Take Your Characters to Therapy With These Simple Visual Tools

Take Your Characters to Therapy
As writers, we do our best to think of our characters as fully formed humans on the page. These emotional exercises might help you understand them better.

Characters are the foundation of any good story. If you have an amazing premise and great action, but your characters aren't compelling, then chances are your idea is going to fall short. Conversely, you can make the dullest storyline feel alive and interesting, as long as the audience can connect with the individuals populating your story.

Writing characters is a complex, multilayered process, so there are many tools we can use to help us develop them. There are character worksheets. Are they a protagonist or an antagonist in your story? Once you get their personality and motivations nailed down, you also need to think about their arcs.

If you want all these resources in one place, check out our FREE screenwriting eBook

There is a lot to balance but if you put in the work, it's definitely worth it.

Another thing that might make you a better writer is to improve your emotional intelligence. According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence is the "ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others."

There are many tools for this, too, but a good place to start might be a "feelings wheel."

The first feelings wheel is generally credited to Gloria Willcox, who created it for the purposes of helping people "recognize and communicate about their feelings." There are many versions available, developed by different organizations or researchers.

The following emotional word wheel was created by Geoffrey Roberts.

Emotional Word Wheel - Geoffrey Roberts
Credit: Geoffrey Roberts
A wheel like this one begins with primary emotions that extend outward into secondary and tertiary emotions that stem from the root emotion. So instead of simply thinking of your character as "fearful," you can examine why they might be afraid. Is their power threatened? Are they about to be exposed to something in their past?

Another "wheel of emotions" was developed by Robert Plutchik in the 1980s.

Plutchik's wheel of emotions
Credit: Robert Plutchik
This one places emotions on poles, so "loathing" is the opposite of "admiration," etc. This one might be helpful to determine how characters with different motivations might react in totally opposite ways to the same situation.

Finally, another useful model is known as the "anger iceberg." Anger is generally acknowledged to be a basic and common emotion that often manifests as reactions like shouting or violence. The anger iceberg posits that there are sometimes additional emotions underneath the surface motivating that angry response.

The Anger Iceberg - Gottman Institute
Credit: The Gottman Institute
For instance, you get cut off in traffic, then you yell. You're angry, but you might also be afraid because that irresponsible driver put you in danger.  Or a coworker negates your ideas in a meeting, so you stomp out. You're angry, but you might also be embarrassed at having your ideas picked apart.

I personally find this one really helpful in my own writing. Anger is so much fun to write because it can make characters act irrationally, resulting in scenes with great emotional tension and lots of ups and downs. (It's also awesome for comedy.) I love angry characters!

But it's helpful to understand why your characters are angry in the first place. If you're able to write that subtext in, your characters will be more relatable and more fleshed out. This can be great for your villains, too, and will stop them from being one-dimensional.

What's next? Here are more resources for writing characters

Do you know about the twelve basic character archetypes? What if you want to write an antihero? We've got tips for that, too. Here's how you write an empathetic character. And check out some tips for writing character bios. For all this and more check out our FREE screenwriting eBook.      

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thanks, useful article

December 27, 2020 at 11:40AM

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Lucy March
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