Monday, October 21, 2013

Using the Johari Window to Create Fictional Characters

Though I love a good story, I am drawn to fiction with strong, likeable characters.
How does a writer accomplish this?
There are hundreds of books on characterization, and I have studied quite a few excellent ones, but I have discovered an answer in the most unlikely place – the science of cognitive psychology.  I use a simple heuristic that was developed in 1955 to explain how a person presents himself and interacts with others. It is called the Johari window.
It looks like this -

Each quadrant is called a window and it studies the human being from four different perspectives.
How persons represent themselves to others is called the Open Window. It is how they dress, act, and react. This is how they want to be perceived. 

It sometimes differs from how others see them. In the Blind Window, the person is unaware that others might judge them differently than how they presented themselves.
In the Hidden Window, they keep things to themselves they do not want others to know or that only very few might know but are not allowed to share with others. Sometimes they might not even acknowledge some of these inner conflicts to themselves.
The fourth window, the Unknown, lies the unforeseen future. It might happen in the immediate future or it might lie far ahead, but everyone eventually encounters a test or a crossroad, and they will have to respond employing the traits displayed in any or all the other windows.   
I owe my gratitude and my apologies to Drs. Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham since I took their heuristic and adapted it for my own use - to create fictional characters.
I use a five by eight index card (for its convenience and its size), and I divide one side into four equal squares, imitating the Johari graphic model. I use one card for each character I am developing and I fill in each square to flesh out my characters and their story. (I use the back side to keep additional notes on the character – dates, plot points, details, etc.)
I start with the Hidden Self quadrant because this square houses the inner conflict and drives all the others. I explore the character's secrets, fears, - anything that the character keeps hidden from others.  This is the vulnerable side of the character and drives all the other squares. It contains the story. 

The “hidden self” will influence how the character dresses, how they act, how they react to others. Like a mannequin in a store window or an actor in a movie, I dress the character and place them in the Open Window.  

I look for some qualities that might be easily misinterpreted or misconceived and will fit in both the Open and in the Blind Window.  For example, a person who has a traumatic past (hidden self) will dress and act a certain way either to deflect attention or put on a false bravado (open self), but others might misinterpret the character as cold or distant (blind self) since they do not know the person’s hidden past.
By filling in the Johari, the character becomes rounded and solid – a realistic person who stands out from the others and draws attention from the reader.

He/she is now ready to face the Unknown.

The Unknown quadrant houses the outer conflict, the quest, the challenge. The character will respond based on the traits the author developed in the other three quadrants, but especially those in the Hidden Self where the inner conflict and the character's story lie. This conflict will test the character’s resolve, and it is how he/she responds that the author has created a satisfactory story with realistic characters and a believable resolution. 

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