Character and Personality Theory

This post, from The Denver Bibliophile, originally appeared on The Denver Bibliophile blog on 12/2/09.

In fiction, probably the most important question and certainly the very the first question that needs to be asked is, who is my protagonist character? This question invariably relates to another–who is a person? One may answer this question, as many writers do, by the seat of their pants, relying on personal observation and nuggets of insight gleaned from reading other fiction. But this leads to a poverty of ideas and a poverty of characters. There is a better way.

The question of the nature of personhood has been explored by theorists of personality. There are many theories out there, the most famous, to most people, being that of Freud.  But the writer of fiction would do well to familiarize himself with all of personality theories, adapting them for his own use. In this article, we will look at the Snygg and Combs theory of personality and the work of Carl Rogers and work with the  concepts to create a theory of story character. (A good introduction to personality theories, with citations for further reading, can be found here, )

Snygg and Combs theorize that there exists something called the “phenomenal field,” which is a way to conceptualize our subjective reality, the world of a person’s awareness. It includes a person’s thoughts, concepts, beliefs, and ideas. If we wish to understand why a person behaves as he does, we need to understand their phenomenal field.

But the field is not something that can be observed and certainly it is not something the writer should explain in exposition.  Rather, the writer must present this phenomenal field to the reader through the character’s behavior. Specific action in specific situation becomes, then, like a snapshot of the phenomenal field. Character’s phenomenal field, therefore, is revealed continually through the character’s actions in the story.

Initially, the character’s phenomenal field is only hinted at and its totality remains unknown to the reader. In fact, the phenomenal field should never be revealed completely, nor can it be, for the character in a story may not go through the required range of behaviors to allow such a complete revelation. And this is as it should be, for a character that is completely knowable is boring. The character must be understandable, but not completely knowable, for no human being is.

Read the rest of the post, and many more excellent articles on craft, on The Denver Bibliophile blog.