Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Applying psychology to writing: Using icebergs to flesh out your characters


“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon.

So it’s called the Iceberg Theory, or the Theory of Omission: show the reader a small part of it and let them infer the rest. Make the reader feel rather than understand. The ultimate show, don’t tell.

I’m not here to talk about Hemingway’s writing style though. I’m here to talk about psychology and writing. I’m a school psychologist. My job is to try to understand and attempt to predict human behavior so I can help support the learning and success of all students, regardless of what lies beneath the surface.

So let’s talk about that iceberg, but for our characters. One Sigmund Freud was also a fan of icebergs. Freud said the human psyche is an iceberg. The conscious mind is what’s above the water, the tip of the iceberg: our thoughts, awareness in the moment, what we can think and talk about rationally, memories we can access. The preconscious mind, just below the surface, can be accessed and understood by our conscious mind. The unconscious mind goes deep below the surface, unseen. It’s our feelings and motivations and urges; it affects our behavior even though we’re not aware of it.

This too applies to the people we interact with. Two things to think about: observable behavior and the unobservable internal processes that drive behavior. Our massive human brains use observable behavior, such as the words people say, tone of voice, facial expression, hand/leg/body movements, and their actions to guess what people are thinking and feeling and then decide how to react. But we’re just using small pieces of information (the tip of the iceberg); beneath the surface are all those internal processes driving behaviors, including feelings, thoughts, fears, expectations, goals, all shaped by an entire lifetime of experiences that we can never fully know. These life experiences shape how we uniquely see the world and what we expect from it.

ANYWAY, let’s harness this psychology to make characters that feel real without too much telling. One of the joys of writing is that we writers are gods of our book (no blasphemy intended). We make that iceberg! We craft all of our characters’ brains—and they all should have their own unique brains, even the minor ones we see once as readers. We create their past experiences, which, in turn, creates the lens through which they see and understand the world, their motivations, and their relationships with others.

If you’re writing in 1st person (or 3rd person close), the reader can have access to 100% of that iceberg brain, depending on how insightful your character is. Characters are more interesting if they don’t always understand themselves and why they do things, because, in reality, unless you’re fully self-actualized as a human being, you probably don’t fully understand yourself. It makes characters feel more human to readers.

For secondary characters, or 3rd person omniscient, we as writers have access to the whole iceberg, all the internal processes. We should know why all our characters do what they do, but the reader only gets the tip of the iceberg, the behaviors the main character can observe.

So it becomes our jobs as writers to give clues about what’s going on below the surface through dialogue, body language, tone of voice, and action. The reader can infer and fill in the gaps as to why with their own feelings, as Hemingway strove to do in his writing. So writer friends, when you’re writing scenes and dialogue, know what your MC is thinking (obviously) but also articulate for yourself what the secondary characters are thinking and feeling in that moment, too. Then build their observable behavior around those thoughts. This is particularly important for emotional turning points.

I’ll be brave and share an example from my manuscript Hooligans in Shining Armour, mostly because I’m the “god” in this book so I know exactly what’s going on in the characters’ heads.


Context: the day before, Fiona’s big brother, Patrick, tells her she’s living in Belfast forever. Fiona is devastated and they have a bit of a screaming match about it. Fiona threw his phone and cracked the screen, which just ticked him off more. The next morning, Fiona disappears. This dialogue is after another brother finds her and brings her home.

Observable behavior: The tip of the iceberg

Patrick stared at me from the couch, his leg bouncing. And again, I felt bad. Especially since I just found out everything I knew about Dad and them was a lie. Patrick had just been the messenger.

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry I broke your phone.”

Patrick let out a slow breath. “I’m due for a new one anyway.” He nodded to the spot next to him.

Patrick’s internal processes:

Thoughts before Fiona walks into the house: Christ I’ve tried everything with that girl. And what did she expect to happen? Ma’s dead and she’s no family in the US. And why does she hate us so much? She’s not seen us in 15 years. She’s not even been here 5 days and she’s already wanting to run off on us like Ma. Perhaps I really should have warned her, but it was the day after the funeral and she might have just offed herself or something. And fecksake, why does she keep running out the front door like that? She knows it’s not safe, what with all those spide b*******s running about starting all kinds of trouble. Sh***, I shouldn’t have yelled at her yesterday. She’s just lost Ma and Da hasn’t exactly been around to give her a warm welcome. She’s a right to be scared. And what are we going to do about her university? I know f*** all about any of that. It’s the school’s job, Patrick. I need to be more patient. And now she’ll probably never talk to me again, after I worked so hard to get her talking in the first place, even watching that stupid model show of hers.

Feelings before she walks in: anger at himself for the way he handled himself the day before, fear that she’ll get lost or hurt while she’s running around in a town she doesn’t know, confusion about her behavior and motivations. He’s also angry at her, both for her selfish behaviors and because he’s spent 15 years wondering about her and now that they’re re-united, she just wants to leave. He’s also angry at his mom for abandoning them even though he knows she had to. Behind a lot of his anger is hurt.

Thoughts after she apologizes for breaking his phone: Thank Christ, she’s all right. Maybe she’s not done with me then. It’s just a phone anyway.

Feelings: relief that she’s returned home in one piece, hope that maybe he can find a way to help her come to love her family and her new life in Belfast, sadness that his sister is a complete stranger to him.

I haven’t even touched on Patrick’s past experiences here, but they’ve substantially shaped Patrick’s worldview and expectations for others.

Because this scene is from about halfway through the book, the reader would be able to use what they’ve already seen of Patrick to infer at least some of the thoughts and feelings underneath his observable behavior. Readers should also be able to get a sense of how the characters struggle to understand one anothers’ internal processes. So at this point in my novel, how Patrick and Fiona, for instance, are trying to understand each others’ internal processes and are starting to get better at it.


So, writer friends, think of all of your characters as icebergs. Know their internal processes (thoughts, feelings, past experiences, etc.) and use observable behavior to hint to the readers what’s going on under the surface.


Cherry, K. “The Conscious and Unconscious Mind: The Structure of the Mind According to Freud.” Retrieved on December 3, 2014 from

“Iceberg Theory,” Retrieved on December 3, 2014 from

3 thoughts on “Applying psychology to writing: Using icebergs to flesh out your characters

  1. Pingback: Gah, writing the first pages of your novel! | Sarah J. Carlson

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