Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Using Core Beliefs to Create Authentic Characters




I took this in Wilson’s Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. When you look at this picture, what do you think?

Obviously, there’s a million different thoughts you might have, ranging from okay, some dead trees, to cool mix of life and death/light and shadow, to when are the Ringwraiths going to ride out?


This picture was taken on a subzero day in Wisconsin. I think, wow, it looks like these barren tree branches are covered with glittering diamonds. My husband thinks, ugh, Wisconsin winters.

In my day job, I’m a school psychologist. School psychologists are one of the mental health professionals in the schools. Translation: I like to dig into people’s brains (not literally) and figure out what makes them tick.

As I writer, I try to apply psychology when creating my characters, and use it to guide their reactions to events and interactions with other characters, as well as to find their unique voice.

When thinking about what makes people (and therefore my characters) tick, what’s made them who they are, a lot of it stems from their past experiences. Our past helps shape who we become, how we see the world, and how we interact with events and people. Our past experiences, stemming from birth and how our parents raised us, impact how our brain develops. It creates our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

So this is where I try to start with my characters. I don’t plot out their entire life story, but I think through how their parents raised them, the nature of the parent-child relationship, and general family things like siblings and extended family. Was it a close, intimate bond? Distant? Inconsistent? Who did they feel most connected to? Or were they connected to no one? Then I think through both positive and negative major life events that impacted them: deaths, moves to new communities, bullying, parental substance abuse, births of new family members, unique experiences, travel, etc. How did these impact how they see themselves, others, and the world?

Next, I consider who my character looks up to. Who is their role model? All of this creates my character’s core beliefs. Our core beliefs are things we generally accept as 100% true. Core beliefs dictate our whole lives and how we operate in the world. They can be healthy or unhealthy, protective or harmful. They can often cause tunnel vision to facts that challenge them.

Examples of core beliefs about self: I’m a good (or bad) person, I’m intelligent (or dumb), I’m worthy (or unworthy) of love, I can usually accomplish my goals (or not), I’m attractive (or ugly), I’m unique (or abnormal), I’m exceptional.  The rules don’t apply to me. People don’t understand me because I’m special. I deserve attention and praise. I can’t ask for help because that means I’m a loser. I have to do everything perfectly. My needs aren’t important. If I express negative feelings in a relationship, he/she will leave me. I’m helpless. I’m out-of-control. I don’t deserve good things. I’m going to be rejected/abandoned. It’s always my fault. These last few are big ones I see in children who have suffered abuse and neglect. They may start acting in ways to trigger rejection, so at least the rejection happens on their terms.

Examples of core beliefs about others: People are generally good (or bad), people see the best (or worst) in me or others, certain groups of people are more dangerous than others. It’s safe (or unsafe) to trust others. People should respect me. If I let people in, they will just betray me. People only look out for themselves. People always take and never give. Other people have all the luck. Other people have it easier.

Examples of core beliefs about the world: The world is generally safe (or dangerous), the world is fair (or unfair), there is a higher being, the world/God determines fate, my actions can impact the world and my fate, the world is beautiful (or ugly). Seeing only the bad actions or others and not the good. I can leave my door unlocked at night, or I need three dead bolts.Also the classic glass is half empty or half full or rose-colored glasses.

Now, putting my school psychologist hat on, I’m shifting into a counseling framework called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This posits our beliefs shape our perceptions of events and interactions, and shape our THOUGHTS about events. Our thoughts and interpretations of events then trigger our EMOTIONS in response. Then our thoughts and emotions cause us to ACT. Our actions are directly, causally related to the way we perceive and interpret events, which are created by our beliefs.

Our thoughts and perceptions don’t occur in isolation—they are fueled by our past experiences, which have created our world view and our core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

Going back to the tree picture…. I grew up in Wisconsin. I don’t always love winter, but I try to find beauty in everything. My husband loves me so much, he endures Wisconsin winters for me, but despises every second of it. These experiences created our core beliefs about winter: a thing or beauty or something to be endured.


The example I always use with children involves a dog.

Let’s say you were bit by a dog when you were younger, or your parents were constantly warning you to stay away from dogs because they’re dirty/dangerous. This may shape a core belief in you that dogs are bad. Therefore, when you see a cockapoo walking down the street, your thought might be “It’s going to bite me!” Your emotion might be fear. Your action might be to cross the street. If you’d never had those experience, your thought might be, “Oh, look at that cute dog!” Your feeling might range from indifference to happiness. Your action might be to just walk on by or even ask to pet it. But it all stems from beliefs about dogs.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches people to recognize and challenge core beliefs and initial thoughts.

For the writer, digging into character’s pasts, and figuring out their core beliefs, can help figure out who characters are, how they might think, feel, and therefore guide their actions in ways that feel authentic and real act in a way that is authentic and real. It helps find their voice.

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