How do you make characters seem real? Lots of answers, lots of ways. Most of these ways should include giving characters believable motivations for everything they do. In this lesson, I propose a psychological theory of human behavior. It isn't perfect, but that's not the point. The point is that your characters will seem more believable, and therefore be more compelling, if the reader understands why they do what they do. Furthermore, you can give a novel a more cohesive feel if the same psychological principle is at work for all of your characters--the novel as a whole seems to mean something.

Here's my theory.

THE SUPERIORITY THEORY OF MOTIVATION (STM): People seek superiority, not happiness.

It would take me more than a few pages to explain everything I mean by those five words, but I'll start with another way of saying it: what people want most in the world is to be superior to other people. All other people. The trick is figuring out how you are superior to everyone else. Once you do that, you get to congratulate yourself for it over and over. It's quite satisfying.

STM explains how members of various subsets of society can all look at the other subsets and feel superior. In fact, it explains the social value of the subsets in the first place.

Consider the following stereotypical high school groups and how they view one another:

BRAINS: "I'm so much smarter than those stupid Jocks and Cool Crowd kids. Johnny over there can't even multiply. And they're such low-lives, spending all their time partying and taking drugs. What losers. And all they care about are appearances. I'm not nearly so shallow."

JOCKS: "Those Brains are such idiots. They have no common sense. They might be good at math, but they can't even carry on a conversation without being awkward and saying something stupid. They have no social intelligence, and that's what matters in life. And Brainy little Joe over there can't even throw a baseball. He throws like a girl. What loser. And all they care about is getting good grades. I care about people. I'm such a better person."

RELIGIOUS PERSON: "Those atheists are such terrible people. All they care about is themselves and making money. They have no guiding principles; they just make up whatever beliefs they want. They spend their lives pleasuring themselves and doing despicable things like sleeping around and taking drugs. And they're too blind and stupid to see all the ways that God works in the world, all the evidence of his existence in nature. I'm glad I'm not like them."

ATHEIST: "Those religious people are so self-righteous. They think they have all the answers, when really they're just so stupid that they follow the outdated teachings of people from thousands of years ago. And it's terrible how they push their beliefs on everyone else. And they're so ignorant that they don't even know the facts of science that have clearly disproved most of what they believe. What a bunch of morons. I'm so much better than they are."


    Business Person - Social status, financial well-being, common sense
    Politician - Social authority, interpersonal skills, ethics
    College Professor - intellectual knowledge, social status, ethics
    Athlete - physical skills, social status
    Good-Looking People - physical appearance, social skills

In other words, everyone seeks out the ways in which they are superior to other people. We value the traits we have that make us superior to others. They value other traits that make them superior to us. Pretty much every activity we pursue relates to our strengths and makes us feel better about ourselves--because these strengths make us superior to others.

HOW DO YOU USE THIS IN A STORY? You make sure that every character views the other characters in terms of the STM framework, and that his decisions and actions are based on how to achieve, maintain, or defend his superiority over others.

But it doesn't have to be STM. In fact, I'd rather you didn't use it. STM is just an example I cooked up. You could concoct a completely different framework that explains why your characters all behave the way they do. It's fairly random, I'll admit, and certainly not every story needs to have a guiding psychological principle behind all of the characters' actions. But it guides you in a most particular way, and has the potential to make the story gel.

BOTTOM LINE: Experiment with creating a cohesive framework or psychological principle that explains the actions and motivations of all of your characters.

NEXT: Having writer's block? Can't get going on a new project? I'll give you 7 ways to recapture authorial delight.

Lessons List * 1* 2* 3* 4* 5* 6* 7* 8* 9* 10* 11* 12

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