A character structure is a system of relatively permanent traits that are manifested in the specific ways that an individual relates and reacts to others, to various kinds of stimuli, and to the environment. A child whose nurture and/or education are not ideal, living in a treacherous environment and interacting with adults who do not take the long-term interests of the child to heart will be more likely to form a pattern of behavior that suits the child to avoid the challenges put forth by a malign social environment. The means that the child invents to make the best of a hostile environment. Although this may serve the child well while in that bad environment, it may also cause the child to react in inappropriate ways, ways damaging to his or her own interests, when interacting with people in a more ideal social context. Major trauma that occurs later in life, even in adulthood, can sometimes have a profound effect. See post-traumatic stress disorder. However, character may also develop in a positive way according to how the individual meets the psychosocial challenges of the life cycle (Erikson).
Sigmund Freud's first paper on character described the anal character consisting of stubbornness, stinginess and extreme neatness. He saw this as a reaction formation to the child's having to give up pleasure in anal eroticism.The positive version of this character is the conscientious, inner directed obsessive. Freud also described the erotic character as both loving and dependent. And the narcissistic character as the natural leader, aggressive and independent because of not internalizing a strong super-ego.
For Erich Fromm character develops as the way in which an individual structures modes of assimilation and relatedness.The character types are almost identical to Freud's but Fromm gives them different names: receptive, hoarding, and exploitative. Fromm adds the marketing type to describe individuals who continually adapt the self to succeed in the new service economy. For Fromm, character types can be productive or unproductive. Fromm notes that character structures develop in each individual to enable him or her to interact successfully within a given society and adapt to its mode of production and social norms, (see social character) and may be very counter-productive when used in a different society.
Fromm got his ideas about character structure from two associates/students of Freud, Sándor Ferenczi and Wilhelm Reich. It is Reich who really developed the concept from Ferenczi, and added to it an exploration of character structure as it applies to body structure and development as well mental life.
For Wilhelm Reich, character structures are based upon blocks—chronic, unconsciously held muscular contractions—against awareness of feelings. The blocks result from trauma: the child learns to limit their awareness of strong feelings as their needs are thwarted by parents who meet cries for fulfillment with neglect or punishment. Reich argued for five basic character structures, each with its own body type developed as a result of the particular blocks created due to deprivation or frustration of the child's stage-specific needs:
- The schizoid structure, which could result in full blown schizophrenia: this is the result of not feeling wanted by hostile parents, even in the womb. There is a fragmentation of both body and mind with this structure.
- The oral structure: from deprivation of warmth and milk from the mother, around age 1. The oral structure adopts an attitude of "you do it for me, because you didn't nurture me when I was young." Shoulders are usually hunched, head bent forward, wrists and ankles weak, as if to say, "I can't get it for myself."
- The psychopath or upwardly displaced structure: this wound, around the age of 3, is around the parent manipulating, emotionally molesting the child, seducing them into feeling "special," for the parent's own narcisstic needs. The child resolves to never again permit themselves to be vulnerable, and so decides to instead manipulate and overpower others with their will. The body is well developed above, weak below, as the psychopath pulls away from the ground and attempts to overpower from above. This structure has variations, depending on the admixture with prior wounds: the overbearing is the pure type, the submissive is mixed with oral, the withdrawing, with schizoid.
- The masochist structure: this wound occurs when the parent refuses to allow the child to say "no," the first step in setting boundaries. The child seeks relief from the rage that builds up underneath bounded muscle and fat, by provoking punishment from others.
- The rigid: this wound occurs around the time of the first puberty, the age of 4. The child's sexuality is not affirmed by the parent, but instead shamed or denied. This structure seeks to prove to the parents and others that the child is worthy of love. The rigid structure is often beautifully harmonious, but there is a physical split around the diaphragm between heart and pelvis: love and sex. This person has trouble with being aware of their emotions, which are strong, yet buried. The rigid structure has many substructures, depending on the exact nature of the wound, the admixture with other pre-rigid (oedipal) structures, and the gender: in women, the masculine aggressive, hysterical, and the alternating; in men, the phallic narcissist, the compulsive, and the passive feminine.