As a psychology student, I often use the theories I learn about to further develop my characters, who they are, and how they came to be this way. Summer is around the corner and since I have a lot of free time, I thought I’d share some of my writing tools and how I use them.
In psychology, no theory is 100% true as everyone is different. However, having frameworks like this helps me have a solid base for a character’s identity and give them psychological realness, bringing them closer to a real complex human. I’m going to start with a basic psychological development theory that has been incredibly helpful in getting to know my characters: Erikson’s Crises.
Why is it that some characters are a big ball of unsolved issues and others are perfectly adjusted people? According to Erikson, it has to do with very defined moments in a person’s life and how they were handled. In 1968, Erik Erikson created a theory for human development that based itself on stages, each one with a specific crisis the person had to resolve and would either have a positive or negative effect on the person. It would work like a domino effect; the outcome of one crisis would make the next one easier or harder to resolve and so on. I’m gonna break down the crises and how I usually apply them in writing.
First Crisis – Trust vs. Distrust: This crisis occurs in the very early stages of life, meaning from the moment one is born to about when one becomes a toddler. During this stage, the interaction one has with their parents or parental figures is crucial. If the interaction is good and the baby creates strong bonds, then it learns to trust people very easily. If the relationship with the parents is bad or outright missing, then the baby learns to distrust people.
Usually, when I have a naturally distrusting character, I try to trace it back to their childhood. I often find that they have either really cold parental figures or that the parental figures are missing most of the time. I also do the opposite. If I’m not sure whether the character would trust a stranger or not, I like to evaluate this stage to figure out how trusting they are.
Second Crisis – Autonomy vs. Shame: This crisis happens during early childhood, when the child begins to develop more motor skills and control over its own body. With this newfound ability, the child has to learn to control impulses and act according to what society dictates, for example not throwing temper tantrums or defecating only when appropriate. This is not when the child develops morality as that is a whole other, long process. The outcome here is defined by how the authority and parental figures respond to the child’s actions. If they encourage the learning of new skills, the kid gains a sense of autonomy. If they discourage them because they’re seen as destructive, annoying, or simply bad, the child becomes shameful of their actions.
This stage often lets me know if a character is going to take charge, steal the spotlight, and be their own hero by instinct. If not, it also helps me evaluate how bad the outcome of this crisis was and how much “push” they need to take the call to adventure.
Third Crisis – Initiative vs. Guilt: This crisis occurs just as the kid starts engaging in imaginative play. It is very similar to the last, but with one key difference. This stage bases itself on play. Playing “the mom” or “the doctor” like kids usually do is a way for them to explore adult reality in a safe, controlled way. The way the outcome is decided is similar to the last. If the play is encouraged, it leads to the kid developing initiative and if it isn’t it creates a sense of guilt. However, in this stage, the initiative leads to the kid creating a purpose. It gives it that something that drives its actions.
I like to use this stage to determine how likely a character is to do what they want. For example, a character is going to college and they are going to choose between the mayor they want and the mayor their parents want. This stage lets me know what decision they are going to take.
Fourth Crisis – Industriousness vs. Inferiority: This crisis occurs when the kid enters school or a more organized learning atmosphere. The kid has to learn to deal with the new responsibilities of school. If they face it head on and succeed, they feel proud and develop the capability to be industriousness. Here is where the domino effect becomes much clearer. It is much easier for a kid with a strong sense of autonomy and initiative to succeed than one that feels guilt and shame about their actions. Being unable to succeed in the school environment leads to a feeling of inferiority. In this stage, Erikson proposes an alternative outcome which he called “labor stupidity” which is working for the sake of working, getting the homework done just because that’s what one is supposed to do and not because they want to learn.
I use this stage for two things. The first one is to figure out how the character did academically, as very often, grades do have a strong weight in how others perceive you regardless of whether it is an accurate representation of you or not. Second, it helps me determine their self-worth in comparison to society. Failing a class, even at early stages, does have a strong emotional toll and changes the level of self-esteem one has. It helps me understand how the character feels about themselves.
Fifth Stage – Identity vs. Confusion: This crisis occurs during one of the most loved and hated stages of life: adolescence. This is when personality cements itself practically permanently. Teenagers make connections, distance themselves from their parents, and try out different things in order to find an identity. This is usually easier if the person has a talent or passion that can help define them. How this crisis is solved depends on both how they handled social connections and how they developed emotional intelligence. If handled correctly, the person comes out knowing who they are, with a clear identity. If it isn’t, the person comes out confused about who they are, with no clear identity.
In my opinion, so many writers like adolescence because it is a turmoil of doubts with no real answers. One could use this stage as the base for a coming-of-age story. I usually like to consider this stage when dealing with teenagers in extreme environments and how this is either helping or hindering the stage. For example, a teenager is forced into a quest to save someone. Is this quest making them more aware of themselves and who they are? Or is it making them more confused about who they want to be in contrast to who they need to be in order to get out of the situation? And how does this internal struggle change their behavior?
Sixth Stage – Intimacy vs. Desolation: This crisis occurs during young adulthood, which I’ll define as twenties and early thirties. There is more interaction between the two sexes, and societal pressure to form a couple, and in the long term a family. For this stage, the outcome of the fifth stage is crucial. For this stage to be successful, one has to be able to create a joint identity with the person they chose to be their significant other. Without a personal identity, it becomes incredibly hard to do so. Handling this stage correctly leads to a capability to create intimate relations. If not, the person experiences desolation.
I’ve been working with early adulthood a lot these past months. What I find this stage useful for is how to handle romantic relationships and if they’re even appropriate for the character’s story. If the story is about self-discovery as a way to solve the crisis of the fifth stage, placing in an intimate relationship might distort the outcome of the internal conflict. Sometimes that’s what I want, sometimes not. It helps me evaluate if I need it and how it’s going to affect the character’s development.
Seventh Stage – Generativity vs. Absorption: This crisis occurs during adulthood. One has a job or a place in society, a family in whatever shape it takes, and a lot of responsibilities. However, one is at the middle point of their life. The responsibilities and the lack of time can become overwhelming for one. The outcome is defined by how one handles this. Being able to understand one can still grow and become something more leads to a great amount of generativity. However, an acceptance and surrendering at all the pressure leads to absorption which causes stagnation.
I usually find this stage helpful in determining again how willing the character is of pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. For example, a fifty.-year-old man who quits a job he hates and starts a company just because he’s always wanted to do so against a fifty-year-old man who always wanted to start a company but feels he is too old and has too many bills to pay to risk it even though he hates his job. It’s in a sort a way to measure motivated impulsivity in a character.
Eight Stage – Integrity vs. Desperation: We come to the last crisis in life that Erikson established. This occurs during old age. One is very close to death and has lived most of what they had to live. The person has two ways to look at this, either as a way to feel proud of all they’ve lived or as a way to be scared of dying and feeling that they were not enough. Looking back at a life one can accept with all its ups and downs can lead to integrity and creates a lot of wisdom. On the other hand, feeling like their life wasn’t enough leads to a feeling of desperation and a lack of ability to repress impulses.
Not many of my characters get to this stage. They usually get murdered before they can die of old age, but for the few that can make it into their seventies without a knife sticking out from their back, it is great for determining their behavior. They might fall into the trope of “wise old sage” because of how they see their life, which makes their mannerisms very calm and content. In contrast, a character who isn’t content with their life could even be a danger for other characters due to their behavior. I do think “desperation” is a strong word, but I think that Erikson meant it with all its connotations. The actions of a character who didn’t succeed in this stage are desperate and can cause a lot of destruction and trouble.
Bonus Ninth Stage : This stage wasn’t created by Erik Erikson precisely, but by Joan Erikson. When Erik Erikson reached the end of his life, he realized he was missing one final stage which his wife eventually polished and published. Warning, it gets a bit complicated from here. The ninth stage occurs at the last moments of life, just as one is about to die. This ninth stage is a retrospection on life, but rather than looking back at it, one lives it again. One experiences all the crises, from trust vs. distrust to integrity vs. desperation, at the same time. It is, in a way, reliving your entire life in a tiny fraction of time.
If you decided to skip the complicated part or simply don’t understand it, it’s fine. What I take from this stage is very simple. The previous eight stages are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist and alter each other. One could be living two, or even all eight crises at the same time. Just because a character is trying to find their identity doesn’t mean they’ve established their level of self-esteem yet. Just because a character is trying to figure out what comes next after being stuck in a dead end job for years does not mean they have already figured out whether they can develop intimate relationships or are going to be desolated for the rest of their lives. They interact, they play with each other, they attack each other, and ultimately I think that interaction is what brings a character from a personification of Erikson’s theory to a complex human being.
I wish I had the sources but most of this came from my notes and projects. However, if you want to read more about the theories, I suggest this article which recently helped me a lot. It is really clear and goes into a little more depth.