Building Characters – Love Language

Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character contains excellent information on character building, and today I’m covering one of my favorite topics in the book. Gary Chapman developed a theory of communication called the five love languages. Jeff puts it like this: “The theory is that, like gifts and talents, each of us is born with a tendency to express and receive love in a certain way–in a love language–but that not all of us speak the same language.”

The five love languages are:

1. Word of Affirmation: these people say I Love You with words. “I love you,” “I appreciate you,” “Thank you,” all express that they notice you and you are valuable to them.

2. Quality Time: these people say I Love You by giving you their undivided attention, by sitting with you and being there for you, but putting off everything else to spend time with you.

3. Gifting: these people say I Love You by giving thoughtful items. Purchased, hand-made, recycled, doesn’t matter – giving of gifts expresses their affections.

4. Acts of Service: these people say I Love You by cleaning your clothes and fixing your computer and mowing your lawn. Their love is active and shown in the many things they do for you.

5. Physical Touch: these are the huggers, the touchy-feely types who can’t cross a room without having physical contact with others. They express love by giving physical contact in caring ways.

Jeff goes on to say that a person who gives love in a specific way is predisposed to receiving love in the same way. A gift giver isn’t naturally going to understand your undivided attention as love. Someone who is verbal won’t necessary understand a touch on the shoulder as love. Whether your character understands these love languages or not, she will *have* a love language. Investigating how your character expresses love will give you more insight into how your character might behave in certain situations, how she will instantly like (or dislike) someone else, or how there can be miscommunications.

When a character (or real person) gets upset, that’s also expressed in terms of love language. You automatically know the hugger is angry with you when she doesn’t give you an enthusiastic hug the moment she enters the room. The garbage and laundry pile up if an Acts of Service person is upset. Extrapolate out to villainous proportions and you have some cues for how your character will act if pushed too far.

Sometimes a character’s love language is in perfect harmony with her temperament: an outgoing ESFP who is a hugger. But sometimes it’ll be an unnatural fit, like the introspective INTJ who is also a hugger. This can help you create complex and interesting characters.

I’d like to add something else that doesn’t appear in Jeff’s book, something I learned from personal experience. Every member of my immediate family (Mom, Dad, Sister) are all Acts of Service people. When I was growing up in that house, we didn’t hug or say I Love You out loud, but we never doubted that we all loved each other. We simply served each other. Then Maria came to live with us for a short time. Maria was a rare individual: a hugger AND a speaker. She’d smile, say “I Love You!” then give a huge hug. At first, it was awkward to receive this physical and verbal affection, but everyone in my family soon found that we liked it. We began speaking our love to each other in Maria’s way, giving hugs, and continuing with our own acts of service. My point is this: people can learn to express love in other ways, but there’s still going to be that one language that comes naturally, and that’s the language that will pop up in times of stress. When I get angry with my husband, I don’t respond verbally (yelling) or withhold hugs or avoid being in the same room with him. When I’m upset with him, the acts of service slow down or stop altogether. If I were maladjusted, I imagine that would escalate into acts of disservice (which could be extremely fun to play with in fiction!) but I’m happy to report that I usually respond in a more mature manner and try to work things out before the laundry piles up and the floors get sticky. But you can see how this all translates to fiction and building believable characters. 

Now go find your character profile and figure out how your character expresses love (and hate) to others and how that integrates into their personality. It might be fun to make your ISTJ (introspective and practical) character a hugger or a gift-giver (which won’t be a natural fit at all).

In the next post I’ll discuss self-esteem.


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