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?
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.
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. Next week? Four More!
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