Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Using the 7 “Primitive” Defense Mechanisms to Juice-Up Your Characters

Defense mechanisms.

We all use them to protect ourselves when reality gets "real". Problem is, they're easy to locate in others -- just read the personal sniping in the comments section of any political article. But they're hard to see in ourselves. Since seeing oneself objectively takes hard work.

Perhaps that explains why writers seldom employ defense mechanisms in their characters. Since when behind a point-of-view character's mind, we identify with them. And thus, find fessing-up to having blind-spots makes us uncomfortable? Who knows.

Regardless, when characters use the same defense mechanisms we all do, they become believable. Not despite, but because of their contradictions. And once learned, defense mechanisms are easy to deploy in your work. And once deployed, they add depth with scant effort.

Fiction Writer's Guide to the 7 "Primitive" Defense Mechanisms

1) Denial 

We deny reality to avoid the pain of having our preconceived notions shattered. We may be so afraid of something harmful, and thus ignore it.

To illustrate, consider this line uttered in the emergency room by a patient suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. “Do I drink? You mean alcohol, like an drunk? Hell, no. I only drink beer.”

2) Regression 

At age 36, actor Sean Penn found a paparazzi photographer hiding in his hotel room. A healthy adult in their mid-30’s would call security to remove the man, and perhaps press charges. Penn, however, acted like an adolescent, dangling the man from his 9th story balcony.

That’s regression. When facing a stressful event, we “regress” to an earlier stage of development.

Other examples: After a devastating loss, a character spends few days in bed, unwilling and unable to face family and friends -- as if waiting for their mother to “kiss their boo-boo.” Or instead smashes something in anger -- like a child throwing a tantrum.

3) Acting Out 

Mad at work? Or have a fight with your spouse? But instead of stating what’s wrong, you punch a wall. Or spend an hour at the gym, burning off your anger.

That’s what psychologists call “acting out.

Other examples include a child, ignored by his working parents, who causes disruption in school. Which has the principal to send a note home. Which leads to parental attention for the child.

4 & 5) Compartmentalization/ Dissociation 

We all dissociate from reality along a scale from compartmentalization to dissociation. Both allow people to hold views contrary to their actions.

4.0. Example Setup 

 A middle manager with a deep sense of responsibility to their employees has to lay people off in the midst of the 2009 downturn. As a manager, based on pure production, they rank their employees.

Problem is, he or she must lay off two employees with large families. Both of whom they count as solid, honest, hard-working friends. While several top performers, who will remain employed, are mean-spirited and devious folks whom the manager dislikes.

4.1. Compartmentalization Example 

The manager ignores his feelings, calls the good people with poor performance into their office, and fires them. He offers them support, trying to cushion the blow. While telling himself or herself “It’s only business.”

4.2. Dissociation Example 

 An extreme, and rare, case where denial of reality is less transparent. Psychology refer to this as dissociation.

After ranking the employees, the manager grows angered at the low performers. Despite the support given them, they presented a drag on his bottom line, putting his or her own job in jeopardy. He sees them as weaklings, unable to deliver.

So instead of just firing the people, the mangaer kicks them to the curb with a vengeance. And aligns himself with the morally suspect “winners.” Who make them look good Note, the stress causes the manager to become a different person.

FYI: “Multiple Personality Disorder” -- near non-existent in reality, but so common in fiction it’s cliched -- takes dissociation to the extreme. In this disorder, the manager’s need to avoid the pain of firing good people, the manager “becomes” a cold shark during the firing. Only to come-to later, with no memory of the dirty deed.

6) Projection 

As that old claptrap goes, we fear in others what we fear most in ourselves. A saying that illustrates “projection” better than a formal definition, IMHO.

For instance, consider fundamentalist preacher who rails against homosexuality, calling gays evil. And yet, after espousing these views, he’s found in a hotel room with a gay lover.

Any doubts that the ‘evil’ the preacher ‘fought’ was his own repressed homosexuality?

7) Reaction Formation

Imagine a mother gushing over her super-talented, super-smart teenage son. Who is the neighborhood bully with average grades and an IQ of 98 who threatens his mother when pushed?

That’s a reaction-formation, where a character refuses to face impulses or emotions they find destructive. Instead, they substitute more acceptable opposite. And often go overboard. In the example above, the mother knows her child’s average. And violent. And maybe even dangerous. And yet, she cloys, all fake sweetness and light.


I hope that explains the primitive defense mechanisms. And gives you some ideas on how to use them to create better characters, whose foibles can drive better plots.

However, I want to conclude with a caveat. Defense mechanism are universal because they’re useful. They help people cope. In mature individuals, who understand themselves and their own reactions to negative stress, defense mechanisms can work wonders. What’s more, psychologists acknowledge “higher-level” defense mechanisms deemed not only healthy, but transformative.

For instance, psychologists consider “sublimation” a higher-level defense mechanism. Wherein a person acknowledges an “unacceptable” impulse. But instead of acting on or denying the impulse, they channel the urge’s power to create positive change.

For instance, consider the preacher in the example above. Were he healthy, instead of denying his homosexual tendencies, urges at odds with his faith, he could have channeled the impulse. For instance, by creating a ministry helping homosexual AIDS patients. That would be sublimation.

Same urge. Same moral judgement. And same refusal to act on the impulse. But, healthier outcomes. For both the preacher and the world.


15 Common Defense Mechanisms, John M. Grohol, Psy.D (
Sean Penn anecdote. (
Using Defense Mechanisms for Characters, Laura Diamond (

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