Character Development,  Craft

Four More Defense Mechanisms For Your Main Character


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 in 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.

Last week we had Four Defense Mechanisms For Your Main Character, Now we have Four More! 

DISPLACEMENT

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!

PROJECTION

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.

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REACTION FORMATION

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.

A good defense mechanism is far more interesting characteristic than eye color. For a deeper explanation of these defense mechanisms, click here.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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