Few novels can succeed without rich character development. How we identify, or fail to identify, with a story’s characters can determine whether or not we keep flipping the pages.
Writers have different techniques for developing characters. They can be based on persons close to the writer, celebrities, historical characters, or an amalgam of persons with whom the writer has either read about or shared contact.
Our characters’ personalities have a lot to do with how the story unfolds. Like us, they make choices, and those choices have consequences. Whether or not a reader finds a character “believable,” has a lot to do with whether their decisions make sense to us about what we know about them. This is where schemas become important.
The developmental psychiatrist Jean Piaget defined schemas as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” (1) Wadsworth described schema as index cards for the brain. (2) Tompkins and McGee define schema as “a mental bundle of knowledge that holds everything we know about a topic.” (3) Therefore, schema are patterns of thought or behavior, based on collections of acquired knowledge, which influence how we attend to, interpret, or respond to new information. Schema are the lenses through which we experience the world. They allow us to quickly synthesize and respond to new information without complex thought. Once established, schema tend to remain fixed even when challenged with contradictory information. (4)
For example, let’s say you run into a dragon on your way to the store. You know it’s a dragon because under your schema index card for dragons you identify the characteristics of large flying reptiles. Based on books you’ve read, let’s say “The Hobbit,” you have other information filed about dragons, notably that they are dangerous, not to be trusted, and will likely eat you. Based on this schema you have for dragons, your first thought may be, “Oh crap I’m going to die,” and your action might be to run away. Now let’s say your only experience with dragons is the book Eragon. In this case, your schema about dragon behavior may be quite different. You still may be frightened because dragons are a little intimidating, but your first thought might be “Wow, that’s a dragon,” and your first action might be to smile and wave awkwardly. Based on this example can you see how schemas can result in prejudices?
Now think about the characters in your story. What are the seminal experiences that define them? How do these past events influence their current interaction with others and their environment? Do the character’s words and actions match with what the reader knows about them? As you write, remember that schemas are like personalities: they are difficult to change. If you’re going to change a character’s schema, or make them act in a way contrary to an existing schema, there has to be a good reason for it; if approached intentionally and with care this could result in powerful character development.
- Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
- Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.
- Tompkins G.E. & McGee L.M. (1993) Teaching Reading With Literature Case Studies to Action Plans
- Nadkarni, S.; Narayanan, V. K. (2007). “Strategic schemas, strategic flexibility, and firm performance: The moderating role of industry clockspeed.” Strategic Management Journal. 28 (3): 243–270