Get in Touch with Your Characters’ Schemas
by Joshua Hoyt
As writers, we not only explore the way our characters look and act, but we dissect our characters’ very beings. We want to flesh out the main character to the point where we know him/her/it better than we know ourselves. We want our characters to be living, breathing, smelly beings who anyone would believe exist in real life – regardless of the reality in which the story takes place. This dissection of a character can be accomplished by understanding the principles of psychology. One of my favorite theories about how a person comes to be who they are is called Schema theory.
Schema theory – developed by Jeffrey E. Young, Janet S. Klosko, and Marjorie E. Weishaar – centers on the idea that we have internal schemas guiding us and making up our personalities. Schemas make up how we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us. If you think of your mind as a filing cabinet, schemas are folders filled with various files. We start out with few folders in our cabinet: one day we crawl around and encounter a four-legged furry thing which a parent calls “dog.” Never having seen dog before, we trust the parent. Dog, a new object, is stored away in our filing cabinet in a folder we label Animals. We continue to crawl around, and within a few days we encounter another four-legged furry thing and say dog. Our parent says, “No, cat.” The new idea attacks/confronts the old schema. We think dog, but people we trust say cat. Because we trust them, we add a new file called cat to the Animals folder.
Each time our schema is challenged, we either create a new file for the information, or we change and add to the old information. Our files and folders, which have been reinforced by good and bad experiences, accumulate over time. The more experiences we have with a particular folder/schema, the more reinforced that schema becomes and the more difficult to change.
When writing about our characters, we should incorporate schemas and illustrate how they create our characters’ personality traits; they could be extreme, but generally aren’t. Some stable dichotomous traits include: Labile1-nonreactive, dysthimic2-optimistic, anxious-calm, obsessive-distractible, passive-aggressive, irritable-cheerful, and shy-sociable. These trait dichotomies lie on a continuum, one on each end. An individual moves along this continuum in either direction, depending on the situation. By placing our characters on the same continuums, we can learn how they may react in different situations. The easiest way to do this is to make a scale from 1-10 and place each word on either end; then mark where your character fits on each scale.
Schema theory also focuses on coping styles: how people react when they perceive a threat to one of their schemas. The three coping styles – overcompensation, avoidance, and surrender – correlate with the well-known threat instincts of fight, flight, or freeze. Understanding these coping styles is key to knowing how our characters will respond to the situations in which they find themselves.
As we seek to become better writers, it is important to take the time to understand ourselves and those with whom we interact every day. By doing this, we will be able to create more realistic characters who respond appropriately to their circumstances.
Joshua Hoyt is a school psychologist by day, a father of four and a gamer when he’s not spending time with his family, and an author in all the other spare minutes. He is the author of How to Diagnose Your Character: Using Psychology to Create an In-Depth Character and Order of the Rose. Check out his blog where you can follow the exciting adventure of “The Old Man” and his website to be the first to learn about new releases.