When Frodo agreed to take that cursed ring to Mount Doom, he didn’t know he was going to join a group of fellow fantastical and heroic beings. Other famous characters, like Ellie in John Marsden’s Tomorrow when the War Began, had already chosen most of their group when an unexpected invasion occurred. Whether we find ourselves as part of a group voluntarily – like joining a club or making friends, or involuntarily – like being part of a family or going on a life-changing quest, groups come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a handful of likeminded people or a population of many, highly organised to the point of military precision or an informal gathering, short-term with a focused goal or lasting a lifetime. And because this human tendency exists, then psychology has studied it.And if psychology has studied it, then writers can use that knowledge in their world-building and plot-crafting. Because the strongest characters, the most powerful stories, are the ones that are true-to-life. Even if your world is high fantasy or futuristic or full of zombies, understanding how your character will feel and behave, and how the characters around them will feel and behave, provides a solid foundation for a powerful read. Why? Simply because the more true-to-life your story is, the more the reader can relate and connect with the universal, primal processes that you’ve captured.
So what can psychology tell you about your story? Well, your character has probably joined or formed their group for a specific reason. It could me one, or a combination of the following:
- In order to accomplish things that they can’t on their own (like a half-ling staring down the barrel of a …or a football player)
- Due to an innate need to belong to a group: this stems from evolutionary pressures which recognised that we are more likely to survive (and reproduce) in groups rather than in isolation
- As part of their identity: research has shown that an important part of our self-worth comes from identification with particular groups. A powerful reference point for our identity, it’s also why social rejection is one of life’s most painful experience
Once your character has joined a group, psychology has found that groups tend to go through stages of development.
During the early stages of group development members try to orient themselves to the group. They will investigate and evaluate each other and the group as a whole. Psychology predicts your character will be polite as they get a feel for the other characters they are now with. As a general rule, the more the group members accept each other, the more their commitment to the group will increase.
The next thing members will do, quite possibly including your protagonist, is try to influence the group so that it best fits their own needs. Characters are likely to become more assertive about the group’s direction and what they see their own role to be. This is the classic stage where you see conflict arise, because although you’ve brought this medley of characters together with some sort of common ground, they’re all different. Which means different opinions on processes or actions or goals. Hostility and aggression may arise, but feelings of excitement and hope for the potential this group can pose are also possible. Your book could have both…
Like all systems (human or not), your group is going to try to reach equilibrium. Members will try to reconcile the conflict and develop a common sense of purpose. Norms and rules are established, along with a sense of commitment. If individuals begin to diverge from the group, the group may try to resocialise them (anybody else getting images of dystopian societies trying to subdue the masses?). This stage can either stabilise a group, or really explore its flaws and cracks.
Next your character, and their group, are going to try and perform their task or goal (this is feeling very ‘third act’ for all the story structure fans out there, which totally includes me). Each member will operate within their roles and try to solve the hurdles your plot has thrown at them in order to throw the ring into Mount Doom, try and to survive an unexpected invasion, achieve their shared goal.
In this final stage, your group will either skip off into the sunset with their arms linked, or dissolve, or do something in between. Depending on the dynamics that you’ve created (or been allocated to describe because you’ve got one of those characters that takes on a life of their own) they could meet every Sunday for barbecued shrimp, or they might retire to their respective corner of Middle Earth, but if any members believe that the benefits of staying in the group no longer outweigh the costs, then they may disengage – and they can do this gracefully or not-so-gracefully.
The really interesting part is that recent research has shown that groups often develop in ways that aren’t linear (we humans do like to be unpredictable and complicated). They may circle and backtrack any of the stages, maybe skip them. They may wallow in the Norming stage until a deadline comes along. What I think is fascinating, and a gold-mine for the writer, is the complexity that your unique set of characters can bring to these broad stages. Consider whether an individual’s involvement in the group is voluntary or involuntary. What if a character refuses to comply with norms and rules? Will the group resocialise them or reject them? What if your character rejects the group? Are your group members complementary or contradictory? How will they negotiate this when establishing their group rules and norms? There’s a kaleidoscope of possibilities, only limited by your writer’s imagination.
What’s your thoughts? Have you recognised any of these group dynamics in your own experiences? Can you use this information in something you’ve written? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,
Did you know I also write fiction? You can sample my sweet, beautiful stories of discovering love beyond your comfort zones for FREE with the prequel novella (works wonderfully as a standalone) of my Prime Prophecy Series.
Check it out HERE!