You’ve picked out your character’s eye color, hair color, and favorite ice cream.
You have even chosen their personality type, their deep dark secret, and deepest fear. You certainly haven’t ignored their greatest desire and figured out how their objective in the story works with, or against, this desire.
So have you thought about adding a few defense mechanisms?
A defense mechanism is a way that we handle stress.
Defense mechanisms are often involuntary and can be seen as a form of self-deception. Your main character needs one or two because he shouldn’t be perfect. They should have a reason that they react to certain situations certain ways. They also could have been taught how to do this in their dysfunctional childhood.
A defense mechanism is often a subtle nod to the past, a protective strategy or a bad habit. It could even be a lie that they have built their life on.
Your character should see this behavior as normal. Once you’ve decided what mechanism your character is going to use, then put them in a position where it will not work. He will have to make a tough choice as to what to do next. This could freak him out completely. Let’s all pull the rug out from under our characters.
Denial is probably the most common of self-deceptions. People just can’t admit the truth about their situation. “I can stop drinking anytime I want.” “I don’t have to tell her every day that I love her, she just knows.” People use this device because they are afraid of admitting that they are in the wrong. They also fear change, because if they fully understood what they were doing, they’d have to take responsibility for their actions. Those who deny are seeking comfort in the short term because they don’t want to deal with the future. Denial can be deadly, it can alienate relationships, it can cause disaster. Your main character should deny something but then come to a place where he has to face reality. This can set him on a series of uncomfortable changes that could be good for him.
Intellectualization is kind of like denial, but it’s the logical justification for an event that allows the feeler to deny all emotions. People who are typically colder or less sensitive may react to bad news with no expression. They may be matter-of-fact about the event and appear to everyone to have complete control of their emotions. But they don’t. They may speak about logic, “there’s not much we can do about it now.” But then, something else will happen that will pull the plug on their emotions and they will reveal how painful they find the circumstances. Their emotions at this point could be very intense because they’ve kept it inside for a long time.
Repression is another thing that people do to themselves. To repress is to forget a negative experience and to not deal with the pain and sorrow of it. People who repress their memories of bad experiences are afraid. They don’t want to relive the experience to be free from the emotional consequences of it. They also may want to avoid any responsibility that they may have. If you have a character who is repressing something significant, have them remember! Then spend the rest of the book wrestling with the fallout from this memory. Repression can stall personal growth, it can subconsciously force someone to self-sabotage their plans or activities.
Rationalization is another way that we lie to ourselves. We try to explain negative situations away. We cover up our mistakes and refuse to admit that our weakness could have caused them. The worst of us actually abuse others and then explain why we can get away with it. Rationalizers honestly believe that they will not be held responsible for their actions. They can’t fathom the idea that they are guilty. If your main character is a rationalizer, it could be that they aren’t that likable. Rationalization could be better suited for a villain who sees himself as a hero in his own eyes.
In displacement, the strong emotions, usually negative ones, are not given to the person responsible for them, but rather in another scenario. You poor main character has just been jilted by her boyfriend. He’s seeing another girl! Now your main character still has to do the grocery shopping, so she calmly gets through her list and goes to check out. The cashier asks her question, “do you have any coupons?” And our main character snaps back, yells at the cashier and bursts into tears. This is displacement because our poor jilted young woman placed her strong emotions on the innocent. Your main character can do this too!
For example, Desdemona really believes that she is too fat. She went to school, minding her own business, and realized that she had been left out of an activity. Everyone else is going except her. She concluded that this is because she is fat. She’s projected her conclusions about herself onto another situation. There was once a father I knew who accused my children of being depressed. I went to a friend, a social worker — someone I knew who could spot depression — and she found this accusation laughable. It turns out that the father had seen depression in his own children. He projected it onto mine because he didn’t want to deal with it. Your characters could do the same thing.
This term comes to me just as I finished watching clips of “Much Ado About Nothing.” In this Shakespearean play, two characters, Benedick and Beatrice spew banter back and forth, decrying how much they can’t stand each other. But their friends secretly believe that they love each other. The friends set them up to fall in love, but therein lies the question. Did they love each other? Were those fiery barbs really signs that they couldn’t bear to be apart? This is reaction formation. This is when what we say and how we really feel are in opposition to each other. This is an intense form of self-deception and it happily plays itself out in romances. Because of “Much Ado About Nothing,” I’ve decided to put a bit of this in my fantasy work-in-progress.
SENSE OF HUMOR
If you have a character that is the life of the party, a stand-up comedian or a class clown, you may have someone who is using their joking personality as a way to deal with their pain. I know that when I’m nervous about a situation, I make jokes. Part of me believes that lightening things up a bit will make everyone at ease. But the reality is that I want others’ attention off of me and my weakness. I’d rather not deal with the pain of the situation and I’m hoping, probably falsely, that humor is a good substitute for authenticity.
A well-rounded character is one that has weaknesses and isn’t completely perfect in the eye of the reader.
If you have characters that have pain in their past, consider giving them any of these defense mechanisms as they deal with those around them.
A good defense mechanism is far more interesting than eye color. For a deeper explanation of these defense mechanisms, click here.
For more tips on rich character development, try: 5 Super Powers & 5 Sources of Kryptonite for Abused Characters or Top 10 Questions To Ask About Authority Figures That Could Beef Up Your Conflict