How do we write about the unseen? We’re probably not going to submit our characters to psychoanalysis during our writing (though it’s been done, and done well, so don’t completely count it out), so we have to be more creative about how we reveal our character’s unconscious mind. For us as writers, knowing that the unconscious exists serves two purposes, it will help us better understand our characters and also help demonstrate growth in our characters.
In the previous blog post about incorporating mature defense mechanisms into our writing, we discussed how we want to see our characters move from lower level defenses to higher level defenses, and the way to do this is through our characters gaining insight into their unconscious mind so they can resolve underlying issues. Understanding how the unconscious bleeds into the conscious mind can also serve to help advance plot points. There are four ways that our characters can reveal their unconscious to both other characters and the readers.
The first is through what is called a Freudian slip. When a character demonstrates a Freudian slip, they say one thing when they mean another (the classic joke is, when you say one thing and mean your mother). An example of a Freudian slip in writing would be a character accidently calling another character, by a third character’s name (e.g., calling a current lover, by an old lover’s name). Freudian slips can also be demonstrated through actions, such as the misplacing of an important object, e.g., the character misplaces a quest critical item as a manifestation of her/his unconscious fear or desire to avoid conflict.
The second manifestation is through an outburst. This would come at a point of conflict with another character (usually a friendly character, not an antagonist), where because of the passion of the argument the character slips up and tells the person how they actually feel. This is different from a Freudian slip, which is a processing error; an outburst is more in line with free association. The character is so impassioned and going that s/he is not able to maintain her/his internal filter and s/he is saying the first thing that comes to her/him.
The third method of revealing the unconscious is through dreams. When dreams are a plot point in writing it may be a guide instead of a psychoanalyst that reveals the underlying content of the dream. There are many classic examples in literature of a dream providing the protagonist clarity of purpose and a deeper understanding of self. The plus side of using dreams as a method for showing a character’s unconscious mind, is that, for us as writers, we can have dreams mean anything we want as a means to further our plot.
The last method of revealing the unconscious in our writing I’ve covered in the posts on incorporating defense mechanisms into our writing here, here, here, and here. The lower level defense mechanisms especially reveal something about our characters unconscious process, such as their hopes and fears. By showing our characters using defense mechanism we can give some insight into their unconscious processes.
One thing to keep in mind about incorporating the unconscious mind in our writing is to remember that it is unconscious. Love and respect it. We shouldn’t come out and say Bob (our protagonist) suffers from crippling repression of his feelings because of his conflictual relationship with his father as a child. As we discussed in the introduction, the unconscious should reveal itself by its effects not by overt exposition. The unconscious is an area of mystery, help preserve it for our reader; it’ll make for a better story and keep them around as they try to understand the why of our characters.