top of page


Much of this is from:

Liebert, Robert S. (1988) The concept of character: a historical review. Chapter 2 in Masochism: Current Psychoanalytic Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Glick and Donald I. Meyers. The Analytic Press. Hillsdale, NJ; Hove and London.   


Character traits – clearly delineated, typical, and stable behaviour that is readily observable and, importantly, is selected for attention because of its implications for the broader fabric of psychic organization and social adaptation; may be ego syntonic or along a continuum to ego dystonic (symptom)

Character types – groupings of individuals who have enough shared and overlapping specific behavioural patterns to enable us to generalize about their common developmental situation, psychic structure, object relationships, self-imagery, and controlling fantasies.

Character – ill-defined, an organization; character as observable behaviour or as a set of abstractions as described within a particular theoretical orientation; a codification of a constellation of related behaviours.   

History of the concept

Freud (1908) Character and anal erotism – clinical and theoretical; saw the function of character as a means of resolving conflict. Freud conceived of the instinctual drives as the energic basis and moving force of the otherwise inert psychological organism. Person evolved through a series of invariable psychobiological stages in which successful adaptation and progress to the next was governed by the reality principle, with repression serving as the major means of transforming the person from primary process beast to civilized being.

In this work, Freud chose the anal zone and the transformation of the intense erogenicity of this tissue at a specific phase of development into a constellation of related character traits. These traits – orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy – formed a pattern of observable behaviour that was functionally adaptive and endured over time as the person moved through progressive stages of psychosexual development. The characterological outcome was variable, depending on the interaction of constitutional factor and the predominance of the defensive process employed – sublimation or reaction formation.

The permanent character-traits are either unchanged promulgations of the original instincts, or sublimations of those instincts, or reaction formations against them. (p.175)


[What other character type had Freud been dealing with but had not described as such?]

[What types were yet to come in his writing?]

[What types have been described since Freud?]   

Other stages – oral, phallic, genital – held the potential for generating a specific set of related character traits. Adult character emerged as a fabric woven with threads consisting of traits derived from each epoch of development. It was a progression marked by fixations and regressions, as well as advances. Once firmly based at the level of genitality, the person became relatively insulated from a regressive reintegration.

(Freud's model of a progression in stages of psychosexual development to the final ideal of the genital character has been criticized – most notably by Reiff, 1959 – as being a conflation of moral attitude and scientific observations. The criticism is that inherent in this model is that the genital heterosexual character is the only normal adaptation. Thus other paths and outcomes would represent failures in development.)   

Freud (1914) Remembering, repeating and working through – the result of the repetition compulsion in relation to both the choice of love objects and to the form in which love is expressed, which are shaped by the nature of repressed and unfulfilled libidinal instincts and contribute to the character. Freud's formulation of acting out which referred to a pattern of substituting actions of particular symbolic meaning for repressed conflicted memories. These concepts speak to the consistency and regularity of character and its modality of expression.   

Freud (1914) On narcissism – investment of the ego versus investment of real or fantasized objects. Basis of choice of love objects, anaclitic or narcissistic. Development of ego ideal and superego. Sources and management of self-esteem.   

Karl Abraham (1919) A particular form of neurotic resistance against the psycho-analytic method - narcissism as a potential limit to analyzability.   

Freud (1919) A child is being beaten – an illustration of the role of unconscious and conscious fantasy in dictating the behaviour that becomes each individual's uniquely characteristic adaptive mode.  

Freud (1920) Beyond the pleasure principle – repetition compulsion; the death instinct.   

Freud (1923) The ego and the id – (A move from character as a derivative of libidinal drives to) the ego as the heir to abandoned object cathexes, in the form of structured identifications with these lost objects. Included concept of aggressive drive. Development of superego and ego ideal via introjections of the related aspects of the parental internalizations. Character is contributed to by the tension between these two agencies. Question of "choice of neurosis" includes a constitutional factor.

Freud (1924) The economic problem of masochism – effects on the character of the ego's "need to suffer" (and the operation of the death drive}. "Penis envy" in the woman as a potential limit to analyzability. "Castration fear" in the man as a potential limit to analyzability.

Freud (1925) Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety – ability of ego to use anxiety as a signal; includes a constitutional factor.

Freud (1927) Fetishism – effects on character of the splitting of the ego.   

Wilhelm Reich (1933) Character Analysis – character is the adversary which must be defeated; called it "armour"; primarily and essentially a narcissistic protection mechanism which developed in response to the dual threats of dangers in the external world and the claims of the id. Character – as a means of avoiding pain through its capacity to absorb that quantity of instinctual energy which has escaped repression. Conservator of the infantile past in the present. Through its analytic dissection the central infantile conflicts became accessible and subject to resolution. Character (resistance) was thought of as the enemy who was to be smashed in battle.  

Anna Freud (1936) – more differentiated description of the defenses and their coordination with specific sources of psychic danger: external reality and the id and the superego. Refined the ordering of the mechanisms of defense in a developmental sequence. Thought of character as the enemy who was to be treated with respect and won over as an ally.   

Melanie Klein (1946) – Character is the form of the resolution of the two fundamental psychic positions in relation to mother (paranoid-schizoid, depressive); this resolution characterizes all of one's personal relationships thereafter. Position implied a specific configuration of object relations, anxieties, defenses (as well as the structure of the ego and superego) that persist throughout life and substantially define the character of the individual. Character is more a psychobiological entity rather than an interpersonal or culturally determined one; sees the infant as perceiving in the mother and outer world what he has projected onto them (a raging instinctual drama of sex and aggression), and then internalized it anew.   

Otto Fenichel (1945) – a conceptual model; "the habitual mode of bringing into harmony the tasks presented by internal demands and by the external world, which is necessarily a function of the constant, organized, and integrating part of the personality which is the ego." The final outcome of the character is attributable to the strength and nature of the superego, as well as cultural variations. The form of the resolution of the structural intrapsychic conflict became the basis for a general classification of character; two broad types: the sublimation type and the reactive type. In the sublimation type, the ego succeeds in replacing an original instinctual impulse with one that is compatible with the ego, one that is organized, socially acceptable and inhibited as to aim. In the reactive type, countercathectic forces block the instinctual discharge and the result is character formation in one of two main directions, avoidance and inhibition on the one hand, or opposition on the other (based on reaction formation). His classification depended on the dominance of instinctual forces, superego (as in the masochistic character) or external objects (social anxieties, pseudointimate sexuality).

Question? [Which of these two types would more likely lead to pathology?]   

Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein (1964) – Character is the result of the relative strengths and balance of the ego apparatuses (products of endowment and maturation; our adaptive equipment; eg. perception and memory) as they are manifest in conflict resolution. Secondary autonomy of a behavioural form refers to patterns that develop in one period of development, primarily serving a defensive function, that later become relatively independent structures operating in a highly adaptive way, and becoming an integrating feature of the personality. Eg. the intellectualization functions used defensively in adolescence may evolve into a newly flexible and creative autonomous character pattern after the instinctual forces of adolescence have been successfully integrated.

Question? [What seems to be missing as a cause in this description?]   

Abram Kardiner (1945) – studying non-European cultures, demonstrated that cultural changes are registered by describable alterations that take place unconsciously in the agencies of the mind. Concept of a basic personality type, which had characterological specificity and was shared by the members of any given culture. It reflected the cultural needs and institutional patterns of that society, and, in turn, served to sustain the culture. Emphasized the form and content of the superego as the variable psychic agency that served this individual and collective function. (Little yet about the contribution to character of the dynamic interplay between particular flesh-and-blood mothers and children on the one hand, and the force of social and historical factors, on the other.)   

Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) – addressed individual mother-child interactions through sequential stages of development, spelling out some of the consequences for character formation.   

Erik Erikson (1959) – (Childhood and Society) a psychosocial theory of ego development; individual's social development was traced through the unfolding of his social character in the course of his encounters with the environment at each of seven phases of his epigenesis. He put these characteristics in the forms of opposites at each stage, e.g. trust versus mistrust. He explored the social context of each phase with respect to the radius of significant relations, first with mother, then the basic family, then a series of extrafamilial social institutions. The ways in which an individual solves phase-specific developmental tasks in a sequence of phases becomes parallel to the functioning of each of the stages of libidinal development that continues in various forms throughout the life cycle. They semi-culminate at the end of adolescence in an individual identity, which is "both a persistent sameness within oneself and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others." They are influenced by constitutional givens, idiosyncratic libidinal needs, favoured capacities, significant identifications, effective defenses, successful sublimations and consistent roles.   

Peter Blos (1968) – stressed the importance of adolescent development to the eventual outcome of character. This will determine how autonomously the character will function thereafter, the stability of the experience of the self and the protection of psychic structure from internal and external stresses.   

Object Relations School, an entirely post-Freudian phenomenon, emphasized the role in character formation of the interaction between infants and young children and their mothers. Includes: Balint, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Kernberg, Winnicott. An example: Sutherland (1980) – an innate developmental potential exists, which, if activated by the input of loving, empathic care, will become the psychological matrix for the later capacity to love and enjoy. These authors view later character formation and patterns of motivation primarily as a function of the adequacy or inadequacy of the fit between the needs of the infant and young child and responses of the mother. Hence, Winnicott’s term “good-enough mothering”; Kernberg’s hierarchy/levels of especially ego functions within each character type.

Balint (1968) – (The Basic Fault) – a subjective sense of "something missing" as a result of the impaired harmony in the early dyad. Out of this basic fault the individual will develop in one of two typical directions in subsequent object relations: in one, objects are clung to with a primitive intensity, lacking in mutuality and characterized by a pathological hostile dependency; the other involves a reliance on an inner world of fantasy for sustenance, counterposed against precarious and tenuous relations with "real" people. Thus, character is largely defined by the nature of the person's later relations with objects, directly based on the failure of adequate early mothering. Described two types: ocnophilic (prefers to clutch at something firm when his security is threatened) and philobatic (acrobatic; seeks security through activities that go through danger)

Winnicott (1960) – schema of the True Self and the False Self (adapted to the needs of the parents).

Kernberg (1976), Meissner (1979), and Schafer (1968, 1976, 1983) – described what is structured, by what processes, and what are the forms and fates of these structures as they manifest in different character types and levels.   

Charles Brenner (1981) – character as a compromise formation among drives, defenses, affects, superego.

Heinz Kohut (1971, 1977) – described the "self" as a separate and organized entity in development and mature behaviour as the locus of disturbance in most forms of character pathology. A superordinate concept, subsuming the drives and the complexities of ego and superego; an amalgam of inherited and environmental factors, the "self" "aims toward the realization of its own specific program of action - the program that is determined by the specific, intrinsic pattern of its constituent ambitions, goals, skills and talents, and by the tensions that arise between these constituents." Kohut shifted the emphasis away from conflict and towards deficit, arrest in the healthy maturation of the self due to failures of the nurturing environment to provide sufficient empathic care. The "bipolar self" (the forms in which narcissism manifests development), reveals itself in the two typical transferences, the mirroring, and the idealizing. In an intermediate stage of development, objects who are needed to supply the functions that the immature self cannot autonomously execute are viewed as parts of, or extensions of, the self, ie. selfobjects. In health, the mirroring aspect of selfobjects yields to a characterologic self-assertiveness and realistic ambition; the idealizing aspect of selfobjects yields to a flexible set of internalized ideals and values. In pathology, as a result of the arrest in development, the child's early objects are maintained as internalized (even personalized) selfobjects in order to provide psychic cohesion.

Jacques Lacan (1966, 1977) – Character is completely enmeshed in the symbolic (language-based) structures of the culture as laid down and/or repressed in the person's unconscious. The ego, based on identifications and ideals,acts as a system of defenses that serves as a barrier to the individual's access to his unconscious, the understanding and managing of which (desires, drives) is ultimately essential to achieving true selfhood or subjectivity (in the speaking being). Lacan relates all clinical structures to difficulties in the Oedipus complex. He described three “times” following the mirror stage. Since it is impossible to resolve the complex completely, a completely non-pathological position does not exist. The closest thing is a neurotic structure.

The neurotic has come though all three times of the Oedipus complex, and there is no such thing as a neurosis without Oedipus. On the other hand, psychosis, perversion and phobia result when 'something is essentially incomplete in the Oedipus complex'. (SII) In psychosis there is a fundamental blockage even before the first time of the Oedipus complex. In perversion, the complex is carried through to the third time, but instead of identifying with the father, the subject identifies with the mother and/or the imaginary phallus, thus harking back to the imaginary preoedipal triangle. A phobia arises when the subject cannot make the transition from the second time of the Oedipus complex to the third time because the real father does not intervene; the phobia then functions as a substitute for the intervention of the real father, thus permitting the subject to make the passage to the third time of the Oedipus complex (though often in an atypical way).

Lacan divides the clinical picture into three types: neurotic/normal; perverse; psychotic; they can also be differentiated on the basis of the person's relation to the Name-of-the-father (the paternal metaphor; castration). The structure cannot be altered, but through analysis there can be an alteration of the subject's position vis-à-vis their character type. In the normal/neurotic character, the Name-of-the-father is installed, although in individual ways depending on development (experience and constitution). The structure of neurosis is essentially a question, a question that 'being' poses for the subject. The question of the hysteric is "Am I a man or a woman?" which relates to one's sex. The question of the obsessional is "To be or not to be?” or, “Am I alive or dead?” which relates to the contingency of one's existence. These two ultimate questions have no solution in the signifier (cannot be answered sufficiently in language). The person with perversion has no question; his acts, about which he has no doubt, serve the jouissance of the big Other. He disavows castration, that is, he disavows the effect on him of the Name-of-the-father, and locates himself/herself as the object of the drive, the position of the object-instrument of the will-to-enjoy which is not his own will but that of the big Other. In the person with psychosis, the Name-of-the-father is foreclosed, not integrated in his symbolic universe with the result that a hole is left in the symbolic order. The unconscious is not functioning. In the Oedipus complex, the paternal function (symbolic) is reduced to the image of the father (imaginary); there is constant slippage of the signified under the signifier; a signifier can be taken for a signified; finally the signifier and the signified are stabilized in the delusional metaphor.

bottom of page