Defense Mechanisms: Which one does your character use?

Your character, and we’re talking your hero, anti-hero, protagonist, antagonist, minor supporting character that’s there’s purely to mirror your main character, has a wound. A wound which was probably inflicted in childhood and now colours the way they see the world. A wound that will be the basis of your character arc, but also the plot that’s going to challenge it over and over and over. It’s the healing and transformation your reader wants to see, actually, it’s the healing and transformation your readers wants to step inside of and experience.

What wounds do is spawn misbeliefs, ones that distort how we see the world, how we view people’s motivations, and colour how we act in crucial plot turning points. It’s these misbeliefs, these cognitive processes that psychology has done a truckload of research on, and can help you as a writer. Because when the world – I mean plot – challenges your character’s misbelief, Freud and a whole host of psychoanalysts have predicted what he or she will do.

Defense mechanisms, in a nutshell, are ways we think or behave to protect ourselves from feeling bad, sad or mad. It’s how we shift our awareness from unpleasant thoughts like ‘Oh god, I’m a total failure’, sidestep feelings such as anxiety, shame or guilt, and conveniently overlook behaviours like inhaling that big slice of New York cheesecake sitting in the fridge. Whilst you’re reading these why not see if you’ve ever noticed a loved one or workmate do something like this…or whether you’ve done any of these yourself.

  1. Denial

Here, your character will simply refuse to accept the truth (we all know reality can sometimes be much too confronting and painful). As a psychologist I wish I could earn fifty cents for every time I’ve heard ‘I’m not addicted, I can quit any time I want…’ because if that was the case I’d be sitting in a much larger room, one with a spiral staircase…leading to the top of a turret. On the other hand, if you’ve just been through a traumatic event like an earthquake, a bit of denial is probably quite protective.

  1. Repression

In this case, your character will just plain old forget. They may no longer remember a car accident, a trip to the dentist or being mauled by werewolves. The down side is that unless you bury that sucker real deep, it’s probably going to skip straight back into your consciousness at some stage.

  1. Regression

With regression, your character will revert back a childlike emotional state so they can process the unpleasant feeling like anxiety, fear or anger in a more uncomplicated way. You’ll see this in children sometimes when they revert to more ‘babyish’ behaviours like bedwetting, alternatively I’ve seen a nine year old asking to be rocked and bottle fed. Although sometimes us adults aren’t averse to climbing into bed, pulling up the blankets and hiding in our doona cave during times of stress.

  1. Displacement

Oh dear, this one is sounding a little too familiar…In displacement, a character (not a psychologist/mother/writer) transfers their feelings, usually anger, onto an innocent victim. A totally hypothetical example would be having a hard day at work, like maybe a parent got cranky and accusing (where professional boundaries prevent you from reacting angrily back), then coming home and blowing your top at your hapless husband for not unstacking the dishwasher…that was still dirty. Totally hypothetical of course…In more extreme cases aggression can be redirected to harming animals or other vulnerable targets like women or children.

  1. Projection

Projection involves taking those nasty thoughts, feelings or impulses and conveniently transferring them onto someone who doesn’t have those nasty thoughts, feelings or impulses. Especially when those thoughts are considered unacceptable (oh, like homosexuality for example). In other words, other people become the carriers of your own flaws (it’s much easier to sleep at night when other people are the ones responsible for our misery, not us). Other examples of projection could be a character going all mean-girl about someone’s physical appearance when in fact this anger and distaste is a protection mechanism veiling their own deeper body-image issues. Or husband with a hostile nature might attribute this hostility to his wife and say she has an anger management problem.

  1. Reaction Formation

Hamlet summed this one up quite nicely when he said ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’. In reaction formation your character will convert unwanted or dangerous feelings into their polar opposite. Let’s say your married-with-three-kids protagonist harbours a deep, lustful attraction to her neighbour. Not wanting to admit these feelings she expresses them as antagonism and dislike, possibly bordering on hatred. Conversely, anger and hatred that can’t be expressed may pour out as saccharine sweetness and artificial affection.

  1. Sublimation

Along the same lines of Reaction Formation, Sublimation involves channelling unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. This one brings up images of Christian Grey pounding the pavement to channel all that sexual frustration (oh dear, I may have just let it slip that I’m a 50 Shades fan…). Refocusing our unacceptable or harmful impulses into something more productive can help channel energy that might otherwise cause some angst. I was a little confronted to find the suggesting that some psychologists are drawn to their profession to help others to compensate for difficulties they experienced in their early lives. It seems too much research is not always a good thing huh? A more extreme example would be someone becoming a surgeon to channel aggressive impulses or the desire to ‘cut’.

  1. Intellectualisation

So your character just got some bad news. Distressing news. Anything from being kicked out of their house to a serious health diagnosis. What’s one way he or she could deal with it? Do some manic Googling. Basically research, research, research. With intellectualisation, rather than deal with the painful emotions, you focus your attention and energy on unemotional and civilised, detached and safe information. You’re not denying this disaster has occurred, but you’re also not acknowledging the emotional consequences. You take your neutralising intellect and zap!

  1. Rationalisation

For the last but not least, I challenge any reader to put their hand up if they HAVEN’T engaged in the odd bit of Rationalisation. When we do something we’re not too proud of or we discover something we find a little hard to swallow, we basically explain it away. Some examples would include Trudy evading paying taxes then rationalises it by talking about how the government wastes money and our tax system is unfair. Or James failing to get into a chosen university then saying he didn’t want to go there anyway. Shy and introverted Ben saying he’s not dating anyone at the moment because he’s focusing on his career. Tania arguing smoking is the only way she can cope because her husband just ran off with her personal trainer. My guess is we’ve all done it and so have some of our characters.

As a reader, I would say every one of us would understand if we saw a protagonist doing any one of these, probably because we’ve all dabbled in a few of them ourselves. It’s a very primal way we can connect our readers with our characters. The double bonus is that what you have here fellow writers, is ‘show, don’t tell’. If Mandy witnessed the murder of her little brother but can’t remember it, we know she’s hurting. If Bernadette is proclaiming and protesting how much she totally hates the new guy, then readers are going to suspect something is up. Seeing Don madly researching the latest treatments for leukaemia as his wife fades into the sheets is going to tug on our heartstrings.

So, have you just discovered one of your characters was already using one of these? Or just like me, did you just decide that someone in your book is going to have some features of Rationalisation/Projection/Denial etc.? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Have a wonderful week,



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