When characters confuse


Whether or not you are fond of the recent spate of police detective dramas, you are probably familiar with a few of the psychological terms they throw around, such as calling card, MO, and motive.  These are not just reserved for suspects in murder mysteries.  Fictional characters take on their own personalities when you remember to consider each of these features.

teddy c 029Paying attention to these aspects  doesn’t make characters predictable (otherwise criminals would be easier to catch) but does make them less confusing.

The calling card is a quirky behavior, an eccentric ritual that goes beyond what is needed.  This  is also called the signature aspect in criminology because it comparatively unique. It provides an insight into motive and is derived from a deep seated psychological need.  (Major characters should also have unfulfilled psychological needs unless they are robots.) For example, a woman who had to grow up too fast in a distressing family situation may show a propensity for collecting stuffed teddy bears in an attempt to regain a lost childhood. Another from a similar background  may prefer clothes with child-like frills. Signature behavior develops uniquely for each person based on personality, motive and MO. It may increase or decrease but doesn’t really change.

MO or Modus operandi is Latin for method of operation. This is a character’s preferred way of interacting with others.  Consider two different teenage boys in their attempts to attract teenage girls. One may decide  a show of physical strength, such as pelting a rival with a football, is the way to gain attention from the fairer sex. The other, who uses his wit may  point out the disproportional number of felons in the NFL after the pelting incident.  MO is also the preferred method for attempting to reach a goal. It is not fixed, but based on learned behavior and changes over time as the character gains confidence through experience  (or descends into psychosis due to stress).  However, there has to be a definite reason, a point in the plot that you can put your finger on, that causes the shift in MO.

Finally we come to motive. We may never understand why real people do what they do, but we expect to be able to detect motives in fiction. The reasons that drive characters to act may be initially hidden but should be revealed as the story progresses. A character’s motives can be transformed but this calls for an event with much more impact than needed for developing a new MO. Just like the calling card, internal motivation tends to remain constant, unless the character goes through brain altering surgery or some other earth-shaking experience.  The calling card can provide a window into the character’s motivation if you are subtle about connecting the two. Readers often enjoy uncovering this on their own. After all a major point of creating the story is for the reader’s enjoyment.

 Top photo – Public Domain


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