Primitive Defense Mechanisms:

Mostly seen in children as normal, but when seen in adults as their primary coping method can indicate delayed emotional development.  Healthy adults or characters could use one or more of these coping skills on a temporary basis.  See also BPD post for further details.

Denial

refusal or inability to accept reality or some aspect of reality.  This could be used in a main character as a temporary defense to shocking news to add more suspense.  When a character is in denial, they are delaying the action or reaction to the events.  In a novel, this could add additional suspense as reader may be waiting on the reaction of that character.

For example, a wife catching her husband in their bed with another woman might shut the door and tell herself that didn’t happen.  This could delay the wife’s response which the reader has been waiting on.

Splitting

Polarization of other people as either “all good” or “all bad”.  People who use this defense mechanism are unable to see the gray area between the black and white and unable to see that no one is all good or all bad.  In a character, this could be used sparingly to add drama to a scene, but very sparingly, unless the character has BPD and this defense would be frequently employed by the character.  (Link to BPD article).

A character in the face of a trauma such as friend or loved one was just murdered, it would be appropriate to have the character see the murderer as all bad.  This character would not normally see people as all bad or as all good, but in this particular trauma he/she might.

Projection 

A person projects onto another person their unwanted feelings or thoughts.  This defense mechanism is commonly seen in BPD (link to post).  If a person hates themselves, they may say “he hates me”.  If a person is unable to tolerate or accept that they are manipulative, they will accuse someone else of being manipulative.

Unless the character has BPD, I would use this sparingly as well.

Passive-Aggression

Expressing an unacceptable thought or feeling indirectly instead of directly.  For instance, if a person does not want their spouse to leave to go on a business trip, that person may not wash their clothes, call for the cab, or do other activities to help their spouse leave on the trip.  The examples for this are numerous.  This may not fit in every novel, but in the right story line it could do wonders.  The art comes in knowing when and where to use it.  I can see it more in a book dealing with relationships or where relationships are the focus of the book.  This would a good way to show an adult throwing a quiet adult tantrum.  Be creative with this defense and it will take you far.

Acting Out

This is an impulsive action that a person does not try to stop or evaluate if that action would be helpful or not.  This would include yelling at someone in the middle of a crowded cafe or restaurant.  This would also include getting into a physical altercation with someone without considering the consequences.  I’m also thinking of a person who has just found out her significant other has been cheating and she burns all his clothes, tosses belongings out the two story bedroom window, etc.

Fantasy

This defense mechanism involves living in a fantasy world instead of the real world.  If someone wants to change their life, they imagine a fantasy world where all their problems are solved and spend much of their time in that world instead of taking concrete steps towards changing their world.  If someone hates their boss, maybe they imagine something similar to 9 to 5, but they do not take steps towards finding a new job.  

Intermediate or Neurotic Defense Mechanisms

These defense mechanisms are less sexy while also being more mature.  As a person, you would want to have these mechanisms as opposed to the immature defense mechanisms.  In a character, the immature defense mechanisms are readily seen, identified by the reader as interesting and could be used as an additional plot twist.  These neurotic defense mechanisms are not as readily identifiable and do not stand out as much.   These could not serve as an additional plot twist, but could be used to add subtle texture or intrigue to a story or character.

Displacement

An unacceptable feeling or thought is channeled in a healthy direction.  For instance, if someone hates their boss, then they may take a karate class or learn darts and imagine the target of their action is their boss.

Isolation/Intellectualization

This is really two that have been combined.  Isolation is compartmentalizing your feelings about someone or something from other parts of your life.  Intellectualization is overthinking or overanalyzing the problem or some aspect of the problem.  These two were combined because they frequently occur together.  A person who has difficulty with a co-worker may not think about co-worker until that person must interact with that co-worker.  The person will not speak about the co-worker to others, it is as if the co-worker does not exist.  Instead of dealing with the co-worker, the person may read books on how to confront others, but never actually confronts the bothersome or difficult co-worker.

Repression

This is similar to denial, just less severe.  Recognition of the feelings or thoughts but actively avoiding these thoughts or feelings.  The person knows he doesn’t like Aunt Bertha, but refuses to try and understand why.  This could be described as partial as denial.

Reaction Formation

A person reacts to an uncomfortable feeling or thought by forming the opposite thought or opinion.  If you greatly dislike your boss and realize that expressing this dislike directly could get you fired, then you focus on only the positive feelings for your boss.

Rationalization

Make a decision then afterward make up reasons why or to justify your decision to yourself or to others.  This is a commonly used defense mechanism, but is not dramatic enough for a plot turn.   

Workaholism

This is where a person works to avoid something (feeling, relationship, dealing with grief, dealing with another problem, etc).  This may be overused in novels, shows and movies, therefore be careful with using it as well.

Up To You Now It Is

Here are a few more tools for you to use when creating characters, inventing plot turns or spicing things up.  If you need additional ideas on how to use a specific defense mechanism, please contact me at dyson.cori@gmail.com or on twitter @coridyson.

PDF version available for download:

Defense mechanisms cheat sheet

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