Psychology in Writing

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her first espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will be released through Abingdon Press (Spring 2010). An active member of ACFW, Ronie serves as the Book of the Year coordinator and volunteers in various ways with ACFW. She also teaches creative writing at her local homeschool co-op. Visit Ronie at her website or her blog.

With respect, sir, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand.(Batman: The Dark Knight – 2008, Warner Bros. Pictures)
Alfred [Pennyworth] gave away the key to the whole movie with this one line. While watching this blockbuster, I greatly aggravated my husband by figuring out what was coming. He all but growled, How did you figure that out? The key: psychology.

The behavior of the Joker is deeply rooted in psychology. By understanding (to a degree) how his mind works, I could anticipate what he was doing and what he would do to the protagonists.

Psychology can be defined with highly technical verbiage, but ultimately, it boils down to a study of human behavior or a study of the human mind. Psychology is used in just about everything you see or hear: marketing ads, television, movies, billboards, etc. In this series, I will explore the psychology of writing—both why and how. In order to write compelling fiction, you must understand people, how they think and behave, and why.

As I’ve said—psychology is everywhere. Experts know that every element of their design elicits a certain psychological response. They capitalize on this to sell their product or sway the audience from a competitor, and we should do the same thing in our writing. The use of color for example, can shade a story and its tone. Red, for example, conjures up angry, irritated mental images, but it can also be used to indicate power, much like black. M. Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village, Signs . . . ) often uses color clues.

Another evidence of psychology in stimulating an audience is the business letter. Choice and arrangement of words can either poke someone’s pride and aggravation, pad uncomfortable information, or it can blunt painful news. For example, the use of the pronoun “you” in a business letter tends to put a person on the defensive (you wrote that . . . you called . . . ). By avoiding phrases that point fingers, and by sticking to the facts of what happened, defenses are lowered, which makes it possible for you to make your point without making enemies.

Careful selection of words, colors, phrases prep the subject to receive your point of view. And this is vital to do in writing fiction. It’s vital to lure your reader beyond the obvious. These subtle nuances significantly alter the impact of what you write. The most classic evidence of this is in the “show versus tell” concept. When a writer informs the audience of everything happening, they are essentially keeping readers at arm’s length, prohibiting them from experiencing the story.

The point made by Alfred in the comment to Bruce Wayne was that he did not understand his enemy, therefore he could not defeat him. A more subtle point here was that the Joker had a mindset that could not be understood—but even in that, there is an understanding of that character. In this same way, we must understand the personality of our hero/heroine and secondary characters.

Writing heavily involves psychology. In truth, life involves psychology. It is everywhere and affects you on a daily—probably even a minute-by-minute—basis. It affects purchases and reactions. In the same way we need to enhance our stories psychologically. By doing this, our stories will resonate with readers, creating a bond that makes them want more (yeah, that’s more psychology for you).

In the coming months, we will explore psychology in writing more in-depth. For example, what kind of character loves the outdoors—and how does that affect the rest of their personality and that story? Setting. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that setting can be its own character. How is that possible that an inanimate object can become something that has a psychological effect? And, finally we’ll explore my favorite—how to draw out the emotional impact.