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A Buddhist Guide to Writing Believable Characters

Psychology is in its infancy. At best a hundred and fifty years old. To a modern psychologist, the human mind is an unstable and amorphous tangle of barely understood emotions and drives. This isn’t very helpful for writers attempting to create believable characters. We are left to fall back on instinct, hearsay and personal experience.

Asian philosophers have been studying the mind for over three thousand years. They’ve quietly observed, catalogued, analogised and systematised. Buddhists for instance view the human condition through a deceptively simple lens. Note the use of the word ‘deceptively’ we’ll come back to that later. They call it the Ten Worlds (for worlds read life-states).

This system is especially useful for writers. When we are creating a character we can simply pick which of these worlds they will inhabit.

  1. Hell Rage and suffering, devoid of freedom

  2. Hunger Insatiable craving for food, clothes, wealth, pleasure, fame, power

  3. Animality Instinct, with no sense of reason or morality.

  4. Anger Destructive, selfishly belittling others and exalting oneself.

  5. Humanity Tranquillity, rationality, control of instinct with reason, harmony with the environment.

  6. Heaven Temporary pleasure when his desire is fulfilled, rapture.

  7. Learning Seeking knowledge and self-improvement through the teachings of others.

  8. Realisation Self-awareness, gaining lasting truth through observation and effort.

  9. Bodhisattva Benevolent, self-sacrificial and charitable.

  10. Buddhahood Absolute freedom, boundless wisdom, compassion, courage, dynamism and creativity.

So, that’s the easy bit. You may not feel the need to progress further. But you can if you wish. This is where I remind you I said deceptive. Say, for instance, a character exists in the world of Animality. At times, they might drift into the world of hunger (below), or anger (above). Say they exist in the world of humanity. At times, they might drift into the world of anger (below) or heaven (above). It all depends on their mood, what life throws at them, and how they react. More accurately, what you throw at them. Because no one is safe, even a Bodhisattva may be cast into hell.

Are you with me so far? Because now this is where it gets complicated.

The characters with which you populate your novels (and real-life you and me, for that matter) although predominantly/flexibly inhabiting one of these ten worlds, there’s no saying they have to stay there. By their actions and reactions you can advance or retard them.

Now here’s where it gets really complicated. Each character, regardless of his predominant life state, can inhabit all ten worlds in one day, in one hour, in one moment. Because all ten worlds are latent within each of your characters. They can ascend and descend the scale based on their reaction to external causation. But always returning to their predominant state when life has ceased to buffet or soothe them.

Now here’s where it gets really, really complicated.

Each positive life-state has a negative corollary. And each negative life-state has a positive corollary. For instance, too much tranquillity (positive) can lead to laziness (negative). I’m sure you can work the rest out.

So, when bringing a character to life, we ask a simple question. Which of these ten worlds do we want them to inhabit?

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