Aspects of character: entitlement and locus of control

Let’s talk writing. Specifically, let’s talk characterization. There’s plenty of advice about it out there, beginning with “write real people, not caricatures,” which is excellent advice. But what kind of real people? Well, you might see advice about finding your character’s Meyers-Briggs type, or you might have a look at DSM diagnoses if your character is mentally ill. You might base a character on someone you really know, or if you’re really lucky, the character might spring fully formed from the top of your head and walk off without your help.

I’ve been thinking about a couple of concepts that I haven’t seen discussed in relation to characterization, though. I think they’re especially useful for villains, but probably useful for everyone. They are entitlement and locus of control.

Entitlement is not an official psychological term, to my knowledge (though my education is now *mumbletygrumble* years out of date). We’re all familiar with the concept, though. Some people think they deserve certain things just because they exist. Entitlement usually comes up when people are talking about entitled kids or entitlement whores. Entitlement applies to us all, though. Let me explain.

Sift through your conscious mind. Try to go a little deeper. Look at your attitudes and decisions in life. Are there things that you have systematically assumed, throughout your life, aren’t there for you to enjoy, only for other people? Are love and family for you? Beauty and physical fitness? Are street fairs, cotton candy, rollercoasters and corn dogs there for you to enjoy, or only for other people? What about sports–playing them or being a fan of them? Overeating? Getting drunk? Getting high? Using big words and reading famous books? Making splurge purchases? What about going into a museum: do you assume the exhibits are there for you to interact with on every level allowed, or do you politely stand back from the “living history” room or tactile art gallery, where you are theoretically–but not actually, you feel sure!–supposed to put your hands on the exhibits?

A profoundly unentitled person will be a shrinking violet, and probably depressed. A healthily entitled person, on the other hand, will have no freaking idea what the previous paragraph was all about–of COURSE all that fun stuff is there FOR THEM to enjoy! Why wouldn’t it be?

People can feel they aren’t entitled to this stuff for various reasons. Because it would be unseemly to enjoy something. Because it would be unhealthy. Because it brings out their personal demons. Because life hasn’t handed it to them, so they must not deserve it. Because they were taught early that “we” don’t like things like that, so it’s never occurred to them to try it. Because they tried it earlier in life, were traumatized, and will never do it again.

So think about your character. Think about whether she believes the world is there for her to jump into feet first or not. Think about what your character feels entitled to, and what she doesn’t. This is, in my world anyway, a huge key to understanding people.

Topic two is locus of control. This is an official-type psychological term. Locus of control refers to whether you believe you are in control of what happens to you, or whether you believe other people are.

A person with a perfectly external locus of control is amoral. The devil makes him do it, so he’ll do just about anything. This person will blame all misfortune on others, often “society,” “the man,” or his domestic cohabitants. People with perfectly external loci of control are dangerous.

A person with a perfectly internal locus of control, on the other hand, is probably too afraid to leave the house. She is responsible for everything, so she carries an enormous burden. It is her fault she isn’t pretty, thin, smart, popular. It’s her fault that cute boy doesn’t like her. It’s her fault they lost the Smith account at work … even if, to any rational person, Mr. Smith was an arrogant blowhard who changes firms every three months anyway.

Most people are able to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis, and usually come to rational conclusions about whether something was under their control. When people err on this front, they usually err by attributing bad things to external causes and good things to internal causes. That’s how a healthy human ego is biased. A person without a healthy ego, whose locus of control is systematically out of whack, can cause a lot of havoc in life … and in your story.

Hope this helps.


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