As character creators we have to have an understanding of why our characters feel and think what they do. I am going to explain in simple terms why human beings behave the way they do so you can have strong understanding of how to create believable compelling characters that stay true to who they are in their words and actions. Hopefully you don’t get too scared at how predictable people are because you’ll undoubtedly begin to use this information to psychoanalyze yourself and others.
Human beings are biological creatures with two primary drives. The first is survival. The second is reproduction. We are designed to adapt to our environment and learn from our experiences to allow us to survive.
Even from the time of infancy, our brain is learning what is safe and secure, and what is dangerous. When a child is shown love and peace during developmental years, the child will grow into a young adult with openness, empathy, love, compassion, happiness. When early years are filled with family violence, traumas, bullying, etc – then these traumas are imprinted upon the subconscious mind and adaptive survival begins.
The traumatized individual, which could be small traumas like being teased, or large trauma like physical and sexual violence, then the person’s subconscious will repress emotional openness and create “triggers” that will cause a person to respond with a fight/flight reaction.
A perfect example of a maladaptive survival mechanism is when a person has narcissistic personality disorder, NPD. It often occurs in older siblings when their primacy as the only child is threatened by a newborn sibling. The 2-year-old first born loses their “special” status from their parents who are now taking care of an infant sibling. The first born now subconsciously understands that in order to maintain the love and attention of their parents, who they rely on for survival, they must be the most special child. Their subconscious is now programmed to always try to be special, and that anyone else who obtains attention is a threat.
Why is it impossible to argue with someone with NPD? That is simple. A person with NPD, or a person who is triggered by a subconscious threat, will feel a fight or flight response of some degree. Then logic/reasoning is generated by the mind to justify those feelings and behaviors. Generally, people first generate their feelings. Then their thinking takes over to rationalize actions. Only people gifted with high level abstract thinking skills can distance themselves from their own emotions enough to realize their feelings are irrational. Most people obey their feelings (for survival reasons) and then rationalize it any way they can.
A perfect example of the extreme lengths the human creature will go in order to survive horrific and hopeless conditions is the story of Jeni Haynes. As a small child she was abused by her father, every day, for years.
A small child is utterly helpless. The pure terror and hopelessness was so overwhelming that the only way she survived was for her mind to generate 2500 disassociated identities to take the trauma. Her core personality was isolated from the abuse, while a “manager” personality organized the other “alters” and would rotate them in one after another to take the trauma. The core personality survived, not unscathed – but she survived. She and her 2500 personalities confronted her father in court years later and put him away for life.
Let’s recap. Feelings and thoughts exist for your survival. Feelings either tell us we are secure and safe, or that something is dangerous, through experiencing varying levels of trauma. If we are given a secure loving environment as children then we have open, empathetic, loving personalities. Our feelings, thoughts are optimistic. Our moral system also arises corresponding to these feelings and thoughts. We PROJECT our subconscious into the world. This is why the exact same situation can elicit 2 polar opposite views from people observing it.
For the motives of a character we must understand that they are not aware of the subconscious drivers. Maybe the main character was beaten by his father through his entire childhood, then joined the military and went to war and has PTSD. His entire survival was based on suppressing severe trauma.
The subconscious level is “Nothing is fair. The world is a place of suffering. No one will have compassion for you. Violence is the supreme authority and best tool.”
The “Feelings” level is “No one gives a shit about me. Everyone else better toughen up to survive. Closed off emotionally because feelings equal pain and suffering.”
The “Thought” level is “Always be prepared for war. People who feel are weak.”
The Moral system is “Only the strong deserve to survive. I am superior because I have survived. I am always right because survival is the only basis of measuring who is right and who is wrong.”
People interacting with this character will not understand that this troublesome person is actually a severely traumatized individual. A warrior, of course, but someone carrying a great burden. They project that subconscious upon every situation they face. They are adapted for survival in the most hostile circumstances one can face. Where others melt under the pressure, they can function calm and collected. But through all things, remember your character is always projecting that subconscious survival need on the world.
To argue with someone on a logical / thought level is to argue really against their subconscious. The moment you trigger anything they believe is essential to their survival, they have a fight/flight response and their feelings and thoughts will manifest in whatever way is needed to defend that trauma.
On one end of the spectrum is a character with multiple severe traumas that are easily triggered and elicit extreme feelings, thoughts, and morals. On the other end is someone with no traumas at all. They would project empathy, love, and optimism.
We all fall somewhere in this spectrum and we all adapt to survive. The easy way to notice when a person / character has a trauma is when they become emotional about a subject. Sadly, people are defined by trauma and the survival defense mechanisms that are manifested to protect against it.
Oil field Roughneck
I love to create amazing story universes and ground them with characters who are seeking answers to these questions. If the truth of the story doesn’t make you cry then what’s the point in writing it?
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