Show, Don’t Tell: The Proper Use of Psychology in Fiction

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You can’t study men, you can only get to know them. – from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength

Among the many items professional writers suggest aspiring authors read in order to refine their craft, psychology likely ranks somewhere in the top ten. The reason for this is simple: men are a product of their environment, insofar as the physical, emotional, and cultural factors surrounding men and women have a profound impact on their psyches from childhood onward. It is the variances between these effects which make individuals interesting – and/or extremely dangerous.

While the branch of scientific study we call psychology is a recent development, the fact is that men have always known how to “read” one another to greater and lesser degrees. Even today, someone who has no knowledge of or experience with psychology is able to understand and/or make judgments about those they meet. Without that faculty man could not survive as an individual or as part of a group, since this ability plays directly into his capacity to form a strong social group to benefit himself and others.

Fiction, as mentioned before here at Song, is a method by which man tries to explain himself to himself. By creating characters based on ancient archetypes that occur from generation to generation, authors tell present and future audiences about the roots from which they sprang. In this way writers also give those who enjoy their books the vicarious experience of dealing with other people from different backgrounds and environments. And, if this reading habit is cultivated in the audience from a young age, it grants them a stronger sense of empathy and understanding for those they encounter in their everyday lives.

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This is where we come to a rather modern problem. Many Western writers today utilize a form of “pop psychology” to describe their characters in the hopes that it will add depth to them. Using psychology itself in order to understand one’s characters is not bad. However, many current storytellers over-rely on “pop psychology” to do the work of characterization for them. This is lazy writing, especially since it tends to break the characters down into even smaller pieces, much as a biology student dissects a frog in order to learn how the body works.

Of course, such “dissection” can have only one result, in and out of the lab. By the end of the experiment, the frog is no longer a frog but a corpse. In a similar way, leaning on “pop psychology” categories and terms to imbue a character with vigor usually has the opposite effect. It makes the protagonists and antagonists less interesting than they can and should be because it encourages the author to leave the “building blocks” of characterization scattered across the page for all to see.

Of course, this does not mean that using “pop psychology” terms to describe a character can never work to the entertainers’ advantage. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, needs to be a relatively remote protagonist since he holds the majority of humanity at arm’s length. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the iconic detective as a “high-functioning sociopath” therefore preserves the barrier which keeps him above viewers even as they cheer for him.

However, this clinical style of characterization does not work across the board for all characters. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy* and Saving Mr. Banks* both expertly reveal items in the main characters’ past without resorting to such quasi-scientific descriptions. At the beginning of the film and via flashback later on, the writers demonstrate that the death of Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s mother when he was eight years old stunted his emotional growth. Determined to avoid facing such pain again, he became a “man-child” – someone desperate not to grow up. This directly clashes with his desire to be taken seriously as a thief and, later, as a hero. Neither profession can be believably filled by a child, but since Quill still maintains a grip on his immaturity, it makes him seem less intelligent and capable than he actually is.

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Likewise, the reason for P.L. Travers’ unbending and difficult personality becomes clear as the film exposes layers of her character via flashback. Instead of having her tell the audience where she came from and how her childhood shaped her, the filmmakers show viewers what happened and how it forged her into the person wrangling with Walt Disney over the rights to Mary Poppins.* By revealing her past in increments, the writers and filmmakers allow their audience to get to know P.L. Travers in an intuitive, vicarious way. This has more impact on the audience than if they simply told them about her history via dialogue.

This is a storytelling technique that goes back centuries, but it has largely atrophied among modern Occidental writers. In the Orient, on the other hand, authors and artists still utilize this understanding in an effective manner. This is most clear in Japanese anime, where few protagonists and antagonists can be clearly defined according to “pop psychology” classifications. While some have tried their best to fit various characters into such slots, these attempts usually fall flat, as cramming them into these definitions takes something away from the characters.

One good example of this may be found in Black Clover’s* “cheery berserker,” Luck Voltia. Though he fits into the category of sociopath, the classification falls short of actually capturing the character’s personality. Luck hardly ever stops smiling and is largely incapable of being anything but happy, regardless of the situation. This led his mother, who was poor and under a great deal of stress, to abuse him for years – until he defeated a noble in combat with his magic. Then, relieved that he had found something semi-normal to do with his life, she embraced and praised him. She added that he had to “just keep winning” no matter what, leading her son to associate victory with affection and love.

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Luck Voltia

For this reason, in addition to maintaining his signature smile, Luck continually challenges others to a fight or a “death match.” He is infamous for nearly killing his opponent in the test prospective candidates must pass to become knights. Only after he is rescued from certain death by Asta, the hero of the series, does Luck begin to take more interest in his teammates as people and show concern for them.

This change is made blatantly clear in the Royal Knights combat exam when one of his teammates, Finral, is severely injured and almost murdered. Along with Asta and the others, Luck jumps between the unconscious Finral and his crazed, younger half-brother Langris. The “Cheery Berserker” promises to kill Langris if he takes another step toward his friend, a threat made all the more ominous by the fact that he is no longer smiling.

Simply calling Luck a sociopath fails to convey exactly who he is for this reason. The designation is not inaccurate – that is not the point. The point is that telling the audience that the Cheery Berserker is a sociopath and thinking no further beyond that designation limits a writer’s storytelling capability. If the writer(s) for Black Clover were to follow the Western trend of telling the audience what Luck is, they would not be able to convey the same sense of personality and depth that the Japanese writers have given him throughout the series.

Raven from Zoids: Chaotic Century* is another character who exemplifies Oriental writers’ mastery of psychology. While he can be correctly described as anti-social, the fact is that there is more to this antagonist than that. A maverick who will happily kill his fellow soldiers as well as the enemy’s, Raven spends the majority of the series as the physical incarnation of hatred and misanthropy. In direct contrast to the hero, he despises zoids, the mechanical beasts used by the armies of both the Guylos Empire and the Helic Republic. He also loathes most of his fellow pilots, considering them to be “punks who don’t know how to handle” the living machines properly in a fight.

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An interesting dichotomy is thus presented to the audience. While Raven hates zoids and enjoys destroying them, he also takes great pride in his ability to properly utilize his own mechanical animal on the battlefield. His self-satisfaction in this area is so great that even a small defeat leaves him incensed. On top of this, though he considers himself to be above the rest of mankind, he has an intense fear of being alone. This is something that Raven refuses to admit, even to himself, until circumstances rip his one and only companion from him. Stripped of his conceit, he tries to make amends and gain revenge, only to discover he is not as alone as he believed.

To say that he is simply anti-social and something of a psychopath, however, necessarily removes these complexities from Raven’s character. Diagnosing a disease does not remove its effects from the patient, nor does it do justice to the suffering the person must endure until he is cured or succumbs. Just so, properly categorizing a character in psychological terms does nothing to connect the readers/viewers to that character. People do not empathize with terms, definitions, or technicalities. They identify with, hate, understand, have compassion on, and admire other people.

By reducing characters to trite formulae, which is what “pop psychology” typically does, writers separate the fictional people in their stories from the audience they are trying to reach. This also puts up a barrier that prevents emotional connectivity between authors and their characters. In essence, by concentrating on the parts and not the whole those pieces make, many current storytellers create shadows rather than dynamic characters.

While not every Japanese anime or story manages to use psycho-analysis properly to create their characters, a great many do. Furthermore, instead of relying on diagnostics and categories to “explain” their characters to the audience, they simply use them as a starting point and build from there. This is part of the reason for the medium’s explosive popularity in the West. Instead of talking down to the audience in order to make them recognize the writer’s intelligence and skill, Japanese artists get to know their characters before inviting their audience to “hang out” with the fictional people they have “met” during the creative process. By utilizing the flashback technique in conjunction with – or in place of – dialogue describing a character’s history, these Oriental writers create appealing and realistic characters for their audience to enjoy.

As seen in the above examples – Guardians of the Galaxy and Saving Mr. Banks – this is not a storytelling technique unique to the Orient. Westerners can and have made use of the method many times over the years. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find mainstream Occidental writers in any genre that are willing to execute this strategy in their fiction. Adhering to a “pop psychology” checklist to make their characters “realistic” has put invisible walls around the creativity of many present day authors. They remain intent on describing their fellow men as pseudo-science experiments and less on showing who they actually are – and, just as important, how they got there.

None of this is to say that psychology is not a necessary part of the writing process. A psychologist can write fiction as good as any author who began in a creative writing class or with loose sheets of paper. The branch of study itself is not the problem. Nor is it the solution; recall that everyone regularly “reads” their fellow men day in and day out. We are all amateur psychologists because we are always watching our friends, rivals, families, and enemies in order to either enjoy their company or navigate around them. Since we cannot survive and thrive in territory held by those who wish us harm or dislike us, it only makes sense that man would have and develop this instinct.

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It is also worth noting that there are times when “telling” the audience about a character is better than the “showing” approach. The story of Eri, a young girl with an uncontrolled superpower from the fourth season of My Hero Academia,* is a good illustration. Her horrifying history is described rather than seen, though we are given a few flashbacks that hint at the monstrous treatment she underwent for most of her young life. This not only sets the tone and atmosphere for season four; it adds tension to the story. It also leaves room for the audience to use their own imaginations, which gives them the opportunity to invest more in the character and universe.

This is yet one more facet of psychology that modern writers have begun to neglect. Many think they must describe everything about their characters’ current predicaments or past encounters in order to fulfill audience expectations. This is not always the case, as mentioned in the post on magic here. Allowing readers the freedom to fill in the blanks of a protagonist or antagonist’s history, or to leave these areas vacant if they choose, is an important liberty which authors ought not to intrude upon. It gives readers/viewers the opportunity to dedicate more emotional and intellectual energy to the fictional people and universe than if the writers were to hand them everything on a platter.

By sharing time and/or doing the same activities with others, we see people both as they present themselves to the outside world and as they truly are – if we look hard enough. The same is true of fictional characters, save that ours and the audience’s experiences with them are vicarious instead of real. In order to make that experience worth the time and effort, though, authors have to think less about satisfying “pop psychology” criteria and more about the individuals they are trying to introduce to the audience.

After all, knowing someone requires regular contact and shared interests. These are the opportunities whereby men interact with and learn about one another. “Spending time” with your antagonists and heroes is one of the best ways to create compelling characters. If a writer treats the fictional people in his narrative as personal friends and enemies, then he will be able to make his readers feel the same way about them. This is impossible to accomplish if the author treats them as specimens to be dissected and broken down into parts which must be cataloged.

Future writers would do well to rely less on “pop psychology” as a cure-all for adding depth to their characters and more as a launch point. Using the principles of the study alone leads to the creation of stale stereotypes rather than vigorous and interesting characters. While this may earn the praise of critics, it will not win the admiration of readers.

If you want to make your protagonists as real as possible, then do not dissect them. Get to know them – and then show your readers why they should get to know them, too. You might just find this method offers you better and more opportunities than the “pop psychology” approach ever can.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special* and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth*, and Planetary Anthology: Luna*. Her poetry has appeared in Organic Ink Volume 2*. Order them today!

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If stories which take their cue from Japan’s art are your speed, then you might want to try Kit Sun Cheah’s Dungeon Samurai series, Rawle Nyanzi’s Shining Tomorrow, or J.D. Cowan’s Grey Cat Blues. They are sure to deliver some great fun. Order them today!

One thought on “Show, Don’t Tell: The Proper Use of Psychology in Fiction

  1. Hmmmm. I would say that by showing the character’s past, you make the reader more familiar with it and detail it.

    To say it explains their character is to overlook that the same event could have explained an entirely different character. One who is determined to be an adult at eight and stop these things from ever happening again for instance.

    Liked by 1 person

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