Character Development: The Johari Window

One of the mistakes writers make is to create a character who is a lot like the writer...or who the writer wishes he was. When I'm reading a book, I can tell the character is the better version of the writer. You know, the writer with all of the great looks and skills the writer wishes he has.

I have one word for this:  Boring!

What do you know about your protagonist?

You have freedom to create anyone you want as your protagonist. It can be a lot of fun to create a character who is completely different than you.

Whatever you do when creating your character, you need to know more about the character than the character knows about herself. Which is one reason why creating a fictional "you" as the protagonist gets boring.

You have to get outside the character to create a full personality.

At a recent conference, the workshop on character, taught by John Kessel, got me thinking about some of the tools I use in corporate training. This suggestion--know more about the character than the character knows--reminded me of a concept I use in coaching workshops, the Johari Window.

What is the Johari Window?

The Johari Window, developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, can be used to help you gain better understanding of yourself. It looks like this:


The four panes of the Johari Window represent the information about yourself that you know, others know, and no one knows. In the top left quadrant, you have what is known as the Open Self or the Arena. It represents information about you known to yourself and to others.

The Blind self or Blind Spot, in the upper right quadrant, represents what others know about you that you don't know.

The Hidden Self or Facade, in the lower left quadrant, represents things you know about yourself that others don't know.

The last quadrant, the Unknown Self or Unconscious, represents the information about you that no one, including yourself, knows.

In coaching, we teach people to seek to reveal more of their Blind Self to others and to discover more of their Hidden and Unknown Selves. In fiction, these three quadrants can be wonderful sources of conflict.

  • The Blind Self might contain secrets about the character's origin or their family. It could be a habit they have that is obvious to everyone but them.
  • The Hidden Self may be the aspects of the character that they unknowingly use to drive others crazy.
  • The Unknown Self is often part of the self-discovery that a character undergoes during the story arc.

Point of view exploration can benefit from the Johari Window, too. For your Point of View character to do, say, see, or think something, it needs to fall into the Open Self and the Hidden Self. Often the internal dialogue reveals what's stored in the Hidden Self.

If you take the time in advance to consider some of the facts and traits that fall into these four quadrants, you can create a well-developed character. As you write, you can add to the quadrants as information becomes obvious to you or the character.

Your mission, should you accept it, is to take your protagonist and figure out what their Johari Window looks like, then use that information to build the conflict of your story.


skipdetour said…
Thank you very much, Barbara, for a thought-provoking post. I haven’t given any thought to the Johari Window since those years in the misty past, a decade beyond the midpoint of the twentieth century. Exercising my semi-senile mind, I’ve been able to recall my introduction to Joseph’s and Harrington’s window in a Psychology 101 course at university. Who would’ve known I’d taking your suggestion with regard to point of view character development at this late date? Certainly, yours is a most practical suggestion for an application of the Johari Window. Again, thank you.

Your proposition that a writer creating a character a lot like himself or a lot like he wishes he was also caused my squeaky, but still functional, wheels to start turning. Your one-word conclusion that such a character is “Boring” rings true far more often than not. On the other hand, Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” and Harper Lee’s “To kill a Mockingbird” loosely based on her own family come to mind. Grisham admits some of the lawyers in his legal thrillers have autobiographical traits. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” is largely autobiographical. Michael Connelly’s Jack McEvoy novels are to an extent autobiobraphical with respect to his days as a crime reporter.

Still, I can’t argue against your one-word conclusion, “Boring”!

Skip, I believe many authors put some of their own characteristics into their characters without problems. The problem starts when they become so obviously the author instead of a character in a story. Then you have a problem because the author can’t stretch beyond their own reality enough to create someone new. Unfortunately, most of us are boring. Present company excepted, of course.

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