There are a few images so ingrained in our culture that they’re never likely to leave and one of them is therapy couch with the bearded, cigar smoking chap in a comfy leather chair saying (with a vaguely racist accent) Zo, tell me about your muzzerr…
Like all stereotypical images, there is a grain of truth there but few psychologists relate to it anymore. The principles that arose from the same period in psychology though – those of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud around the turn of the 20th century – can produce a really useful framework for writers trying to find depth in their characters.
Many people will be familiar with (and perhaps misunderstand) a few of Freud’s ideas but I believe, as a writer, that despite them being accused of being unscientific, the metaphors they create about the human experience can be a powerful way of thinking about behaviour and motivation. You don’t need to be Oedipus to have Mummy issues after all.
Here are 10 ways that Freud’s ideas can add depth to your character, whether on the page or the stage.
When Freud was mapping the brain, he came up with three levels of function that have had a massive impact on our thinking. The first is conscious thought. What we think about is conscious in that we’re aware of it, have a certain level of control over it and can make others aware of it directly. Its the answer to the question what are you thinking about? Whether you character answers honestly or not depends on a whole range of relational factors.
We’ve all been there at the party or walking through the park and seen someone we know. Big smiles, warm handshake and the words come out: “Hi…… you…” It’s as though your brain has rebelled and you spend the rest of the conversation berating yourself and wondering why on earth you can’t remember their name. Four hours later at dinner you yell “Terry!” and your family exchange worried glances. The things that are held in memory, that can be recalled, hopefully to order, are in the pre-conscious. This could be a very useful plot device in the right hands!
The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water
The unconscious is the basement and it houses all the ghouls, ghosts, bogeymen (and presumably Derek Acorahs) that you would expect a basement to have. The unconscious is the driver of many of our actions yet never truly reveals itself. The key thing to realise is only the author/actor can really know what drives the character. It’s true that through thought, meditation or therapy we can come to understand what’s going on underneath the hood but for many people (and characters) this isn’t hasn’t happened. Let your character be guided by their unconscious wants, needs, biases and objectives but never reveal that information to their conscious mind unless there is a specific reason to.
The Pleasure/Pain Principle
The pleasure and pain principle is a very old idea and may have been influenced by Freud’s interest in mythology. In one of the Upanishads, the early Hindu texts, a story can be found which describes the first ever being. The first thing that happens to them is a feeling of fear and the second thing is desire to have someone else there. Fear of pain and death, desire for companionship and pleasure. Freud’s basic map of the psyche is that, left to its own devices, any organism will move towards pleasure and away from pain, whether that be physical, mental or emotional. The question then becomes, of course, what does your character associate pleasure with, because that’s certainly not the same for all of us when taking everything else in this list into account. You may not understand sado-masochism, but your character may.
The word ego got a terrible reputation at some unknown point, becoming a synonym for arrogance. To say someone has a big ego means that their inflated sense of self-confidence is unpleasant to you, though when a friend or someone that is more like you displays the same traits it’s a whole other matter. The truth is that the ego is Freud’s word for the personal “you” that seems to sit at the centre of the consciousness. It’s the manifesting personality, the thing that is most visible to others. Both of these views of the ego can be helpful in building characters so consider whether their inflated sense of the themselves is justifiable, a shared view by others or coming from a lack of confidence as opposed to an abundance of it. Overall, consider the ego the inner narrative of each individual character.
The ego is not master in its own house.
The Id, more often called the shadow after Karl Jung extended the idea, exists in the unconscious and is all the desires that you have ever had whether you met them or not. The ones that were met can grow, such as happens in addiction, whilst the ones that were denied – either through will or through being forbidden – also stay there. When desires are repressed, Freud says they leak out in other ways. Ever wondered what a Freudian slip was? You know, when someone is talking and they accidentally use the wrong nipple- er, I mean word? Yes, that’s a terrible joke. Sue me. Repressed thoughts can lead to abhorant behaviour so you if have a “baddy” to construct then maybe this could be your starting point. See my previous post “No Such Thing as a Baddie”.
The Super-ego is the wagging finger inside your head, the parental disapproval, the voice – if one is so inclined – of God. As we grow and our Id asserts itself, we are told no. First by parents and perhaps other relatives, later by teachers or peers. Further on, society becomes more involved. When we have a guilty conscience, Freud says its the Super-ego at work. Sometimes our characters listen, other times they don’t but the inner conflict that results can be a real source of drama and development.
Mummy and Daddy Issues
Freud is perhaps best known for his insistence that personality, in general, comes from the early experiences of childhood and who better to blame for any anxieties that adults experience than the parents? There are some commonly known classics that may or may not have some truth to them – such as the absence of maternal love producing sons that seek casual sex or emotionally unavailable fathers producing love-addict daughters that go from relationship to relationship trying to replace him. Sometimes they’re more subtle. Freud might, for example, suggest a person would smoke due to an oral fixation – being stuck at a certain developmental stage because of trauma or absence of support. Could not being breast-fed produce all the worlds smokers? Unlikely, but perhaps there are some useful lessons to be learned about your character by exploring their childhood experiences
Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy
What does your character dream about? More particularly why? There are many theories as to what the purpose of dreams is but as a literary and acting device they can be useful from a Freudian point of view – that dreams are, at least in part, wish-fulfillment. Sadly this doesn’t mean we all get to dream about the things that we want but because the mind is trying to talk to itself in almost different languages, it has to speak through symbols. What most people know about Freud of course is that everything from bananas, to water, to caves, to snakes, to tall buildings to moss all mean something sexual but later thinkers evolved the idea into a more inclusive set. Actors could try an exercise where they describe a dream their character had and writers could put in a scene where they get to flex their symbology muscles (which is great fun and useful, even if the scene doesn’t make the final cut).
Have you ever disliked anyone for no good reason? Been annoyed by someones behaviour but not sure why? Freud says you could be projecting. All the things we don’t like about ourselves tend to get repressed and ignored. When we see a person or a behaviour that rattles it’s cage, our ego responds and we want to move away from them. We mark that by the emotion of annoyance, anger or similar and think it’s because the other person is wrong somehow. Could this be the reason your character reacted like they did? Maybe the other persons behaviour was a little too close to home.
Overall, Freud may not be as useful as he once was in exploring the depths of our psyches and curing all manner of mental ills but his legacy provides a huge range of tools. They’re not always scientific of course but they do give us metaphors to work with, ways of explaining in clear terms, of understanding what might make people tick and opportunities to think about our behaviour. How can Freud add depth to your characters and their conflicts?