Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Category Archives: Psychology for Writers

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.

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