I’m taking AP Psychology this year in school, and it has been really eye opening in the point of view of storytelling. Today I’m going to talk about a way you can make your story more believable by using something I learned about in class.
Our stories have to be believable or else people won’t want to read them and we won’t want to write them. There is a glory to escaping into a story that you came up with, a world that has never existed before you created it. It’s amazing and you want it to feel real. Readers want to escape into your story, too, so you want it to feel real for them. Or else, the story won’t suck you in. It won’t trap you when you least expect it. It won’t be a good escape.
The point is, we need our stories to be real.
In reality, there are these things called defence mechanisms that we use unconsciously to protect us from stressful or anxiety-inducing situations. There are plenty of them, but I’m only cover a select few in this post.
Since these are unconscious things, we don’t even notice them enough in reality to think about putting them in a book. It’s like the little things we don’t notice, like itching your nose or breathing. All of these things that we don’t notice make stories even more real when they are added because it recreates reality for the reader.
The first defence mechanism we are going to talk about is repression. This one is well-known, but commonly misunderstood. Repression is where the unconscious mind blocks a memory or thought in order to protect the conscious mind. There are a few things that you need to know if you are going to write with this (but do more research if you are going to).
Firstly, if a character is repressing a memory or thought, they won’t know it unless there is a gap of time or part of a memory missing. Usually, though, the mind can fill in easier to tolerate explanations for those gaps. For example, if a character had a traumatic experience, they just wouldn’t know it happened. Instead, they just will connect the dots between what happened before and after the experience and come up with a logical explanation of what happened and don’t question it. It’s similar to denial, except that with denial, they vaguely know that it happened but haven’t processed it yet.
Secondly, if a character is repressing a memory then they don’t forget it forever. The memory is blocked not erased. This means that something can trigger them to remember it, or bits and pieces of it. Over time, too, they can slowly remember. This is definitely one of the things I can’t wait to put in my next book.
And finally, repression is kind of rare to be revealed in a person. Odds are, many of us repress things and don’t know it, but for it to be some kind of life changing memory that is brought up in conversation a lot, it’s unlikely. So keep in mind that this isn’t something to happen in every character in your book.
You know, unless the aliens use their devices to force our minds to repress memories. That’s just another situation altogether.
The second defence mechanism I’m going to talk about is Displacement. If you’ve ever watched How I Met Your Mother, you might recognize this as the chain of screaming. Displacement is when the character gets their feelings for one person out on a less-threatening person or thing. It’s like if your boss is really mean and you can’t yell at him/her. So you accidently snap at one of your friends. Maybe you go off on someone for making a little mistake. That’s you putting your feelings toward your boss on someone else.
This is more common than you’d think, even if it is in little ways. So feel free to litter your book with displaced feelings. It makes for drama in the characters and great drama in your plot line.
Finally, the last kind of defence mechanism on the list for today is Reaction Formation. This is a big word for something that we might all be familiar with. When someone has a feeling or impulse for something that isn’t acceptable, or may cause stress and anxiety, then they may do the opposite. An example would be when a character, let’s call him John, likes another character. Let’s call her Sarah. John likes Sarah, but he doesn’t want to admit it. So instead, he picks on her and calls her names. It’s not a conscious thing a lot of times, even though it seems like it.
On the test, I kid you not, there was another example that was kind of messed up. It was something about a mom hating her kid and because she didn’t want to despise her child she kept her under strict rules and was over protective. Yeah… I mean, it makes sense with the defence mechanism.
My challenge for you is to come up with a situation in your book where one of these defence mechanisms can be used. You don’t have to put it in, of course, but look at how much one of these can propel your plot forward! Just come up with a way one of these could fit in to make your story seem more real, and then decide on whether you want to use it. Maybe you will end up working it into your next story.
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Thank you for reading, and don’t stop writing!