Why do they do what they do?


Whenever Taylor Swift has a bad break up, she puts the poor guy in a song.

I taunt my friends and tell them to watch out. I won’t put them in a song; I’ll write a whole book about them.

Uh, wrong. I could never do that. I’m a keeper of secrets. I’d make a terrible member of the paparazzi. I don’t like intruding. I don’t like airing people’s dirty laundry. I live by the journalistic principal “Do no harm.”

But, yeah, if your path crosses mine, you might end up as a character (or part of a character) in one of my manuscripts, but I would never reveal the secret of your identity, not unless you wanted me to–or unless you are already famous. Then you’re fair game.

Right now I have two manuscripts under my belt, and, yes, I deliberately modeled the characters after people who have stepped into my life. Of course, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. And I doubt these people will ever know the influence they made.

I named one minor character after a server at Red Robin, and I don’t remember why. Maybe I liked his name. Maybe not. Maybe it was just because I was really hungry at the time, and Red Robin has the most amazing onion rings. I am a magnet, I draw stories from people, people I don’t know. Maybe he told a cool story.

One of my characters in one of my manuscripts is based on Little Richard, yes, THAT Little Richard. The famous one–thus, the revelation of his identity.

I don’t know why. I guess his humbleness and gentleness touched my life second hand. He met my parents and was so kind to them that I’ll never forget how pleased they were to tell the story.

And, yes, Little Richard, is one of those celebrities I have chosen to pursue. Notice I didn’t say stalk. He lives close to me, but he’s so far away. Other people run into him all the time. But I don’t. Why not me? Why not me?

Maybe I would scare him. I don’t know. I do believe people’s paths cross for a reason. Maybe they don’t cross for a reason. God wrote the story. He knows.

I love analyzing people. Every person has a story, and an enticing motive makes a great story.

I’m also into pop psychology. I stumbled upon a theory of  the German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. It’s referred to as “character orientation.” Influenced by Freudian ideologies, Fromm asserted people have specific character traits which serve as powerful forces that guide their behavior and motive.

And people aren’t even consciously aware of them.

As a writer and a reader, I spend a great deal of time getting to know characters. I have to believe them in order to trust them. I have to trust them in order to like them. If I don’t like them, I won’t read the book. And, of course, if I don’t like my own characters, there’s no point in writing the story unless my protagonists win and the ones I don’t like get what’s coming to them. Is it okay to seek to revel in revenge if the plot is made up? I think so. I’m not vengeful in person.

But back to the personality analyses, psychologists have determined there are twenty-four character traits that fall under six categories, which are referred to as virtues. Four of these are nonproductive, the other two productive.

Remember if you are writing a book, you want to write it true, so you should make sure that your characters act true to their natures. If we go with Fromm’s research, our characters’ should fall within these parameters. If they do something uncharacteristic, then we should analyze their motives.


The following are considering nonproductive orientation characteristics. Think character flaws or antagonist traits:

  • Receptive Orientation Characters
    Wait passively for others to provide them with things they need
    Want others to provide them with love and attention and are reluctant to give these things away
    Lose loved ones because they have a hard time talking about their feelings or troubles
    Have a hard time letting go of past issues
    See minor or trivial conflicts as a conflict to their security with a loved one
    Lack creativity–REALLY lack creativity
    Are quiet
    Have a difficult time making decisions
    Lack confidence in their own abilities
  • Exploitative Orientation Characters
    Take whatever they want when they want it
    Do whatever they can to get whatever they want
    Have no qualms about stealing or taking something from someone else, even if they have no real desire for it
    Manipulate others
    Hate those they manipulate but rely on them but also hate themselves
    Love to lead and live in the ruling class
  • Hoarding Orientation Characters
    Save whatever they have
    Hold back their opinions
    Hold back their feelings
    Hold back their possessions
    Grasp and refuse to let go of love, power, or other people’s time
    Desire order
  • Marketing Orientation Characters
    View themselves as commodities
    Think they can sell their themselves based on their good qualities
    Possess very few positive qualities
    Are typically empty souls
    Choose mates on a commodity basis
  • Necrophilia Orientation Characters
    Love death
    Possesses passion to tear apart living things
    Destroy for the sake of destruction
    See no hope

The following are considered productive orientation characteristics. Think protagonist traits or redeeming qualities of conflicting characters:

  • “The Person Without a Mask” Orientation Characters — (Fromm came up with this title.)
    Accept freedom
    Accept responsibility
    Come from a family that loves
    Prefer reason to rules
    Prefer freedom to conformity
    Have learned to become one with the world
    Love all

So how long did it take you to shift from your character to yourself? Stop. Don’t do it. The story is NOT ABOUT YOU! Likewise, as you are writing, remember that your character is not YOU, and your character’s motives aren’t necessarily the same as your own.

Let’s be honest. Did you ditch your character and start analyzing yourself? Yeah, me too.

I thought I had myself all figured out. But then I took an online test based on character orientation. The first test I took said I possessed “hoarding orientation.” Ouch. I do desire order. I don’t like letting go of people I love. I took another test, and it said I possessed “receptive orientation.” Worse–I’m quiet, passive, insecure, and non-creative. Non-creative? BIG TIME OUCH!

Who believes these test anyway?

My suggestion? Stick to using these tests–for now–to analyze your characters, not yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be drawn away from what matters right now–your writing. We writers are neurotic already. We don’t need anything else negative to self analyze.

Oh the crazy things we do.

Choose either your own character or a character from your favorite book. Take one of the tests below and answer each question as your character would answer it–not yourself. This exercise is great practice to help you see through the eyes of a character.

“I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.”  ~  John Locke

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”  ~ James 3:13

“If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.”  ~  Mother Teresa

“A long, long time ago / I can still remember how that music used to make me smile / And I knew if I had my chance / That I could make those people dance / And maybe they’d be happy for a while”

Which of Erich Fromm’s Personality Orientations are you?

Fromm’s Orientation Test



6 thoughts on “Why do they do what they do?

  1. Oh, I’m just a freak. Dare not try to analyze me. 😉 I have a smidgeon of the traits from each category, but mostly I am “The Person Without A Mask”,… which is kinda odd since I see myself as “a hard egg to crack”.

    My favorite book is, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. His character is a bit of an outcast – misunderstood, geeky, quirky (I can relate) – but also has a gentle/kind soul. I think perhaps we relate best to those characters in whom we see a wee bit of ourselves.

    Why do we do what we do… Aye, I could go on for hours (heck, YEARS!) on that topic. My degree is in Psychology. 😀

    • I admire you SO MUCH. I am fascinated with psychology. Perhaps you and I could sit down with hot tea or another warm beverage (I like Big Bang with Sheldon) and talk psychology. Or maybe we could walk and talk. Psychology fascinates me. I think I’d really like the book you mentioned. I actually reading several right now. Considering I haven’t been able to read anything (other than Mike Duran) for two years, I consider that a triumph! I’m reading The Thirteenth Sign tonight, a YA book. I met the author this weekend, and the title just intrigued me. The main character and I had a bit in common. It takes place in New Orleans. Throws in a little hoodoo, voodoo. We’ll see what happens. I just started it, but I plan on finishing it tonight. I also have one a friend let me borrow. Dog gone it. I left it at school though. I thought I might read during lunch. Shoot. I barely have time to eat lunch. LOL. I may have to consult you about my characters. No wonder you are so interesting. You are filled with wisdom. 🙂

      • I’m definitely full of something… not so sure it is wisdom. Bahahahaha
        I’d love to walk and talk or drink tea or maybe terrorize the public at large. 😀
        You’d LOVE “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. Full of symbolism and very detailed characters. It’s about 900 pages though… Another favorite is, “This Much I know Is True”. It’s rather long as well, but worth the read. Many of my stories end with a summary/opinion prefaced with the line, “I don’t know a lot, But This much I Know Is True”. That book is the origin of said line. Now you know my “trademark signature secret”. 😉

  2. After looking at the superheros picture, I started thinking of characters from those stories that might match the different profiles. Well, first I had to regain focus after reading the words “onion rings”… mmm…ha ha.

    • I was tempted to go order onion rings today, but I chose a fruit cup. I have really curtailed my shopping. I’m trying to be more economical, but for three years I have wanted a certain style of boots. I finally found some this summer. Of course, they were off season and CHEAP, so I bought them. But I need a certain kind of jeans to wear with them, so I decided to check today if a certain discount store had any. They did! And I was able to purchase the size of jeans I wore years ago. I have really been working on watching my weight. I’m trying to be more healthy, so fruit over onion rings. It does pay off. LOL.

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