Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Using Social Information-Processing Theory to Deepen Character Development

I was perusing some journal articles the other night, and I came across one from a few years ago about social information-processing skills training as an intervention to prevent aggressive behavior in kids (Fraser et al., 2005, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology).

Right now, you must be thinking: she has such a fabulous life.

Anyway, as I read through the article, I was struck by the description of how our social knowledge gets encoded and shaped over time.

I thought: Whoa. This is a hell of a character development exercise.

Bear with me here.

Think about your main character and the events, conflicts, and choices he or she faces. Then consider the following:

1. From our experiences in childhood and beyond, we accrue social knowledge that feeds our beliefs and mental scripts (a memory structure that forms over repeated exposures to similar experiences; scripts are running in our heads all the time and lead to expectations about how our social interactions will go).

What early experiences shaped your MC's expectations for relationships and social interactions? What beliefs/scripts does he/she (from now on, I'm just using "she") have about other people and how they will treat her?

2. Along with characteristics of the situation and a person's emotional arousal, this social knowledge influences the way we attend to cues in the environment, interpret other people's intentions, set goals for different social interactions, and develop patterns of behavior.

Think of a specific scene in your book in which your MC is interacting with another character. What aspects of the situation is the MC paying the most attention to? Which of the other character's verbal and nonverbal behaviors does the MC notice, and what does that tell her about the other character's intentions (regardless of whether she's interpreting those cues correctly or not)? What does your MC want out of the interaction and why? And what in her earlier life experiences have led her to interpret others' behaviors and intentions this way?

3. Over time, we learn to process social information in certain predictable ways based on:
  • Biological predisposition (i.e., how we're "wired"). How is your MC "wired"? Does she get keyed up at the slightest provocation, or does it take something earth-shattering to get her going? Does she tend to have a big, intense emotional reaction, or is it more subtle?
  • Contextual influences (e.g., poverty, culture). What about her "context" has shaped the way she sees the world and interprets the behaviors of others? Does she come from a place of privilege and have the expectation of safety? Or does she come from a rough neighborhood and understand that people can be dangerous? What aspects of her culture contribute to her beliefs about social interactions?
  • Parental/family experiences (e.g., harsh discipline, consistent acceptance, etc.). What aspects of your MC's parental/family experiences influence what she expects from relationships? Can she trust and rely on others, or is she wary and expecting to be abandoned?
  • Peer acceptance and rejection. What have your MC's relationships with other kids been like? Does she have a feeling of belonging or an expectation that others will reject her? Have others been cruel or kind, and how does that affect her beliefs about interactions with other kids she meets?
These patterns of attending to and interpreting social information actually mediate the relation between childhood experiences and behavior later in life.

In other words, it's not: childhood experience ---> adult behavior

It's: childhood experience--> how we process social information in every situation--> adult behavior

Social information processing is crucial to how we see the world and maneuver within our environments. Leave it out, and we're missing a major step in understanding how childhood affects us in adolescence and adulthood. Obviously, I think this could be a useful way to deepen your understanding of your characters' motivations and behaviors in different situations. It's a good tool to make sure your character is three-dimensional and behaving in ways that are consistent and genuine.

What do you think? Could it be useful? Do you do something like this when you're developing your characters?

Be sure to check out the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog series for April, in which I inflict my own question on the group: Does each story you write have an overarching theme, and if so, do you think of it ahead of time or discover it after? Laura's up first. See what she has to say!


  1. Do I think it could be useful? Heck yes!

    I love this blog. I so, so LOVE this blog.

  2. Whoa. This is deep! No wonder you're so popular. ;-)

    Anyhoo, it's funny you mention this because just the other day I finished a book where a lot of the this information comes into play. For the MC of that book, it was like exactly what you said: child experience--->>this MC is cranky, pushy, doesn't get close to people, and looks at people and their behaviors differently and judges their motives without actually "knowing" them because her relationship with her parents--->>very nasty adult behavior.

    (No, it's not AGG) LoL. I didn't do that good of a job weaving this kind of stuff in there. But you did give goods ideas for me to fix it! Anyway, as I was reading that other book, I was in awe of the character development and I couldn't put my finger what the author had done so "right", you know? Besides EVERYTHING! But after reading this post, it smacked me up side the head!

    You are amazing.


  3. Another brilliant post, Sarah.

    I do try and go deep with my characters, to understand WHY they are the way they are. Thus, I agree...YES, this is useful. :)


  4. Yes, it's helpful! I love that little arrow figure you have. It says it all.

  5. This is a brillant post, Sarah. I think unconsciously I do think of these things when I create my characters.

  6. Excellent, excellent post. And very helpful for the stage I'm in with my novel right now.

  7. you know, i never knew this... but at the same time, i knew this already. sometimes, i think learning new things is kinda like realizing what you know instictively. does that make sense? anyway, brilliant post (as always! man i feel like my nose should turn brown or something, but i'm just being genuine!) it's super important to slow down and be sure that every action your character makes is in line with who that character is or who they are becoming! :)

  8. Whoa, good post! I feel like I've kinda known this, but you clarified it so well, with nice little bullet points! :) Definitely keeping this one for future character development.

  9. Love this. At first I thought, yes, of course, this is the sort of thing we do unconsciously as we develop our characters. And that does seem true for many protagonists, especially. But what about characters who don't share our own developmental influences, protag or other? We probably won't actually nail their character if we depend on our unconscious assumptions about 'their type.' It's worth thinking consciously about these factors for them. (I'm currently developing a protagonist who lived in a different time and culture than mine. Have spent huge amount of time researching and deep thinking, but your post gave me a heads up on an important aspect of how she's currently reacting to something important in the story. Thanks!)

  10. I go to different levels with different characters. I've never thought of it in exactly these terms, but I do go this deep with my MC. Then I have a slightly shallower understanding of my main supporting characters, then even less about side characters, and so on.

    I should probably try to be more organized about it, but I have to finish this first book ... well, first.

  11. Like the first commenter said, i love this blog and i don't regret stumbling upon it.

    It's so great to give your MCs depth so that it would appeal to readers and make them understand why they behave the way they do.

  12. Sorry, but have a look at

  13. Oh yeah, this is a helpful way to look at character development--nice job!

  14. Bookmarking this post right frigging now!!

    These are things I tend to think of organically, but I think it would behoove me to have a "list" while I'm working on developing new characters.

    Thanks, Sarah!

  15. Great post. I'm not as systematic, but I certainly think of many of these things for my characters...even my secondary characters.

  16. This post aligns so well with the contemporary novel I'm working on right now. Thank you for sharing (and putting it all in easier terms)!

  17. This is exactly how I deal with MC (and to a lesser extent, my cast of supporting characters). I think sometimes it's easy to get swept away with the story to the point where we ignore that our characters should become real people and deal with situations based on a past.

    Great post! :)

  18. This is awesome!!! I do believe everything I learned in psych has helped with character development (probably why I love this blog) but you went much farther than I did, so I get a psych lesson AND a writing lesson at the same time. Thank you!! :D

  19. I wonder if I do some of this instinctively...I don't spend that much time actually thinking it all through like this, but I can see how it could be beneficial.

  20. I love this post. So helpful. When writers fail to take what you've written in your post into account then they don't have that believability issue. You know when you're reading the book and the character behaves uncharacteristically from what we know about him/her? It's because the writer hasn't taken the time to consider the character's background. Thanks for this post.