For two of my favorite panels at Balticon, “Fleshing Out Your Cast” and “Writing Believable Children,” I put together a sort of cheat sheet on developmental psychology and the psychology of temperament. I am not a psychologist (!), and people in that field don’t all agree about the common models I’m going to refer to. The only claim I’m making here is that I find this stuff useful in figuring out who my characters are, what they can and can’t do yet at the life stage they’re in when they appear on my page, and what kinds of conflicts I can set up among them.
More people wanted those notes than I had copies to hand out, so I’m keeping my promise to post them publicly here. They’re a little more developed than what I had at the convention, based on where the panel conversations and the Q&A went.
I especially wanted to post these notes about something that went well and seemed to be helpful to people because all the conversation in science fiction and fantasy fandom about Balticon 56 is about an unresolved controversy. I was the moderator on a panel where, according to an anonymous complaint, one of the other panelists violated the convention’s code of conduct. It’s not at all clear that any violation took place. Then again, it’s not 100% clear that one can be ruled out. The convention staff handled the situation abysmally, almost certainly doing more harm than good. It’s complicated. There’s an internal convention investigation. If you really want to know more, File 770 is covering developments, with lots of discussion in comment threads on posts, and an opinion piece that has, in my view, both striking virtues and striking flaws; you can just Google “File 770 Balticon 56” and keep yourself busy reading for some time.
Alternatively, or in addition, you can hang out here a little while and think about writing varied casts and believable kids.
A single cheat sheet for both panel topics made sense because (1) one of my favorite ways to make a cast feel richly varied is to have characters at a wide range of ages, and (2) psychologists researching temperament try to figure out which traits are truly inborn by starting their studies when their subjects are infants and following them for the rest of their lives.
When I trained to be a teacher, I had to study Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Carol Gilligan’s stages in developing a morality of care. There’s a user-friendly breakdown of all three of those theories, with helpful charts and diagrams for visual learners, here. When a child is a major character, I’ll go back to those scales, think hard about what I really need that character to be able and unable to do, and choose the age after I’ve figured out where on those scales I want the kid to be.
A writer who doesn’t spend much time with real kids, and whose knowledge about childhood consists mostly of remembering their own childhood from their current adult perspective, can still get a long way toward believable and distinct child characters even if all they have to work with is three colorful diagrams for laypeople about Piaget, Kohlberg, and Gilligan. If your child character is reducible to their developmental stage, that’s still more care and verisimilitude than a lot of authors expend on the children they write.
I started learning about the psychology of temperament when I became a parent. It seems kind of obvious to say that children are not interchangeable, but a great deal of parenting advice starts from the assumption that the same parenting methods will work pretty much the same way within each developmental stage. It’s just not so.
Thanks to a child psychologist in the audience of the panel on writing believable children, I was able to confirm that almost all the books written for laypeople about the best work on temperament is written for parents of younger children.
This poses a problem for a writer who wants to use the nine temperament traits to figure out adult characters: Will you use parenting books and extrapolate how the ideas about temperament would translate to adults? Or will you slog through scientific literature in a field that may not be your own, extrapolating how to apply the nitty gritty of a fifty-year longitudinal study to your own desire to pin down the character you’re writing? Which choice is better for you will depend on your background. Personally, I stuck with the parental layperson’s route.
The model of temperament I talked about at Balticon is the Thomas and Chess model. It’s more complex and unwieldy than, say, the Myers-Briggs personality model, but has the advantage of being more evidence-based and therefore probably closer to what really happens in the world. If Myers-Briggs seems unwieldy, with 16 possible trait combinations, the Thomas and Chess model is more so, with 81. I don’t recommend trying to carry all of them in your head. I do recommend thinking about each of the nine traits as a continuum and asking whether the character you’re writing is at either extreme for each continuum.
In the 1950’s, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess began a longitudinal study of temperament in infants, following their subjects into adulthood. They assessed their subjects on a continuum ranging from high to low in each of nine areas, which they called temperament traits. Each of these areas of temperament can affect how well a person fits within their family, their school, their culture, etc. Where along each continuum each person scored in infancy turned out to stay surprisingly consistent over the course of their life. According to Thomas and Chess, a person who comes into the world as, say, high in activity, irregular in rhythm, middling in sensitivity, and so forth, will probably still be very close to those initial ratings well into adulthood, no matter what life throws at them in between.
The Nine Temperament Traits Are:
1. Activity Level
2. Biological Rhythms
4. Intensity of Reaction
Some of these seem pretty obvious in meaning, but they benefit from a little clarifying. Biological rhythm ranges from more regular to less regular, and in young children is mostly assessed by looking at when kids eat and sleep. Sensitivity is specifically about the physical senses— a person may have such a high threshold that they seek stimulation others might find overwhelming, or have a threshold so low that stimuli most people barely notice would be unbearable. Intensity refers to emotional intensity. Approach/Withdrawal is mainly about how a person responds to the new and unfamiliar.
Mood can be a little tricky to assess, depending on goodness of fit with the environment. A kid who is regular as clockwork, averse to unfamiliar things, and inclined to give up whenever they meet resistance may be unhappy in an environment that fits poorly with those traits, and then it’s unclear what their default mood would be. But some people are somber no matter how well they fit in their environment, and some people really are nearly unsinkable even in adversity. Thomas and Chess would say those people’s temperaments are just at opposite extremes on the mood continuum.
Goodness of fit between individual and environment, not a preordained value judgment about good traits and bad traits, is what determines whether a person’s temperament is going to make their life easier or harder, or make that person easier or harder for others to get along with. For a writer’s purposes, this is an area where thinking about character blends into thinking about worldbuilding.
Lately I have been systematically using these temperament traits when beginning to develop new characters, both adults and children, by adding those nine continua to my character profile template. They’re also good for setting up conflicts and connections among characters. Put a high-approaching person in a courtship with a high-withdrawing person and watch them drive each other crazy! Put two people in an ensemble cast who have no other temperament ratings in common but for being low-distractibility in a situation where only perfect focus can save everybody, and get an unlikely-seeming but satisfying alliance.
It can also be useful to bear in mind which traits are least likely to change about a character, so that when you want experience to change them, you can make a more psychologically believable decision about what kind of change you want to produce.
In a later public post, maybe next week, I’ll be putting up the hand-outs from the panel titled, “I’m Ready to Query! Now What?”
So, what do you all think? It’s a lot to play with. I’d love to hear what you make of it.