Psychological Maturity in the Stories We Write

We may talk a lot about improving our skills as a writer, but we wouldn’t want to excel at writing while stagnating in our growth as a person, especially as such a deficiency will show in the stories we write.  You don’t want to be one of those authors who are brilliant in their power of expression, but stuck in their story content, where they are trapped in the same thinking patterns, never seeming to learn or grow out of their fixations.

 

Now, I don’t want to mention names in case I offend anyone, but some authors of literary classics had this problem, in my opinion.  Their use of language is phenomenal, but their stories never appear to mature on a psychological level.

 

What Does Psychological Maturity Mean to Me?

 

To me, psychological maturity is a feeling that thoughts are becoming more complex, less black-and-white, less superficial, and essentially growing deeper in life wisdom.  Here are some examples of signs that the writer has heightened the psychological maturity of their stories:

 

N.B.  I am not implying that stories have to have the following.  But the appearance of any of the below, indicates to me that there is at least some psychological depth and maturity in the story.  These examples are of course based on my personal opinions, but we’ll talk about the subjectivity of “psychological maturity” later.

 

  1. Having villains or antagonists who are not simply evil or mean people. You see redeeming qualities, good sides to them, and you grow to understand why they became this way from their backstory.  In some cases, the villain or antagonist may not have malicious intentions, but they were just an ordinary person trying their best to deal with a difficult situation, and they unfortunately made foolish decisions that caused harm to others.  The villain may believe that what they’re doing is good and right, and the author is able to show us why they feel that their actions are justified.

 

  1. Someone deemed a bad guy by other characters, treats the protagonist very well, for whatever reason, and the protagonist questions whether this person is that bad deep down. Conversely, someone who is widely considered a wonderful and compassionate person, is cruel and nasty towards the main character, for some reason, and the main character wonders if this person is genuinely such a sweet soul as others think they are.

 

  1. A character believes that they are a bad person, as almost everyone tells them so. But the reader can see via the character’s thoughts and actions that they aren’t as bad as they believe themselves to be.

 

  1. Related to #1, a character thinks they are a good person, even if most others disagree. The character is angry because they feel misunderstood, like no one can see the good that they’re doing, and no one appreciates their kind or altruistic deeds.  It would be especially interesting if you can show the readers their perspective, so that we can see that they are doing some good things, or that these deeds could be considered “good” within a certain context.  In short, you can show the reader how, in a way, both this character and others around them are right; this character is both “good” and “bad,” depending on what you’re looking at and what context you put them in.

 

  1. A character learns about the shallowness of fame and glory, that authentic happiness and meaning come from other things in life, such as helping others, contributing to a larger cause, making and developing satisfying relationships, or improving their skills in something they intrinsically enjoy; for example, painting and poetry.

 

  1. A character wants more in their interpersonal relationships: They desire more than just harmony, “getting along,” and feeling reasonably happy. They want emotional or intellectual connection with the other person too, whether through communication, sharing of artwork, doing leisure activities together, or other means of connecting.  So the characters don’t merely want to be in one another’s physical presence; they want to be emotionally close as well.

 

  1. Characters who are afraid of emotional closeness or intimacy at first, but later learn that it’s okay, safe, and even a source of joy to be close to someone they like and trust. This doesn’t have to be a romantic partner, though.

 

  1. There is an understanding, at least among some characters, that there are strong feelings that are neither romantic, family platonic, nor friendship platonic. Moreover, there is a general understanding of how complex, and sometimes nebulous and ambiguous, our feelings towards somebody can be.  It would be beneficial if an author can describe that special non-romantic feeling in a vivid way, so that readers can imagine and understand that sentiment.

 

  1. Even when a character falls into a tragic fate, e.g. losing a loved one, being abandoned by family, or losing all that they own, the story doesn’t stay in that state of pain and despair forever. Eventually, the character finds hope and happiness again, even if they can’t fix everything or change the past.  One author of literary classics frustrated me, because all their books were about doomed love.  The author even owned that they were writing the same story over and over again.  Well, in their case, this may be true.  It was aggravating to me that every protagonist would sink into despair after losing their love, and that would be it.  There is no sense of learning, moving on, or ever seeing hope in life.  You might see why I thought that their stories never progressed in psychological maturity, at least not in this aspect.

 

  1. A character learns that something their family or peers had taught them, was actually wrong, or not always right in all circumstances. Alternatively, a character learns the downfalls of a piece of conventional wisdom.  They may even explore two contradictory proverbs and see which one is right for them in specific situations.  (E.g. “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost.”  Or “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” versus “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”)

 

  1. A character who is a world champion at something, becomes very full of themselves. But later, they are sincerely humbled when they meet someone who is much better than they are in a different skill or arena in life.

 

  1. Before, the character looks down on people who do something they consider “immoral,” e.g. gambling, drinking, or doing drugs. But afterwards, the character gets to know real life people who engage in these behaviors, and realize that they like and respect these people, that they can still be good friends and enjoy each other’s company, despite their differing values in some aspects of life.  They may also discover that there are people who will still like and accept you even if you don’t do what they are doing, e.g. smoking or drinking.

 

  1. Branching off from the above, a character starts out with “friends” who only accept them if they follow a set of behaviors. By the end of the story, they find open-minded friends who still love them despite their differences.  You don’t need to conform to be liked and accepted.

 

  1. Initially, a character is fixated on work and achievement; achievement is everything to them. But they come to see that they had been neglecting some wonderful things in their life, such as their friendships.  They learn to value their friendships, while still making room for achievements in the fields that they like.

 

  1. The character believed that life was all about competition, about defeating and crushing all your opponents to win and dominate. But sometime afterwards, they learn that people can cooperate and help each other succeed.  The culture of cooperation and mutual help, also makes them feel happier and more emotionally supported.  You feel more spiritually fulfilled too, because you are helping others, not just selfishly grabbing what you want.

 

  1. Somewhat in contrast to #15, a character may believe in being kind to everybody, but learn later that in some situations with some people, they need to stand firm and not let the other person take advantage of them.

 

This is not an exhaustive list, and I might add more examples after publishing this post.  Hope you see what I mean by psychological growth and maturity.  Essentially, the plot, characters, or themes reveal evidence of thinking beneath the surface, seeing from the other side, or comprehending the complexities and nuances of things.  The thinking doesn’t seem as black-and-white, all-or-nothing, or as simplistic as a person in the earlier stages of psychological development.

 

What is especially important, is that the author sincerely feels and believes in the message they are conveying (e.g. cooperation trumps competition.)  You don’t want the sense that the author is catering to the masses by delivering a socially desirable message.

 

Some More Important Points to Note About My List

 

You may have noticed that many, though not all, of my listed points come from proverbial words of wisdom.  There is nothing wrong with writing a story that supports a proverb, so long as you genuinely believe and feel it.  There are often sayings that contradict a given saying too, like “practice makes perfect” and “don’t bang your head against a brick wall.”  So it can be hard to cover new ground just by trying to oppose a proverb.  What can help in innovating, is to navigate between two opposite sayings, and see whether you can reconcile them, or see the situations when one saying is more appropriate than the other.

 

Another point is that since stories often reflect the author’s own life lessons, different authors may champion different beliefs in their books, depending on what experiences and lessons they learned in their own lives.  Two authors could write stories that advocate the opposite of what the other author does.  (E.g. One writer asserts through their story that “everyone deserves a second chance,” while another writer expresses through their story that “being too merciful towards a wrong-doer, could result in more people getting hurt or killed.”)  Both authors would be right in their own way.

 

One thing I want to clarify, is that I’m not suggesting that we should all write stories with morals or cautionary messages in them, nor am I suggesting that our stories should be about promoting the author’s opinions and ideas, at the expense of all else in the story, like compelling characters, engaging dialogue, and touching expressions of emotion.  Rather, seeing philosophical messages like these in a story, even if they are only conveyed in a subplot, or embodied by a secondary character, gives me some reassurance that the story is displaying some psychological depth, which may hint at the personal psychological growth of the author.

 

All that said, I’m certain that many of you would find my list of examples highly biased based on my own opinions, values, and beliefs on what’s right, good, and ideal.  Even my ideal of having more complex, nuanced, and multi-sided thinking can be seen as my personal bias.  Surely it’s not always bad to be clear-cut on your values, holding a sharp distinction between good and bad, and right and wrong.  Am I being wishy-washy, indecisive, or “on the fence” with my insistence on more complex, multi-faceted thinking?  Well, if you are able to see the downsides to this “complex thinking” philosophy, you are in fact doing some complex thinking yourself.  You are able to point out the other side to my argument, and see that my belief may not be the best in some situations.

 

To be frank, I was a psychology major (double majored with English literature), which influenced me to favor subjectivity, multiple ways of perceiving the world, human diversity, a deep appreciation of a person’s motives and backstory, never taking anything at face value, treasuring and esteeming great interpersonal relationships, believing in fluidity and change rather than in fixity and immutability, and other biases.

 

As I do lean toward some things as a psychology major, I understand if you disagree with what I value and believe to be deep and mature in stories.  If you do disagree, I would be very interested in hearing what you think in the comments.

 

The Issue of Subjective Judgments

 

You might have spotted a caveat in my theory of psychological maturity in fictional works: What if a story shows psychological depth in some aspects, but the reader ignores these aspects and only focuses on the ones that appear to be immature?  Yes, I would agree that stories are unlikely to be “completely shallow” or “completely deep,” and if a reader disagrees with the author on an issue, the reader might think that the author is being superficial or immature.  Indeed, I acknowledge that there is subjectivity in “maturity level,” where it can depend on what the reader is focusing on and ignoring, and what the reader personally believes to be true or important.

 

To give an example of such subjectivity, a reviewer on Goodreads thought that The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, was a “fun, mindless read.”  I was flabbergasted, and I commented on their review that The Maze Runner was full of deep, thought-provoking themes for me, such as the issues of euthanasia, do the ends justify the means, what it means to be a great leader, and other topics that I see as significant.

 

The reviewer never responded to my comment, so perhaps they disagreed with me.  Interestingly, there were several other reviewers who thought the Maze Runner was shallow too, but there were some other reviewers who agreed with me that the series was thoughtful and profound.  Reader subjectivity can be so baffling sometimes.

 

Following from this example, you may wonder if my view that some authors don’t evolve much in psychological maturity, is justified, or whether I was being unfair or skewed in my perception.  I want to point out that I didn’t say their works are superficial or immature per se; I said that they didn’t seem to progress in psychological maturity over the author’s life span.  It’s quite possible that I was only honing in on the things I cared about, and was blind to the things that did advance in depth and maturity.  Thus, this is only about my subjective reader impression, not about an objective evaluation.

 

Although I don’t want to reveal the names of the literary authors I have in mind, I can describe the features that led me to think that the author had not made much psychological progress in their stories.

 

For the first author, I mentioned them in #9.  Linguistically, their stories are a delight to read.  But content-wise, the plots are always about a guy losing the love of his life to a rival or to death, and then drowning in despair forever.  Even the author admitted that they were writing the same story over and over again.  To me, it felt like the author was stuck in the same thought pattern, like a broken record of the same series of events.  Why don’t the characters ever have a turn of fate, and get a happily ever after?  Or why don’t they ever do something to pull out of their misery and start a new, better life?

 

The second author I’m thinking of, wrote obsessively about characters who are doomed with unrequited love.  Again, it feels as though the author was unable to get out of this rut, this same old thought loop.  In addition, their characters are so fixated on attaining fame and glory.  Even if they happen to meet a character who does not have a desire to be rich and famous, the protagonist would still cling onto their craving for fame and fortune.  I wondered whether their characters would ever outgrow such a vain and shallow fixation.

 

One last example, are a number of authors who wrote about cheating spouses all the time.  Yes, on an artistic level, their prose is beautiful and even entrancing.  But psychologically speaking, I feel frustrated that these authors can’t seem to get out of this plot fixture.  Are they able to write about protagonists who neither cheat nor are cheated on?  Not only is this story pattern depressing; it’s tiresome too.

 

In fact, one famous author of crime fiction has a similar problem.  The murderer is almost always an unfaithful spouse or a spouse who was cheated on.  Can’t there be a bit more variation here?  I get that infidelity can be an intense motivator for either partner to resort to violence, but the desire to take revenge on a cheater or the wish to be free from an unwanted spouse, cannot be the only kinds of scenarios that would drive people to commit murder.

 

From the authors I described above, can you see why I have gripes against some authors who are stuck in a thought rut, as though they are unable to grow psychologically in their stories?  It’s certainly possible that the author has personally grown past these stages of emotional development, but they stick to these plots because they think that their audience will keep buying this kind of story, or they don’t feel confident that they can tackle a different kind of plotline.  Yet, since stories tend to reveal some of the author’s mind and soul, I say it’s likely that the author has really not progressed beyond these stuck points.

 

So, to avoid becoming an author who blossoms in skill but not in psychological maturity, I suggest that we keep learning about ourselves and the world, by interacting with others, going to therapy, reading and writing books and articles, making art, reflecting deeply, connecting with our emotions, or any other routes to continue our journey of personal growth.

 

What do you think about the concept of psychological maturity?  Do you agree with my definition?  What examples do you have for psychologically deep or mature stories?  Can you think of any authors who seem to be trapped in the same thought patterns from story to story?  What would you do to foster your own psychological growth and enrichment?

14 thoughts on “Psychological Maturity in the Stories We Write

  1. I agree with your definition of psychological maturity, and I can think of novelists (one in particular comes to mind) who seem unable to grow psychologically. The one fiction writer that comes to mind hasn’t published a novel in nearly a decade, and from what I’ve heard him say in interviews, the novel form doesn’t interest him anymore (or for now). When you ask about examples of psychologically deep or mature stories, Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time, comes to mind. Several years have passed since I spent time in one of the volumes that make up that novel, and what I remember from those reading experiences that reminds me of psychological growth was the emotional intensity I experienced as a reader, which I think can lead both to insights and to changes in how one lives one’s life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! Aw, it makes me sad when an author loses interest…though I have to accept that sometimes, writers can change their interests. I also have friends who were/are passionate about writing, but recently I asked how they were, and they told me that they hadn’t written anything in a long while. They had been deeply engaged in some other interests. It saddened me because in my mind, I saw them as fellow writer friends, but I had to respect that people can lose interest or become LESS interested in a pursuit, and choose to focus on something else in their life. I used to be very passionate about drawing, but now I rarely draw, since I chose my focus to be writing and psychology. Some people who knew me from before, might feel a similar bafflement about why I draw so little now. Even talking about this brings up some guilty feelings! I still love drawing, but not as passionately anymore!

      Ah, I haven’t read Proust yet, but it’s on my to-read list. It certainly sounds like a very profound work!

      You bring up a great point about emotional intensity. Yes, when the reader is so touched or even overwhelmed by a book emotionally, that could lead to big changes for the reader themselves. Dostoyevsky’s and George Eliot’s books were particularly intense for me, and that’s why they are two of my favorite authors!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know I went from being passionate about psychotherapy to being passionate about writing (although I had always been passionate about writing in one way or another), and I remember the bafflement on the face of at least one therapist I knew when I said that I was not going to pursue a career as a psychotherapist. When you mentioned Dostoyevsky, I thought of Crime and Punishment, which I reread parts of earlier this year, during the dark months when such books, to me at least, are the most appropriate kinds of reading material. That book is full of emotional intensity!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You might engage in a former passion in an alternative way too. For instance, you write about therapy, even though you don’t practice it now. 🙂 It’s really good that you’re able to share your knowledge and experiences with others through your writing. (That’s one awesome thing about writing. You can communicate so many different ideas to an audience!)

        Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite literary works. My favorite book by Dostoyevsky is Demons (sometimes called The Possessed). My favorite by George Eliot is The Mill on the Floss.

        I love these emotionally intense novels!

        I’m also very glad that you understand me on the topic of psychological maturity in stories. 😀 When I was writing this post, I worried that readers would find the concept too vague and hard to understand, though I tried my best to explain what I mean.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You made everything very clear. I enjoyed the post very much. And thank you for your kind words. I have yet to read George Eliot – and several people have suggested I do so.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Aw, thanks!! You make me feel very appreciated. 😊. I care intensely about the clarity in my writing, so I doubly thank you!

    Yes, I adore George Eliot. 😁 Some of her works (like Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch) can be a bit dense, but they’re still very rich and worthwhile books!

    Like

  3. You best blog article yet! I enjoyed reading this so very much, from the theme down to the specific examples. You have articulated something that was always there, dwelling in some corner of my mind, but I never arrived upon a conscious processing of this topic. As a writer who cares greatly about the messages of my writing, I think this is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Haidan!!! Your praise means so much to me! 😁

      I had this complaint in my mind about some authors a while ago, but never really verbalized it until recently! Partly because I didn’t want to offend people. And here is this post elaborating on this idea of psychological maturity. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Sieran 🙂
    I agree that it is important to create characters that are complex, and because characters come from the minds of authors, this requires that authors require psychological maturity to be able to think up complex characters.
    I don’t read much classic literature but my fiance does. He actually often complains that in books nowadays, characters’ motivations, intentions and emotions are often directly stated, while in classic literature this is kept subtle or even hidden from the readers and their actions are more unpredictable. He feels that characters in classic literature are more realistic because often people do not show their emotions or intentions in real life and are inconsistent in their actions. Do you find that this is the case?
    I agree with your examples of psychologically complex characters. I love characters who are morally ambiguous (such as villains who are relatable and main characters who have character flaws). I also enjoy reading novel where characters develop throughout the story.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Sophie!

      Hmm maybe your fiance and I are paying attention to different things, haha. No, I don’t think that modern books have more directly stated motives compared to literary classics. I can think of characters in classics who were very open about their motives, as well as characters in modern books who don’t say why they’re doing something (or are deluded or confused about their own motivations).

      That said, I didn’t actually do a statistical count of characters from classics versus characters from modern novels. Your fiance and I may not have read the same literary classics and modern novels either, so it’s hard to compare. But if you want my opinion, no, I didn’t feel such a difference. 😊 It’s still an interesting point, though, about directly stated motives vs implied motives.

      You know what? I’m going to ask a writer friend of mine what she thinks. She’ll have her own bias, as she is very into modern novels and not so into the classics. But she pays a lot of attention to writing craft things, including character motives.

      Thank you to you and your fiance for bringing up this intriguing discussion point! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you have a point. Thinking back on the few classics that I’ve read, such as Rebecca, sometimes the emotions and intentions of the MCs were very plainly stated. I guess it varies from book to book and it may not be a characteristic that is unique to modern or classic books. I’ll take a look to see what your writer friend thinks 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Okay I sent a message to my friend and I’ll see how she replies!

      Also, I realized I missed the second part of what your fiance said. I don’t feel that characters in literary classics have more unpredictable and inconsistent actions compared to modern novel characters either… I feel again that there is no significant difference between the two. 😊

      But I really like this topic! I’ll pay more attention to these aspects when I read my current and future books. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    3. It’s me again! I don’t know if my friend wants her answer to be posted in public, lol. So I sent you a private message on Goodreads with her reply.

      P.S. Do you find that sometimes, when you like someone’s comment on WordPress, the star fades to white later and you have to re-like the comment? D: That’s what happened with your comment just then.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay! I’ll check my goodreads comment 🙂
        I do find that with the like button on WordPress. It’s more so when my wifi reception is weak so the first like doesn’t go through and I’ll have to click on it again lol.

        Liked by 1 person

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