Psychology in Writing: Defense Mechanisms in Character Development: Reaction Formation

In addition to his other contributions to the field, Freud postulated numerous defense

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smoking cigar. Español: Sigmund Freud, fundador del psicoanálisis, fumando. Česky: Zakladatel psychoanalýzy Sigmund Freud kouří doutník. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mechanisms, or ways that individuals try to subvert their unconscious drives.  These defense mechanisms keep individuals acting in socially appropriately ways in their public front; in their private lives though, it keeps them from recognizing and processing their unconscious desires, which can cause a person to be pathological, immature, or neurotic, due to the denial, or to manifest the desire in inappropriate ways in the non-public sphere.  It is through becoming aware of these defense mechanisms and underlying desires that individuals can confront their unconscious and deal with it in appropriate ways; it is only through awareness that individuals can be intentional in actions and to reign in their unconscious.

One of these defense mechanisms is Reaction Formation.  Reaction formation is taking the opposite position of ones desires, usually to the extreme.  Common examples are preachers who are staunchly against same-sex affection who are then caught in a same-sex relationship, or an individual who is overtly opposed to government social welfare programs who is receiving institutional social support.  Individuals will often make many personal sacrifices to appear publicly as an opponent to the desire.  In these cases the public front does not match the private actions, and the greater the revulsion against personal desires (and the stronger the desire) the greater the response publicly to the diametrically opposed point of view.

What does this mean for our characters?  There are many different ways that this could manifest in our writing.  An example would be the reluctant hero, who while publically is self-sacrificing, actually enjoys the spotlight and feeling needed.  This leads the hero to seek out adventure, but may build conflict/frustration if the s/he is not recognized for her/his heroics, maybe even leading the hero to become a villain, turning against those s/he once saved because they did not meet the hero’s unconscious needs.  Another example would be a character who rejects a love interest who is free-spirited or rebellious; the character publicly displays behaving or preferring order, while being secretly envious of the freedom of the rebellious character.  The story becomes a tragedy, when the character rejects the love interest in order to preserve the life s/he doesn’t actually want.

While our characters may not know their unconscious desires and drives, it is the responsibility of us as authors to be their psychoanalyst.  We need to know what drives a character to do what they do, even better if at the start the character does not recognize it.  As I talked about in the previous blog post, knowing thyself is the key, and when characters don’t know themselves, but unfold to discover themselves, they become a much richer tapestry on the page.


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