How to Use Psychology in Fiction to Engage Readers

How to Use Psychology in Fiction to Engage Readers

Just remember – only use your new-found psychology powers on fictional people. Unless you take it really far and become a real therapist! If that’s the case, I know some people with voices in their heads who might be able to use your help.

Creating realistic and compelling characters is an essential skill for a fiction writer to develop. As readers, we want to identify with the characters of a story. I can’t count the times I’ve thought while reading, Oh yeah, my mom does that, or I’d feel like that if it happened to me!

Most characters are not simply a person the writer knows – they are usually fusions drawn from years of observing human nature. This is a fine way to write (really, no complaints here!). But you can amp up your characters and deepen readers’ engagement with a little armchair psychology.

Here’s a few ideas for how to use psychology in fiction to engage readers.
  • body mapConnect with the reader on a more visceral level. Where in the body are the characters’ emotions experienced? What does that feel like physically?
  • Deepen motivations. What insecurity is being provoked by the events of the story? Does she have needs that are not being met? How does that make her feel? (See, I’m a pro at sounding like a therapist!)
  • Expand the spectrum of body language and facial expressions. Can you move beyond sweaty palms and furrowed brows?
  • Create stronger connections between characters. How do antagonists help the hero grow as a person? How do the protagonist’s friends complement his strengths and weaknesses?CognitiveFunctions
  • Use the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory to help flesh out your characters’ personalities.  Is he intuitive? Thoughtful? Does she require time to recharge, or is she energized by being around people?

A word of warning: as with all research, be careful not to slip into unending exposition. “Show, don’t tell” is as important as ever. The differences should be subtle, but your research will show and help your characters ring true to readers.

Would you use psychology research in your writing? Leave me a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.

Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor. She considers herself a hobbit lives in an itty-bitty town a few miles from Charlotte, NC with her family and a menagerie. Jeni is a participating editor in #P2P, #RevPit and #ShoreIndie. You can visit her blog and learn more about her editing at

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