Psychology in Writing: The Persona – Writing Process

Writing Process


Masks (Photo credit: Macknal)

The persona can feature very heavily in our writing process, and when well utilized can help us shape our story into something familiar to the reader.  The evolving masks that characters wear is a well know aspect of writing.  As we’ve noted before, we don’t want our heroes to be perfect, we want them to be flawed like us (and the reader).  Understanding the different manifestations of the persona and their impact on the character can help us write the changes our characters go through in a more universal manner that will be easy for our readers to connect with.

Often times a character, frequently the protagonist, will have a strong identification of a part of her/himself (i.e., her/his persona).  S/he may view the self as the protector of a town, as a caring figure, etc.  Regardless of what this identification with the persona is, it is often rigid and defines the character (note, the persona defines the character, the persona is not an aspect of the character at this point, it is the character).  Then, in the course of events, something will occur that will damage the character’s identification with her/his persona. Examples may be someone destroying the city s/he protects or the person harming someone s/he cares for.  From this damage to the persona the character moves into disintegration, which will often be beginning point of the quest where the character sets out to figure out who s/he is.

After the disintegration of the persona, our characters may move into negative restoration of the persona.  Having failed initially to maintain her/his persona the character may try to reclaim it but due to the position in the story the character cannot claim it (e.g., the city is destroyed/conquered and the character hasn’t developed enough to save it, or the relationship has been ended by another character and despite the protagonist trying to re-demonstrate her/his ability to be a caregiver).  This movement can lead the character into having an absence of her/his persona.

Being unable to reclaim her/his original persona the character may completely abandon her/his identity, lacking a core sense of self.  This may be the moment in our writing where our protagonist stands on the cusp of abandoning the quest, relationship, etc.  This stage of development could be framed by the phrase, “If I’m not X, then I am nothing.”

At this point something occurs that helps our character either reaffirm her/his identity or begin developing a new one, such as a minor victory or the development of a new relationship where the character tries out a new persona.  Usually the restoration of the persona will carry our story through until conclusion.  At each step as the character begins the restoration process s/he demonstrates the new found flexibility of her/his persona.  S/he is able to encounter setbacks and damage to self-identity, but is now able to adapt, integrate, and keep moving.  This restored persona is what allows our character to eventually achieve success.

As is always our goal for understanding and incorporating psychology into our writing is to hold a mirror up to our readers.  The evolution/development of the persona is so core to the human experience that the majority of our readers will immediately identify with this process and with our character(s).  Our readers may see the rigidness of their own persona and begin a personal exploration that starts with walking with our characters in the shoes we’ve laid out for them.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!


Psychology in Writing: The Unconscious – Writing Process

Writing Process

English: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912...

English: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), Unconscious Rivals, 1893. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery Oil on panel Credit line: Bequest of Jessie and Robert bromhead, 1935 Accession number: K1248 Nederlands: sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912), Unconscious Rivals, 1893, in het Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


Psychology in Writing: Mature Defense Mechanisms – Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt

Nash Latjke, the game's protagonist

Nash Latjke, the game’s protagonist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.” – Virginia Satir

For today’s writing prompt, think about what events would prevent your protagonist from using mature defenses, and defense mechanism your protagonist could use that would lead to the most growth or help her/him be successful.  What would cause your protagonist to fail at using mature defenses?  What is the tipping point where s/he would not be able to continue coping and would need to employ one of the lower level defenses?  Which defense would further/help/repair her/his relationships with others?  Or which one could s/he use to get back on the path to successfully completing a quest?

Psychology in Writing: Mature Defense Mechanisms – Writing Process

Writing Process

English: Large Snow Lions protect the entrance...

English: Large Snow Lions protect the entrance to the Potala Palace in Tibet. (Chinese stone lions, imitating 15th century, constructed in the 1990’s) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mature defense mechanisms are what we hope our protagonists are using (at least by the end of the story).  As I noted in the first post on mature defenses, defense mechanisms are not static; it’s not as if once an individual starts using a particular defense mechanism s/he will always use that defense mechanism.  Some stable people occasionally use lower level defenses if they are lacking the emotional strength to use mature defenses.  Also, as I discussed in the previous posts on therapeutic presentation (here, here, and here), the goal of therapy is to help individuals move from lower level defenses to higher level defenses.  Change is possible and change is what we want to have in our writing.

We want to make sure our protagonists grow over their time with us between the pages.  If a protagonists starts out with no challenges and no room to grow, they become the superman, that is to say boring because they won’t fail.  The mature defenses can be used in two different ways in our writing to help keep our writing exciting and dynamic.

The first and most straightforward way to incorporate mature defense mechanisms is as a point of beginning.  Our protagonist may start her/his journey as a form of sublimation; an inability to continue to tolerate a perceived injustice may spur our protagonist into action.  In the same way, a protagonist may use anticipation to prepare for a negative life event or change that begins her/him on a journey; think about a final road trip with a friend who has a terminal disease, instead of grieving while the person is still alive, the protagonist and friend take a long desired trip.  Gratitude and forgiveness may also be starting points.  If gratitude is the motivator, the person may be seeking out someone that s/he feels s/he owes a thank you or token appreciation.  Conversely, the quest to forgive someone who has harmed the protagonist may be the genesis of action; s/he may seek out someone who harmed her/him for a sense of closure.

The second way we might infuse mature defense mechanisms into our writing is as a point of growth and maturing for our characters.  In earlier stages of our writing, our protagonists may struggle by using lower level defenses, such as the neurotic defense mechanisms.  As they grow, in order to advance in her/his quest the protagonist has to use more mature defense mechanisms.  Some examples would be moving from repressing emotions to thought suppression, from withdraw and isolation to forgiveness or mercy, disassociation to mindfulness or acceptance, reaction formation to tolerance, or regression to emotional regulation.  There are numerous combinations that the lower level defenses can be resolved with higher level defenses, it’s only limited by our creativity.  Just as in our own lives, there is rarely one singular solution or way to approach a situation.  In the same way, our characters’ way of dealing with issues may bring an ah-ha moment to our readers that builds their relationship with our characters and bestows upon us appreciate for our ability to be creative and surprise them.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!


Psychology in Writing: Neurotic Defense Mechanisms – Writing Process

The Protagonist is always right.

The Protagonist is always right. (Photo credit: tsuihin – TimoStudios)

Writing Process

The neurotic defense mechanisms are probably going to be better served as challenges to our protagonists more than our antagonists.  As we covered previous, the pathological and immature defenses blog posts these defenses tend to be more in the wheelhouse for our antagonists (though that’s not to say that a couple of the neurotic defense mechanisms couldn’t liven up an antagonist).  As I’ve said throughout the posts this week, the neurotic defense mechanisms are used to some extent by most adults and can provide a solid internal conflict for our protagonists to resolve.  I won’t go through each of the neurotic defense mechanisms in detail since I did that in the previous post, instead I’ll hit some highlights on how we can incorporate these mechanisms into our writing.

Many of the neurotic defenses are responses to social situations so they can provide external conflict that causes an internal conflict through our protagonist’s self-reflection.  Displacement is a common defense that can cause issues within a team; our protagonist, not able to stand up to a dissenting member of the team, may bully another team member, or feeling helpless and unable to confront the antagonist may lash out at others around her/him that are trying to help.  Another common defense mechanism is the heroic protagonist’s struggle with intellectualization.  In order to suppress the costs of a quest, which may include a lost home, lost dreams, and loss of life of friends and family, a hero may intellectualize the quest, distancing her/him from the actual emotional cost.  This can cause two conflicts, it can distance the protagonist from others as s/he will appear as if s/he is lacking in humanity, and second, it internalizes the burden that can heighten the potential for the protagonist to use other defense mechanisms such as displacement or withdrawing thereby exacerbating the protagonist’s issues internally and externally.  Lastly, repression is always an interesting defense mechanism for our protagonists to use.  By not acknowledging her/his wants and needs, the hero still shoulders the burden of the emotions of the need.  Repression is another demonstration of the protagonist not knowing her/him self, and as I discussed in the Exploring Origins blog post this blindness to self can lead to unfortunate consequences.  Without a clear direction to direct the emotions in, it can lead to chaos, poor choices, and exhaustion.

The importance of giving our protagonists flaws cannot be understated.  It’s what makes them real and human, which our readers can connect with.  Having a familiarity with the neurotic defenses, which are a common experience of most people, will make our protagonists that much easier to empathize with and to have the appropriate level of sympathy for.  As a bonus, if we’re really lucky, by helping our protagonists resolve their own defense mechanisms, we may help our readers work through some of their own.

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!

And keep sending in your questions!

Psychology in Writing: Immature Defense Mechanisms – Writing Process

Writing Process

Robin Hood statue in Nottingham

Robin Hood statue in Nottingham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my mind, the immature defense mechanisms really lend themselves to writing that is dramatic or relationally focused.  For the most part the immature defense mechanisms are relationally oriented, meaning that it is not as good of a source of energy or plot movement for writing about a protagonist overcoming an antagonist.  I would expect to see these defense mechanisms really explored in writing about individual’s day-to-day life, where the protagonist is overcoming a life event or trying to salvage a relationship.

Immediately, a demonstration of immature defense mechanisms comes to find focusing either a lovelorn protagonist suffering after a significant other they idealized left or the significant other broke her/his illusion of projective identification.  In a coming of age story, a beginning point may be the use of passive aggressive defenses to begin to test who the protagnoist is in counter point to parents or society.  As the story progresses, the central theme may shift to the protagonist acting out against repressive parents or society as they seek to develop their own identity and resolve their own inner conflicts.  Alternatively, it could be the adolescent figuring out her/his world after a parent or role model fails to live up to the idealized image the child built of them. Fantasy and wishful thinking can serve as a starting point to a dramatic/coming of age work, where the point where the person has to confront the consequences of wishful thinking or retreating into fantasy (e.g., ignoring parent’s divorce) is the beginning of her/his journey. Passive aggressive defenses also frequently show up in romantic interactions; unable to deal with her/his own anxiety head on, the protagonist may be passively aggressive to the significant other leading to conflict in the relationship.

In writing where the success of a quest is the focus of writing, instead of personal growth or relationships (not saying that they don’t occur, they’re just not the focus), immature defense mechanisms would still likely primarily be demonstrated in the antagonist just as the pathological defenses are.  A couple quick notes though about our protagonist.  As with above, wishful thinking and escape into fantasy, may be the beginning of the character’s development, which when confronted with reality gives a reason to begin on the journey.  In addition, the idealization of another hero from a previous era, and striving to live to that ideal may play into our protagonist’s development.  Regarding our antagonists, I think of the use of immature defense mechanisms manifesting primarily in rulers.  For example, I see a tyrant attempting to live up to an idealized person, ignoring the fact that person was hated and also a tyrant; instead s/he views this idealized other as a model to strive for, which repeats the tyranny cycle.  Along with this would go wishful thinking, making rules, laws, decisions as if an imagined outcome would come true versus assessing the reality of a situation.  An example would be King John from Robin Hood, who continued to tax people despite the fact that most of the people were being arrested or in poverty because they couldn’t bear the burden of the taxes.

Hopefully this will give us a starting point to think about 1. The focus of our writing (i.e., is it person focused or quest focused) , 2. How we can make our characters flawed, but follow them through to saving themselves (or failing because of their flaws), and 3. Now that we understand defense mechanisms, we can think about how to walk the line of making our characters real, but not intolerable (most of us can think about a person who exemplifies each of these defense mechanisms that we probably try to actively avoid).

As always, from my couch to your pen happy writing!


Psychology in Writing: Pathological Defense Mechanisms – Writing Process

Writing Process

E.J. Martin, Paranoia Stroll, 2003

E.J. Martin, Paranoia Stroll, 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our writing we’re not usually going to see our protagonists using pathological defense mechanisms unless the focus of our writing is on the madness (an excellent example of this would be the protagonist in Fight Club who split off his unacceptable behaviors into Tyler).  An exception would be mild levels of denial, distortion, or an inferiority complex that the protagonist would need to overcome, but the protagonist use of these defenses wouldn’t rise to the level of being a pathological defense.  Generally, in our writing the use of pathological defenses is going to be used to set up our antagonists.

The paranoia that comes with delusional projection can be seen in antagonists who surround themselves with a close group of friends, or guards, due to the fear of being found out or that that because of their diabolic ways everyone is usually out to get them.  While many people may not like them, only one person/group is usually out to get them in the form of our protagonists, ergo it is not a true fear of persecution (which wouldn’t be a defense, it would be the reality of the situation).  This close gathering of likeminded individuals can also help our antagonists strengthen and protect their defense mechanisms of denial and distortion.  The antagonist will surround her/his self with people who confirm her/his perception of reality, and if a person does not confirm it s/he is at best dismissed and at worst executed for trying to ground the antagonist in the reality of the situation.

Extreme projection, the rejection of an internal aspect of self and putting of it onto others, and a superiority complex can also frequently go hand in hand for our antagonists.  A corrupt leader may oppress their people for things that s/he cannot accept within herself, such as imposing a harsh religious organization on society because of the leader’s own desire for corrupt/impure things.  The recognition of this desire within the antagonist’s self, fuels her/his sense of inadequacy and personal failure, s/he may compensate for by developing a superiority complex.  The leader may present her/his self as above reproach and completely pure, which is why s/he should lead, for rejecting the rest of societies impurity (and for the time that s/he does not indulge it gives credence in her/his own mind that s/he is superior).

If tested by reality, as pathological defense mechanisms ultimately are, they cannot maintain their façade between the antagonists and the world.  Those who would use pathological defense mechanisms often suffer two defeats, not only do they lose their power/position/possessions, but they also lose their defenses and have to confront the raw reality that they ignored for so long.  If our antagonists are truly using pathological defense mechanisms, we can set them up to be tragic characters giving our reader something else to emotionally hang onto in our writing and make our writing more close match reality, in that there are rarely ever clean endings.

Psychology in Writing: The Ego – Writing Process

Writing Process


English: Illustration of a knight in Gothic ar...

English: Illustration of a knight in Gothic armor from Concilium zu Constanz woodcut (digitized page 34 of 509) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


When we write the Ego is the voice of our character.  Our characters’ may voice their inner struggles with the Id, the Super Ego, and reality, but we rarely hear those voices, we only see how they’re manifested through the Ego.  We usually want our protagonists to have a high level of Ego strength; the protagonist may struggle with their individual choices, but they will ultimately make a choice.  Sometimes, because of the unconscious forces, that the protagonist is not aware of s/he will make a wrong choice, such as striving towards an unrealistic ideal that ends in defeat or foregoing her/his goal for selfish reasons, but this failure and recovery is part of the protagonist’s growing process in the narrative.  Part of our protagonist’s growth is recognizing these unconscious influences so that s/he can overcome them.  As I discussed a previous blog post, Oedipus’ downfall was his lack of insight into himself; our protagonists need to develop their own insight so that they can succeed.


Our lesser characters may struggle more with having a weak Ego strength.  These characters may hold back the protagonist or latch on her/him because of their Ego strength as a counterbalance to their own personality.  These characters may serve as foils, introducing doubts or distractions into the protagonist’s progress, such as being an overly moral or an overly selfish voice.  The protagonist demonstrates her/his strength by either helping raise the other characters up to be able to work towards a common goal, or by being able to tune out the other voices and focus on the internal voice.


As the writer of the protagonist, we can think of ourselves as the Ego voice of our characters.  We are acutely aware of what are character should do, what our character wants to do, and what is possible.  The Ego strength of our character flows from us, and allows us to make choices to spur our protagonists on.  In our writing process, we should be paying attention to the choices that we have to make for our protagonist, and to watch that we are not making the easy choice because of our own struggles in making the hard choice.


Psychology in Writing: The Super Ego – Writing Process

Writing Process


The main protagonist Lucas, as seen in Super S...

The main protagonist Lucas, as seen in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In writing, the protagonist is often driven by an overly developed Super Ego.  Similar to our discussion of Musterbation, the protagonist feels the pressure to strive towards some heroic ideal that may or may not be realistic.  When the protagonist fails to live up to this ideal is when we see her/him as human and struggling with real shortcomings that the reader can identify with.  Without the benefit of therapy, our characters have to figure out how to break out of the cycle of guilt at their failure on their own so that they can continue along towards their goals.  The way I like to conceptualize the resolution of a characters conflict between the ideal and the actual by the protagonist in essence saying, “I’m may not be the hero you want me to be, but I can be the hero you need me to be.”


The Super Ego as a concept is not always something that needs to be “worked out.”  Just as the Id functions as the devil on the character’s shoulder, the Super Ego acts as the angel.  This is a secondary voice in the character’s head that can give a positive (i.e., healthy) ideal to strive for.  It can be a parent or role model that has instilled a working moral compass into our character; the Super Ego can serve as the voice that the character falls back on when s/he is struggling with her/his own doubts or desire to give into the Id, so it functions as a source of strength to tap into so that they can push on.


As it is within us, so it is with our characters.  We are made up of conflicting voices and we seek to balance these voices to lead us to the most auspicious results.  As writers we need to think if the Super Ego is going to be a conflict for our character to work out as s/he accepts that s/he is not perfect and comes to terms with who s/he is at the core, or is it going to serve as a voice of comfort and strength providing our character drive and direction towards an achievable ideal.


Psychology in Writing: The Id – Writing Process

Writing Process

In our writing, a way to think about the Id is the little devil on our characters’ shoulders. The


The protagonists of 2001's Golden Sun, clockwi...

The protagonists of 2001’s Golden Sun, clockwise from top: Mia, Ivan, Isaac and Garet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Id whispers to our characters all thing things they should do other than what they are supposed to do.  As the Id is a self-preservation drive, it would tell our characters to stay home, not to help others; it focuses on selfish questions like what have the others done for us any ways, and don’t we have our own needs to get met? The Id is also the compulsion to do things that we would not expect protagonists to do such as lie and cheat to get what they want.  In relation to others, the Id driven protagonist may be living by the motto “the ends justify the means.”  This can lead to a manipulation of others by our protagonists to get their needs met and can be a source of conflict with those who would work with them/follow them.  In writing, the most powerful protagonists are those who are able to see and acknowledge their Id and put away their own selfish drives to achieve a goal that is greater than self.

The antagonists in our writing who are Id driven can easily become one dimensional; think about a megalomaniac who’s only drive is for power regardless of who gets crushed along the way.  While it may be provide visually appealing images and reinforce for our readers what “evil” looks like it does not provide the antagonist depth.  This depth can be provided through back-story explaining/showing how our antagonists become so narrowly focused or why they cannot better internally regulate.  Going back to our cartoon analogy, the “bad” character has a regulatory angel, even if the devil beats the angel every time; don’t forget that we should allow even our vilest villains a moment to hear the consequences of the other side of their actions.