What Makes a Character: Thought
Characters need to have their own lives as individuals who exists in their own right. They need to be separate from the writer, yet part of them, and that includes how they think.
How a character thinks will be defined by a series of factors: their place in the world, both physically and psychologically; their age and the age they are living in; their heritage and the impact this has had on their life so far; their gender and how others have treated them based upon this; their class and their relationship with other classes; and what their upbringing was and how it has shaped their personality. Understanding these is essential when working out how a character communicates and portrays themselves, however for a more introspective understanding it is important to analyse how the character thinks.
The way that we think is different from the way that we talk, most notably because we think in more than words, whereas using words is our main way of speaking. Thoughts can be concepts, images, something akin to video, scenarios we can step into and change, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, emotions, sensations, mechanics, or even processes. Within this, thoughts and learning styles can be categorised into four broad groups: visual, audio, words, and actions. Much like us, characters need to think in their own way.
These four methods of thinking and learning are ordered within the brain with one more prominent than the others, one weakest, and the others appearing somewhere between to form a hierarchy. How a character’s thoughts are interpreted, and in what terms, will have a dramatic difference depending on the way that they think, remember, and evaluate the situations they find themselves in.
Thought as sight tends to focus on specific images—often still images akin to photographs—though in some cases can be moving snippets similar to video. These images will be accessible, with visual thinkers able to almost immerse themselves into the image; the individual will most likely pay close attention to visual aspects of what they experience. Other sensory inputs such as smell and touch will return following an image as a memory. Visual thinkers tend to learn by observation.
Thinking through sound usually means recalling tone of voice, music, background sounds, and other auditory elements over any other sensory input. Sight, smell, taste, touch, and even the words used—in the case of dialogue—would be secondary to the sound itself. Audio thinkers are usually able to remember conversations accurately through an almost musical recall of voice notes, may talk to themselves aloud to process thoughts or situations, and often learn best through listening to others.
Language-based thinkers focus more on words than how they are said, thinking almost in scripted form. This lends itself best to the written word, though should not be favoured over other thinking styles. Sequences, codes, numbers, and specific quotes are more important than the general gist of conversations, and word-based thinkers are sometimes able to pre-empt others by predicting their word choices. These kinds of thinkers learn most effectively, fairly obviously, by reading and writing.
Action in thought means thinking through process, sometimes referred to as kinaesthetic thinking. These types of thinkers are able to understand sequential actions and consequence, thinking less of details and more of flow. Action-based thinkers are able to solve problems logically and through mental trial-and-error, and often prefer to avoid explanations or instructions, instead learning through doing. These individuals understand through action and learn through a hands-on approach.
Figuring out how a character thinks will allow you to understand why they make the choices they do, and better represent that on the page. Favouring one thinking style over another, much like in real life, will differentiate your characters and show them to each be unique. Learn to think as they do, so they can think on their own.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.