Being the social creatures we are, relationships are the pivot points of our lives, and not surprisingly, those of our characters. A good book will capture a relationship’s capacity to bring us deep satisfaction, profound joy, or heart-breaking sorrow. A freakin’ awesome book will capture the struggles, the triumphs and the losses that a character will experience, sometimes manage to create themselves, on that journey. How? Let me show you.
At the heart of a relationship is a foundation of trust, undermine that trust and problems are born. If you have a character who struggles to trust, to connect with others – like a tormented love interest, the loner detective, a spinster aunt – you probably already know that’s it’s your characters backstory that made them this way. But psychology can give you a deeper understanding of why, and how that will influence and impact their emotions and behaviour. And what psychology knows you can use to your advantage to create realistic, emotion-driven characters your readers won’t want to leave.
Influential psychiatrist John Bowlby was the first to suggest we form our mental frameworks for relationships when we are infants, and that these working models guide us for many years to come. It’s a concept that today we intuitively agree with – actually some of us think it’s pretty darned obvious – but back in the 1980’s this was news. It sparked a flurry of research in the decades that followed on what is now called attachment theory. Attachment theory states that a strong emotional attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical to healthy personal development. It’s a fascinating topic that I’ve seen shape my own characters, and you probably have too even if you didn’t know the technical labels.
Attachment is seen as secure or insecure, and our attachment style is formed in our early years and are apparent early on. Babies who learn their parents are going to respond when they are distressed develop a secure attachment. These babies cry in distress when their primary carer leaves and then beam happily when she returns.
On the other hand, those with insecure attachments have learnt that their primary carer isn’t trustworthy or reliable. They show one of two patterns. Anxious babies cling and cry when their mother leaves, but greet her with anger or apathy when she returns. Avoidant babies are generally more detached, not reacting on exit or return. The major causes of insecure attachment are neglect and abuse. Both instances lead to emotional and physical withdrawal and reduce a parent’s ability to respond to their child. Other causes include separation from a primary caregiver (e.g. due to illness, death, divorce or adoption), a young or inexperienced mother who lacks parenting skills, and frequent moves or placements – such as children who spend their early years in orphanages or a succession of foster homes or repeated changes in nannies or day care centres (hello backstory!).
What does all this mean for your character? If they’re a social worker, heck, even a cop, and they throw some of these terms around your character will have depth and believeability (according to spell check that’s not a word, pfft). But I’m really interested in what this means for our characters when they grow up and form their own relationships because this is the bit we’re usually writing about, and it’s the part that readers are flipping your pages to devour as fast as their grey matter can decode.
People who have a secure attachment style report having satisfying relationships that are happy, friendly, based on mutual trust and enduring. They see others as good-hearted and have faith in romantic love. These are the happy, well-adjusted couples and families we all admire and aspire to be.
On the other hand, avoidant lovers fear intimacy and believe that romantic love is doomed to fade (sound like any romance heroes you know?), whilst anxious lovers report a love life full of emotional highs and lows, obsessive tendencies and extreme jealousy (add some sociopathic or narcissistic tendencies and you’ve got yourself quite a twisted character…) Both forms of insecure attachment exhibit more psychological stress in response to relationship conflict than those who are securely attached. Any one of these scenarios makes for gripping, sometimes painful reading. For some, it will be a story they can relate to.
So, you have a character whose mother was neglectful or abusive, and didn’t adequately care for him/her in their formative years. What’s their future? Are they doomed for all eternity to have conflicted, short-lived relationships? The evidence is mixed. Certainly, people who are secure tend to have more long lasting relationships. But for the insecure ones, it’s harder to predict because the results are inconsistent. This is because although attachment styles are modestly stable over time, but they’re not set in stone (or DNA in this case). Research suggests that people can continuously revise their own attachment styles in response to relationship experiences. In other words, we are profoundly shaped by situations we find ourselves in, and by the relationships around us.
So if your character had a mother that was more focused on getting her next fix, followed by repeated experiences that people can be trusted, they are likely to self-sabotage and self-destruct. Those are the tragic stories that spell out the realities of some people’s lives.
But give your character a strong parent figure, a wise mentor, a patient partner, and their character arc can be a deeply moving, even inspirational, journey (*sigh* I really love those stories…).
Is this someone in your book? Maybe it’s a character that you’ve read and loved? Can you see yourself working some of this knowledge into the book you’re crafting right now? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
Have a wonderful week,