Psychoanalyzing Fictional Characters
A useful way to practice psychoanalysis without ethical issues, and a damn good time.
Psychoanalysis is a useful skill. Professionally, therapists use psychoanalysis to help treat patients. However, a lot of internet folks have a tendency to psychoanalyze friends, family, or even people they've never met. It might be helpful to use an informal analysis to judge how someone will react and how to respond to them, but people go way too far.
It's unethical for an unqualified person to psychoanalyze another person, and give them advice, report on the analysis, and so on. Even professionals need to make a detailed investigation into a person's biological, psychological, and social health, before making any kind of evaluation.
I've seen people do it with public figures, especially Trump, who admittedly can be fun to analyze. I've seen people do it with their own friends (to detrimental effect). It's really not good. However, there is a way to scratch that psychoanalysis itch, without being unethical about it.
Enter Fictional Characters
My girlfriend is a psychology student, and she loves to find psychological analyses of fictional characters. I don't blame her. It's not all that hard to find some kind of traumatic character with numerous layers of detail created by a dedicated author. There's also a near endless supply of characters. Whether it's television shows, novels, movies, games, or comics, there's a character worth analyzing.
How much time a person spends analyzing these characters is up to their own personal taste. Some people make offhand comments, but there's no reason why a psychology student can't write an entire thesis on some of these characters. And while this kind of analysis can be fun for an amateur, there are real scholarly benefits to such analyses.
Psychology students can benefit from the practice, with limited ethical concerns and can even practice using real world psychological profiling tools like the five-factor model (Flekova and Gurevych).
Indeed, fictional characters can even give us a source of inspiration for the development of new diagnoses! There are a number of syndromes and disorders that are specifically named after fictional characters, including Peter Pan and Dorian Gray (Kalkan et al. 2019, Brosig et al. 2001), both of which relate to those with an inability to accept growing up or aging.
Role Playing and Empathy
The use of fictional characters in psychoanalysis and psychology in general isn't limited to existing characters. One concern I've had for quite some time is that teaching knowledge doesn't mean that we teach understanding and empathy. Even among psychology students, there's often a lack of empathy and acceptance, which is ironic considering how important unconditional positive regard is within the profession. Unconditional positive regard is the ability to accept a person as a whole, regardless of faults.
We can't just teach empathy unfortunately. Dictating empathy towards others doesn't work. The golden rule, so to speak, must be learned through experience. And that's why role play is so useful. Role play is a great way to learn interpersonal skills, and it's a great way to engage in fostering understanding fragile individuals who need extra care and understanding.
At least some research has focused on the benefits of role play in understanding psychological disorders. Poorman 2009 let students create their own characters, based on material from the DSM-IV. He then had the students act out those characters in role play. The improvement in empathy and understanding was significant.
Try it Yourself
I like psychological theory, but psychoanalysis is more my girlfriend's thing. I don't know if I'll write any psychological profiles myself, but if you're interested in giving it a try, you should. It doesn't really matter if you're a beginner or have a lot of formal training. That's what's great about utilizing fictional characters. There's much less risk of harm involved. I won't say none, but it is very little.
Maybe you're an expert already. But if you're not familiar with what kind of methodologies are available, you might want to look up the five factor model and the NEO PI-R, as well as the biopsychosocial and the diathesis-stress model. From there, just pick a character that seems interesting and give it a shot. If you happen to know anyone with expertise, ask them to take a look at your analysis and see how you did.
Acknowledgments: I think I say this a lot at this point, but I really want to thank my girlfriend for inspiring me to write new content.