Psychology of Creating Characters: Part 2

Part 2 of Psychology of Creating Characters by Laurie Schnebly Campbell written for RWA on Jun 02, 2001.


Another way of analyzing characters for potential conflict is the matter of priorities. Everyone has individual priorities in addition to universal things like “family, job, and world peace.” These personal priorities influence every decision they make, and there are only four to choose from:  Excellence; Comfort; Pleasing; and Control. (To find yours, take the quiz on Laurie Schnebly Campbell”s website: People usually have one of these on top, with the others ranked in varying order below, but sometimes two priorities can be equally weighted.

This choice of priorities is never a conscious one. It’s something the character grows up with (the same as all of us do). And again, your hero’s and heroine’s choices of priority will have a significant impact on the way they deal with each other.

Those whose priority is Control like to be in charge, like to have their ducks in a row. They know they have a better idea of how the world should be run, and if people would just listen to them and do what they say, everything would be a lot smoother! These people make great captains of industry, great foremen or forewomen . . . and, of course, they can also can be tough to live with if someone else is into control.

If your hero and heroine are both into control, you’ve got conflict.  Who’s going to decide where they live? Who’s going to decide what movie they see tonight? Who’s going to decide whether they take the carriage or walk? At bottom, it’s a clash of who’s going to be in control. It’ll be tough for two people who have control as their top priority to have a harmonious relationship.

On the other hand, let’s say the heroine is into Pleasing and the hero is into control. Someone whose priority is pleasing wants to make other people happy. You can imagine how well things will work out for this hero and heroine:  he’ll tell her how he wants things to be, and she’ll do her best to please him. Not much conflict there. Or if they’re both into pleasing, they’ll be bumping into each other in the kitchen at 5:00 a.m., each trying to fix the other one breakfast in bed. Not much conflict there, either.

The way you get conflict with someone whose priority is pleasing is to make it an internal conflict. Anytime you have a heroine knocking herself out to keep Aunt Jessie and Little Billy and the neighbors and the co-workers happy, you have internal conflict. You have someone with the opportunity to learn and grow and change — ideally with help from the hero! (There’ll be more on internal conflict in the next article.)

Another priority is Excellence, and these people want to be excellent at what they do. It’s not control, because they don’t care what other people do: all they care about is being the best they can be at what they do. They may be beach bum artists in Tahiti, but they’re going to paint excellent pictures. Excellence is usually the priority of first-born children, and they generally won’t do anything unless they can be excellent at it.

The other priority is Comfort.  These are people who like everything to feel nice. If you notice someone adjusting the thermostat every few minutes, it’s someone who’s into comfort.  (Unless they’re a pleaser who’s worried about someone else’s comfort.) Comfort people like to have just the right soft chair; they like to have their reading lamp at just the right angle; they don’t like long trips where you’re going to be uncomfortable. I can’t imagine a heroine whose priority is comfort having a very good time on the Crusades. I can imagine a hero whose priority is excellence being the best Crusader anyone ever saw.

When someone has an inner conflict, it’s usually because of two priorities butting heads. Say your heroine’s top priority is comfort, and her close second is pleasing. Now she’s visiting the hero’s Aunt Maude, and Aunt Maude’s house is too cold. But if she turns up the heater, she might offend Aunt Maude. What’s she going to do? She’s going to stew — “Oh, this is so uncomfortable, but I don’t want to displease Aunt Maude.”

Say your heroine is having a hard time trying to decide whether to marry the hero. Maybe it’s a clash between comfort (she knows he’ll give her plenty of furs) and control (she knows he’ll insist that she give up her land, and she doesn’t want to do that). Or say your hero is trying to decide between excellence (he has a chance to win the Indianapolis 500) and pleasing (his heroine doesn’t want him to risk his neck). These conflicting priorities are going to create an internal conflict.

Internal-conflict tips are coming in the next article on using psychology to create your character’s fatal flaw, but you can see how the priorities set them up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *