“Every character should want something–even if it is only a glass of water.”  –Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut was right, of course.  But we need to know more than what our characters want.  To truly empathize with our characters, we need to know why they want the things they desire.

What makes our characters tick?  What limits our characters, and what pushes them forward?  How have they been hurt in the past, who has hurt them, and how will these injuries affect them going forward in their lives?  How will our characters’ pasts color their abilities to make the choices they face as they approach the climaxes of their stories?

People are endlessly fascinating puzzles; that’s why we can’t stop reading or writing about them.  As writers, we have multiple tools at our disposal to figure out these puzzles.  We’ve all lived through a certain amount of life experiences, and, presumably, we’ve all got some imagination (or we wouldn’t be writing fiction).  We’ve got friends, family, insatiable appetites for reading and–admit it–penchants for silent observation and eavesdropping.  We consult books and interview people who do what our characters do for a living so that we can better enter our characters’ heads and understand how they think and feel.

But there’s something else that can help us as we build our characters and pit them against the obstacles they encounter.  Psychology is an entire science devoted to understanding human behavior, and psychologists and psychotherapists can guide writers through unfamiliar pathways of the human mind.

The characters in my WIP, for example, suffer a deeply personal loss in a public tragedy.  Each character brings his or her own backstory to this event, and, as a result, it affects each of them differently.

At the outset of this project, I could imagine my characters’ reactions to this loss.  But never having gone through anything like this myself, I wanted to gain a deeper comprehension of what happens to people, both internally and externally, when they’re forced to cope with a trauma both public and personal.  So I turned to the experts.  I took my characters to therapy.

I sought out psychotherapists (in some cases, they were also social workers) who had worked with people who actually lived through this event.  I explained to them what I was working on.  In every case, they spent hours with me explaining the fundamentals of trauma, loss and grief, and then we got specific.  They discussed–without revealing anything private about their clients–what they had seen in the people they treated and how it was or was not illustrative of what might be considered “normal” psychological behavior.  Where it differed, they told me how and why.

But that wasn’t all.  We actually put my characters on the therapists’ couches.  I gave the therapists the profiles of my major characters, including the relevant pieces of their backgrounds, their relationships, their motivations and the plot points I thought the therapists needed to know.  They confirmed the reactions I’d imagined for my characters and occasionally pointed out inconsistencies.  Where one of my characters came to the tragedy with a previous trauma in his past, the therapists not only affirmed that his reaction would be more severe, but they added depth and complexity to my understanding by explaining that my character’s brain would essentially operate in two disassociated spheres, enabling him to take what seems like drastic, irrational actions on the one hand but function perfectly normally in other ways at the same time.  An alcoholism counselor spent more than two hours walking me through one character’s potential addiction, so that I left her office with understanding and empathy I couldn’t have imagined before.  A specialist in child trauma spent several hours with me working through the plight of the four-year-old girl in my novel, confirming what I’d suspected about how the child’s complicated emotions would emerge through tantrums, terrifying night-wakings and play that would disturb the adults in her life, but correcting me by telling me that the girl was probably too young for art therapy and offering alternative methods of working with kids if I wanted to use them.

One note of caution, however, about using the tool of psychotherapy for understanding and developing fictional characters: drawing an accurate psychological portrait of one’s characters is not sufficient.  A character may meet all of the DSM-IV criteria for, say, schizophrenia, but still lie flat as a textbook on the page.  The life of the character will come from how she copes with that schizophrenia, how it has shaped her backstory and her present relationships, how it blends with other aspects of her personality, the fears it has contributed to forming deep within her and how those fears mix with the obstacles she faces as the story progresses.  Will the schizophrenia play a direct role in the plot?  Will it be only one of many influences on this character’s actions?  That is for you, the author, to decide.

There is no therapist’s couch for that.  It’s just you, the blank page, and your character, trying to figure out why she wants a glass of water.


About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.