Unhelpful thinking styles: which one does your character use?

We’ve talked about character wounds, those painful past events that change who your character is, and how central they are to a character arc. Essentially, they are a thinking pattern rooted in our past, one that will affect how your character perceives the world, and ultimately the choices they make. And because psychologists have spent so much time exploring why and how we think, we get to benefit. Those who study our minds have explored the broad belief patterns we tend to see, which most of us can easily identify in each of our characters.

Psychology labelled them ‘unhelpful thinking styles’. They are basically a mental short cut or bias that is born of our wound. We all have them (unless you’re the Dalai Lama, Ghandi or Oprah…but I’m pretty sure they don’t read my blog so I’m not including them in this statement. Actually, I’m almost certain Ghandi doesn’t…), which means your characters will have them. Let’s do a quick run through, and you can see if you can recognise one, two or more. You’ll also see they’ve been labelled ‘unhelpful’ for a reason…

All or Nothing Thinking

Right or wrong, good or bad, there are no in-betweens, no shades of grey (BTW loved the trilogy!), no middle ground. This is a tendency to extremes, and ignoring or devaluing anything in between.

I have to get an A or I’m a failure… (if only my students could see this!)

If my partner and I have an argument, we have a bad relationship…

Either I do it right or not at all! (my son, Mr 14, should read this)

yashica-711794_640 (2).jpgMental Filter

A sort of tunnel vision, where we focus on one part of a situation, usually the negative bits, at the expense of the positive bits.

We went to Hawaii over the holidays, the weather wasn’t great, we got lost twice, and the hotel mini bar was overpriced.

Eeyore is pretty good at this little unhelpful thinking style.

Over Generalisation

You take ONE instance in the past, and generalise it to EVERY situation in the future.

You NEVER help around the house.

I ALWAYS stuff up my presentations.

ALL I ever do is lie around in bed.


Labelling is a little like over generalisation for people. It’s where we make global statements about people, sometimes based on just one incident.

I’m such an idiot.

He is so inconsiderate.

She’s so stupid.

My character, Casey, does this in Make it Count. She labels her love interest swiftly and conclusively — all because it makes it easier to fight the attraction.

Jumping to Conclusions

This one is self-explanatory, and characters can do this in two ways;

Mind reading – a person glances at your character in the corridor – she’s thinking I’m having a bad hair day / he thought the presentation I did this morning was crap / she can just tell I have a crush on her brother!

Or predictive thinking – you have the opportunity to pitch your new novel to a publisher – I’m going to forget the name of my main character / that clever plot twist in scene two/my use of fabulous one-liners. This is going to be TERRIBLE! A sure-fire way to ramp up your characters stress levels or anxiety.

owl-964011_640 (2).jpgMagnification and Minimisation

Also known as the binocular effect. You look through one end and magnify other people’s attributes, then turn them around and minimise your own.

I was just lucky.

They were just being polite.

He caught me on a good day.

Emotional Reasoning

Where we take our emotions as evidence of the truth. It’s probably easiest to demonstrate with some examples.

I feel stupid therefore I must be stupid.

I feel anxious, obviously something bad is about to happen.


Okay, this one I’ve perfected. The tendency to put unreasonable demands on yourself.

I must be a fabulous mother, the best psychologist ever, a witty, eloquent, best-selling writer, oh, and why haven’t I solved world peace?

You place these expectations on yourself and how do you feel when you don’t meet them? Guilty. Disappointed. Inadequate.


Taking full responsibility for external events, conveniently ignoring other factors.

It’s my fault my son didn’t do well in his maths test, I should have made him study more.

I’m to blame for the loss of the contract at work.

If your character thinks like this, they’ve got a big burden to carry.


nuclear-2136244_640 (2).jpg

The classic tendency to make a mountain out of a molehill.

I have chest pain…I mu

st be having a heart attack!

I feel depressed this morning…I’m going to be like 

this forever.

Chance of rain…Batten down the hatches!

Characters tending to anxiety are likely to think like this, as will anyone with a propensity for drama.

See any of these in your characters? I was going to give examples of fictional characters for most of these unhelpful thinking styles, but I decided against it. Why? Because I want to hear about your characters. I’d love to hear what their unhelpful thinking style, how it was born, what it means for them. How does it impact on their behaviour? What wrong turns has it lead them down? And do they figure it out – does their character arc involve the conscious realisation they’ve been seeing things wrong? Comments and feedback always make me smile. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,





  1. Very useful article. I will use it as I think about introducing new characters. Where do you put the person who judges everything by logic and their acceptance of fact dismissing any emotional or spiritual reasoning?


    1. Hmm, interesting question! What you describe sounds like a mental filter, the person only takes in the information they want to hear. It would also be considered a ‘confirmation bias’ – where we only perceive the information that supports our perspective (its a process strongly involved in stereotyping – all psychologists are crazy themselves so they only notice evidence that supports this belief, either ignoring or discounting information to the contrary.) Does either of those sound applicable?


  2. I won’t mention my character here because I don’t talk about what I’m writing while I’m writing it; it tends to dissipate the energy. But the questions you ask in your last paragraph tell me I’m on the right track. Thanks for that, anyway. Great (and serendipitous for me) article.

    Liked by 1 person

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