needs that must be met, by subconsciously seeking out certain types of relationships that confirm preexisting beliefs about the world and one’s place in it. Think of the woman constantly complaining that all the guys she dates are losers, or the man who can’t hold down a job for more than a few months before lashing out at his boss. Berne provides examples of “games,” or scenarios that the multiple players in a relationship enact in order to fulfill their psychic needs.
For example, in “Why don’t you… Yes, But,” person A presents some problem that he or she is dealing with (“People annoy me at work,” for example), and persons B through Z then list off a series of solutions. “Why don’t you ask for a raise?” “Why don’t you wear earphones?” And so on. To each of these suggestions, person A responds with an endless litany of excuses for why the solution could not possibly work. However frustrating and pointless the exercise might feel to an outsider, the participants are on some level satisfied. Person A gets to combine the illusion that he or she is trying to fix the problem with the true goal of the game, “confirming” that the problem cannot be solved and so no attempt need be made. The others get to feel as if they are being helpful, i.e. superior. And so it goes on and on.
Other games can be found in the book or summarized in the Wikipedia article. Some good ones include “I’ve Got You Now, You Son of a B****,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” “If It Weren’t For You,” and “Look How Hard I Tried.” The point is that these are recurring pathological types of relationships between two or more people, which meet the unspoken and perhaps unconscious needs of the players thanks to various kinds of emotional harm that has marked their personalities.
I should note here that I am not a psychologist, and am not necessarily advocating the use of transactional analysis for therapeutic purposes. It may work for you or people you know, or it may not. Additionally, modern TA has gone off in several different directions, so Berne’s book should not be relied upon as the last word. Still, I am focused here on TA’s relevance for writing fiction, and for that it can be quite valuable.
How can you use this technique? Remember when writing your characters to consider how they interact with each other. Grunthor the Merciless might be gruff and unsympathetic to Lewellyn the Delicate, but be a devoted kind husband to Helga the Bonecrusher. The same person, acting out different patterns of relationships, based on how his particular impulses line up with those of the other person.
Still, there is a unifying thread between all of a person’s relationships, and that is the psychic needs of the person. Explaining this in detail would take me far afield; but suffice to say that this can provide the continuity between all of a character’s different interactions, allowing you to build a larger theme around each character’s relationships.
In short, think of your characters together, and not just alone.