Choice Theory – Applying Psychology to Writing

3150914914_7acc83ebf8_zMany of the best tools for writing fiction were created for other reasons. Computing pioneers had higher aims in mind than letting me write stories. The printing press was meant to spread wisdom and/or religious righteousness, depending on who you talked to. And when William Glasser developed choice theory, he was looking to improve education and mental health, not let me develop more sophisticated imaginary people. Yet here we are.

I learned about choice theory over Christmas. My sister Ruth, a far more noble person than myself, has spent years working with disadvantaged young people, trying to teach them life skills and avoid social exclusion. In her work, she’s made extensive use of choice theory, which is rooted in the idea that there are five drives behind all of our choices:

  • survival
  • love and belonging
  • power
  • freedom
  • fun and learning

Choice theory has its critics, but for Ruth’s work it’s invaluable in helping young people to pick apart their motives, to disentangle their thoughts and emotions and make their lives easier.

As a writer, I want to use it the other way around. Those are a powerful and fundamental set of drivers. They focus on different emotional needs that can become tangled and contradictory. Imagine using them to think about characters. What happens when Ju-long the magician‘s desire for power comes into conflict with his desire for learning? What if Sarah the escaped slave‘s need to survive puts her freedom at risk? If Ezhno the medicine woman‘s craving for love and belonging becomes warped by her life experiences, and she sees threats to that belonging all around her, how hard and how misguidedly might she fight to preserve it?

Any template or division of character traits can have its uses in developing characters. This one appeals to me because it gives a few fundamental themes around which to develop motives, and which can put characters in conflict with themselves and others. I’m going to try using it to create some future characters, working out how each drive affects them, which they prioritise, and how they come into conflict. Hopefully when I have time to do it it’ll add some character depth.

Do you have any other psychological models you like to use when developing characters? Leave a comment, give me some other models to work with. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try exploring the characters you’re reading or writing about using this model. Which of these drivers are they motivated by already? And how could these different drives create conflict for those characters?

Picture by Steve and Shanon Lawson via Flickr Creative Commons.

Applying psychology to character creation

Despite spending two years studying psychology at A-level, and occasionally dipping into books and articles since, I tend to forget the theory of psychology when creating and depicting characters. I’m sometimes inspired by particularly vivid images from the subject, like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, but I haven’t applied the structures and frameworks it provides.

Fortunately, I have the smart people at Extra Credits to remind me about this stuff. They recently did an episode on using the Myers Briggs personality model for character creation. The video’s only seven minutes long, and worth a look:



Aside from providing a tool I can use in character creation, this reminded me of the other tools I already had. Knowledge about social psychology I can use when depicting crowds, cities and events. Developmental psychology that can give me insight into the background of my characters. Simplified behavioural models from management courses that can provide quick archetypes for bit-part characters.

They say write what you know, but what you know isn’t just what you’ve lived and done, it’s what you’ve read, seen, heard and learned. And if you’ve read any psychology, then that’s a way to make your characters a lot richer.

It seems obvious now I write it, but I simply hadn’t done it until now.

Have any of you lot used academic psychology in your writing? Was it useful? Are there other fields you’ve studied that you’ve found particularly useful, and think others should read up on? Let me know, leave a comment below.